By Ray Schultz
It’s forgotten now, but one of the biggest sellers of the 1920s was Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows. It posited that if Jesus Christ returned to earth, he would be an advertising man.
With all respect to my friends in advertising, I doubt this. But the book was published in an optimistic era, in which business people were lionized.
You can get the drift from a direct mail letter for the book written by the great copywriter Robert Collier:
Jesus Christ ‘the founder of modern business?’
Jesus a master of efficiency in organization, a born executive?
Jesus a sociable man, a cheerful, bright companion with a pat story on His lips…?
Jesus wording the best advertisements ever written?
This letter, and others like it, were accompanied by a brochure, asking: Was Jesus a Physical Weakling?
The painters have made Him look so—but He swung an adze and pushed a saw until He was thirty years old. He walked miles every day in the open air. He drove a crowd of hard-faced men out of the Temple.
It’s beautiful copy, but there’s one slur I don’t like: that Jesus “faced Jewish hatred and Roman power without a tremor.” The Catholic Church has said that Jews were not responsible for the death of Christ. (Thank you for that). For the record, the religious ones among us await the Moschiach, and nobody has predicted he will be an advertising man.
That said, Collier’s letter sold millions of books. But an upheaval was coming: the Great Depression. At that time, people viewed Jesus in a more traditional light: as minister to the poor and fallen.
As for Robert Collier, he was a direct mail legend, with or without help from the Messiah.
“Collier was first guy that really sold merchandise by mail,” said the direct marketing guru Bob Stone in 1997. “He came up with 10-day pre-trial guarantees, all things we use today. He was a merchandising genius. For example, he had a bunch of black raincoats that they couldn’t sell worth a damn. Who absolutely has to have a black raincoat? So he had a list of undertakers. and sold out entire stock. It was a lesson I never forgot.”
Stone met Collier at a conference in 1939. What was he like personally? “He wasn’t aloof , he was a loner. There’s a difference. He was a shy man. He was dedicated to the sale of merchandise. I don’t think he had a lot of pride. He had a merchandise business by selling those raincoats and hunting books, for himself mostly.”
One legend has it that Collier sold coal at some point. Finally, he joined P.F. Collier & Son Co., publishers of Colliers magazine and books like Harvard Classics, the Five-Foot Shelf of Books. It just so happened that P.F. Collier was his uncle, “but he had always told me he did not want me in the business until I could bring something to it they could get nowhere else,” Collier wrote. In I 931, Collier published his own book: the Robert Collier Letter Book,
And was he a believer in Jesus the businessman or Jesus the healer? This we don’t know.