Every elementary school student of the 1960s coveted those moments when the metal venetian blinds went down, the screen lowered over the smudge-ridden blackboard, and that massive Bell & Howell 16
millimeter projector was wheeled in by the AV dweeb to the middle of the room. Lesson-weary and restless, we finally got a lean-back visual moment - a class period eaten up by a film. If you were
really lucky, it was the twentieth showing of "Donald in Mathemagic Land" or the Capra-directed "Our Mr. Sun." This was an early pre-branded entertainment variety of corporate video we might call
"branducation." These were the sorts of informative, sometimes fascinating films that illustrated the scientific marvels driving the post-World War II economy and (this point was not lost on us) the
front guard of capitalism outflanking Communism in all its purportedly pernicious forms. In short, instructional videos from Disney animators or Bell Labs, maker of the compelling Mr. Sun, felt a lot
more like American boosterism than corporate branding. Before telecom divestiture, was there a distinction between "Ma Bell" and the U.S. Government?
Bell Labs was in fact one of the most prolific and accomplished of the corporate filmmakers. They had a great story to tell and their core technology was demonstrable and fascinating. In fact, branded video could take a few lessons from the kind of light-handed branding that goes on in some of these films. AT&T has just started placing parts of its archive online at the AT&T Tech Library.
"The Conquest of Light," which recounts the concepts and history behind the laser, and "I.C.:
A Shrinking World" are remarkable documents. Both demonstrate the early enthusiasm and vision driving seminal technologies that now inform most of the telecom and information infrastructure. But even
more telling is the grand way in which these stories are told. Portentous and overbearing as they are, these are examples of a brand tying their vision in with massive natural forces and human
destiny. The laser is harnessing powers of light. The integrated circuit is a next great stage in electronic miniaturization that in the end shrinks the world. Simple messaging ties the company to a
set of forces larger than itself. In the earlier "Mr. Sun" film of the 50's Capra opened with a quotation from Psalms.
These movies made a point of saying less about their own corporate story and more about a larger human and scientific history in which the company was playing a part. Perhaps it was the hubris and security of being a great monopoly, but these films were happy to brand through expertise and teasing out a sense of wonder.
And even when they were being self-referential, the Bell Labs films teased out an interesting story populated by real people, not a corporate brand. The "To Communicate is the Beginning" films from the 1970s is a deft blend of corporate history as fable, character, and the human roots of technology. The history of telecommunication is woven of tales from Alexander Graham Bell to individual phone company operators, Orson Welles to AT&T senior execs.
You don't have to be a kid yearning for relief from classroom boredom to appreciate these old Bell films. They find within their own products relationships with people's lives, and within the lives of their own people, the stuff branded entertainment before anyone thought of the term.