Murketing’s Sponsored Virtual Film Festival: “The Machine: Master Or Slave?”

Posted by Rob Walker on April 24, 2008
Posted Under: America,Olde News,Sponsored Film Festival

[ –> Details on Sponsored-Film Virtual Festival are here.]

“America is busy now!” this curious film, “The Machine: Master Or Slave?“, begins.

What seems at first like exciting propaganda about the “mighty crescendo of production” revolutionizing the World War II-era United States turns out to be something a little more complicated. What will happen, the film asks, when the “defense emergency” is over, and all the machines used in that effort will instead be used for “making goods people need for living”?

Rumors of layoffs, fear of lost jobs and, perhaps, a return to the pre-War economy – that is, the Depression. The villain: “the new labor-saving machine.” It’s good news for the stockholders, but not so good for the workers. There’s a long montage of machine efficiency, scored with frantic music. That’s the problem: The machines are too efficient! Consumers aren’t buying fast enough!

Executive types ponder the answer: More ads, a bigger sales force, “an aggressive selling campaign.” A laid off worker, meanwhile, finds that new machines are invading everywhere, keeping guys like him out of work. He and his family consider moving to, of all things, a farm.

It’s not clear what becomes of him, but we do learn that the sales manager’s plan fails: Not enough people can afford to buy the product — whatever it is. Lower prices are considered, on the theory that thinner margins might add up to bigger total profits. The narrator demandingly asks: “How shall these conflicting factors be arranged?”

Strangely, we don’t learn the answer! The film closes with an abundance montage of products, machines, and children playing, and uplifting martial music. The Field Guide to Sponsored Films says the piece “encourages managers to be aware of broader issues as they embrace new technology.” For a sponsored film, that’s an unusually ambiguous message.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

The ambiguous message (or open question) at the end of THE MACHINE: MASTER OR SLAVE is a generic convention of the classroom film — which is what this production is/was, as opposed to a “sponsored” film per se.

The movie was made by a for-hire crew employed by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The new foundation’s mission was to promote public education about economics generally. Although the film obviously frames the issues of unemployment, manufacturing, and consumption entirely within the logic of American industrial capitalism, its funders were trying to make a film that would be perceived as nonpartisan. It was to be used only as a set-up for discussion about the issues it raised. In its first iteration, created in 1938, it was given the vague title THE CHALLENGE.

Curiously, when it was widely distributed — in 1941 — the Sloan Foundation’s name was removed and the picture retitled THE MACHINE: MASTER OR SLAVE? Its distributor was the Educational Film Institute and Library of New York University, an entity that Sloan funded NYU to start up in 1939. Initially, NYU declined to put its name on this film, which had been made before the idea for an Educational Film Institute had ever been discussed.

The online copy of THE MACHINE we see now begins by declaring it a production of the NYU Educational Film Institute. But in reality, the institute did not exist when the piece was made.

What the institute did produce, in 1940, were 3 documentary shorts commissioned on the same subject, economics education. But NYU hired the documentarians responsible for THE CITY (1939) and works of Frontier Films and other leftist filmmakers. Two of these films, THE CHILDREN MUST LEARN and VALLEY TOWN were directed by Willard Van Dyke, and are now viewable at as well. The third, AND SO THEY LIVE (by John Ferno and Julian Roffman) will be up on the site later in 2009, thanks to the Museum of Modern Art and Skip Elsheimer at AV/Geeks.

Read about it in the forthcoming book LEARNING WITH THE LIGHTS OFF: AN EDUCATIONAL FILM READER (co-edited with Devin Orgeron and Marsha Orgeron, for Oxford University Press, 2010).

Written By Dan Streible on July 22nd, 2009 @ 11:27 am

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