Depression, angst, and great sea change in media. Sound familiar? We are certainly experiencing all of these and more today. I want to go back to where I left off before the holidays -- with Mad Men. Mostly, I want to focus on a history lesson regarding the birth of the Consumer. I begin here because it's the crux of where we begin any marketing conversation -- for good reason. I have always been an advocate for beginning with the Consumer. A brand would be nothing without a Consumer, after all.
In 1910, novelist Virginia Woolf wrote, after observing US inhabitants, that human character had changed. Others visiting the United States also noted similar new behavior. According to a Frenchman named Andre Giegfried , “a new society has come to life in America.” Journalist Samuel Strauss writing in the 1920s, suggested the term "consumptionism" to characterize this new way of life that, he said, created a person with a philosophy of life that committed human beings to the production of more and more things—“more this year than last year, more next year than this”—and that emphasized the “standard of living” above all other values. “it is obvious that Americans have come to consider their standard of living as a somewhat sacred acquisition, which they will defend at any price.”
Certainly the production of goods in America from 1880 to 1930 is a testament to the rate and level of commodity consumption. Food production grew by nearly 40 percent from 1899 to 1905; the production ready to wear clothing and costume jewelry, doubled between 1890 and 1900; glassware and lamp production went from 84,000 tons in 1890 to 250,563 tons in 1914. In 1890, 32,000 pianos were sold in the United States; by 1904, the number sold increased to 374,000 (Leach 1993:16).
During this period the perfume industry – certainly not a product required for a society focused on the necessities of everyday living, became the country’s tenth largest; at one department store, sale of toiletries rose from $84,000 to $522,000 between 1914 and 1926. The manufacture of clocks and watches went from 34 million to 82 million in ten years. By the late 1920s, one of every six Americans owned an automobile. All of this consumption occurred in a society in which two percent of the people owned 60 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 50 percent owned only five percent.
Manufacturing and production in the early twenties century is relevant because it marked the early phase of what Ernest Gellner called the society of perpetual growth, and the creation of a new type of culture, consumer capitalism (Bodley 1985), along with the construction of a new type of person, the Consumer.
At the same time of the birth of the Consumer emerged two other categories of industry well known today: the capitalist and the laborer. Of course, merchants had existed for thousands of years, and people had always labored to produce goods and even in a non-production environment, consumed what they’d produced. What is perhaps most profound, and not well known among today’s marketers, is that until the 1920’s a society had not existed founded on capitalism and consumerism. The sole purpose of the consumer was to purchase and consume increasing quantities of goods and services as industries increased efficiency and over-produced products.
As early as the late 1890s technological advances helped to enhance production processes causing an increase in the goods produced – so much so that government officials feared overproduction, panic, and the severe economic depression that marked that decade. Out of these fears came the birth of our industry. Columbia University Professor William Leach, who specializes in modern American cultural history, called the first advertisements in our country "a steady stream of enticements" designed to entice people to consume save them from making inappropriate choices.
And so marks the genesis of our industry. Businesses need efficient ways to produce the enticements for the consumer whose role was necessary to save the capitalists from their own efficiency. Consumers needed us to “save them” from making inappropriate choices. World War I also had a reinforcing effect on the growth of consumerism. As the government made a concentrated effort to get the country back on its feet and back to work it strongly urged citizens to buy products from businesses hiring men returning from the war. Charles Kettering, head of research for General Motors for 27 years from 1920 to 1947 said: "The key to economic prosperity is the organised creation of dissatisfaction". This is all a fitting birth to the Mad Men era – shining knights set out to save the day.
The rise of consumerism is also linked to the birth of Public Relations. In 1915, Edward Bernays, who is often attributed as the founder of public relations, created propaganda techniques for the U.S. government in relation to World War I in order to influence public opinion about the war. After his success in getting support for the government in wartime, Bernays began to apply his knowledge in peacetime in the areas of business and commerce. One of his famous expressions is: "the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. It is the intelligent minorities which need to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically". How prophetic given the world in which we live today. If only Bernays could see a world in which we strategically monitor and gain insight from the “opinions of the masses” today.
So there's a brief snapshot of how the word consumer came to be. In my next post I will talk about the birth of the Participant and why I believe the term consumer should be banned from the language we use in marketing today.