Advertising on Trial: Consumer Activism and Corporate Public Relations in the 1930s

Article excerpt

Stole, Inger L. Advertising on Trial: Consumer Activism and Corporate Public Relations in the 1930s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. 290 pp. $25.

In Advertising on Trial: Consumer Activism and Corporate Public Relations in the 1930s, Inger Stole begins from the standpoint of a contemporary United States in which few citizens question commercialization of the public sphere; omnipresence of advertising messages; or political dominance by U.S. business institutions. She looks back to a time in the late 1920s through the 1930s when a second-wave consumer movement challenged the condescension, puffery, and misrepresentation then endemic to print and radio advertising.

Before addressing the consumer critique of advertising and the advertising industry's successful counterattack, which is the focus of Advertising on Trial, Stole begins by describing the transformation of the U.S. economy from local production and distribution by many manufacturers to national mass production and distribution by a few oligopolistic industries following the Civil War, an economy that matured after a decade of mergers around 1900. This shift fueled the first-wave consumer movement of the Progressive Era, with its focus on regulating the quality of foods and drugs manufactured in distant cities. That movement led to the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906; but Stole, an assistant professor at Illinois' Institute of Communications Research, argues these activists largely ignored the emerging field of advertising.

In the 1920s, following the success of propagandistic advertising during World War I, advertising became the chief means by which manufacturers communicated with consumers. As the depression began, the second-wave consumer movement criticized advertising as wasteful and deceptive. The leading consumer group seeking advertising regulation was Consumers' Research, Inc., the main focus of the book. Founded in 1929 by Stuart Chase and Frederick Schlink, who co-authored the bestseiling YourMoney's Worth: A Study in the Waste of the Consumer's Dollars in 1927, Consumers' Research soon became a testing laboratory for consumer products with results distributed via the Consumers' Research Bulletin. Chase left Consumers' Research in 1932 to continue his writing career, and Schlink, an engineer, became director and was joined by Arthur Kallet, another engineer from the American Standards Association.

Stole notes that the advertising critique was gaining popularity at the same time when companies were cutting advertising budgets as the economy collapsed. Of equal concern, the new Roosevelt administration-especially Assistant secretary of Agriculture Rexford Tugwell-clearly sympathized with consumer interests. The advertising industry realized it must defend itself against the growing consumer movement and the introduction of the Tugwell bill (S1944) in 1933. Its passage would treat false and ambiguous advertising claims for foods, drugs, and cosmetics as misbranded and subject the advertised products to confiscation by the Department of Agriculture.

Although the advertising trade press earlier attacked Consumers' Research for misleading consumers with unscientific claims and scare tactics, and advertisers pressed magazines to refuse Consumer Research advertisements, the introduction of the Tugwell bill captured the industry's full attention. …