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The Standard-Branding of America : SATISFACTION GUARANTEED : The Making of the American Mass Market by Susan Strasser (Pantheon: $24.95; 340 pp.)

February 25, 1990|Jonathan Kirsch | Kirsch is a regular reviewer for The Times.

When a young traveling salesman with the unlikely name of King Gillette took a job with a bottle-cap manufacturer shortly before the turn of the century, his boss advised him to invent a product that--like the bottle cap itself-- would be used once and then thrown away. Gillette struck on the idea of the safety razor and the disposable blade, and the young man's fortune was made; a new industry was born; the habits of a nation were transformed--and the straight razor, the barbershop shave and a way of life were doomed.

To Susan Strasser, the saga of King Gillette and the disposable razor blade is a cautionary tale of how turn-of-the-century American capitalism invented and exploited the mass market, thereby turning our civilization into one vast, anonymous, "market-driven" engine of materialism. Gillette's story is recounted by Strasser in "Satisfaction Guaranteed," a meticulous, probing and often colorful study of the origins and workings of the American mass market in its formative years. No less than "The Confidence Man," "The Music Man" or "Death of a Salesman"-- each of which is both echoed and illuminated in surprising ways by Strasser's book--"Satisfaction Guaranteed" is an authentic work of Americana.

Strasser, a social historian and author of "Never Done: A History of American Housework," is rather like an anthropologist or an archeologist at work on the leavings of an ancient civilization. She has studied how Kellogg cereals, Colgate toothpaste, Kodak cameras, Uneeda biscuits, Campbell's soup, Waterman fountain pens, Wrigley's chewing gum, Crisco shortening and a dozen other familiar brands and products entered the marketplace in the early years of the 20th Century-- and how they helped to transform the commonplaces of American life.

Crisco vegetable-oil shortening, for example, was concocted in the laboratories of Procter & Gamble for the primary purpose of allowing the soap company to dominate the market in cottonseed oil. Crisco was "An Absolutely New Product," as Procter & Gamble proudly advertised, and they devised a whole new arsenal of promotional techniques to convince America's householders that they urgently needed it in place of the customary animal fats found in most American kitchens. Strasser points out that Procter & Gamble's pioneering approach to product development and promotion was much more than just a marketing innovation; rather, it reflected an approach to the marketplace that ultimately changed the way Americans thought of themselves and their most fundamental needs and relationships.

"Crisco may be understood as an artifact of a culture in the making, a culture founded on new technologies and structured by new personal habits and new economic forms," Strasser explains. "A population accustomed to homemade products and unbranded merchandise had to be converted into a national market for standardized, advertised, brand-name goods. . . . People who had never bought corn flakes were taught to need them; those formerly content to buy oats scooped from the grocer's bin were informed about why they should prefer Quaker Oats in a box."

The emergence of the American mass market, Strasser explains, was made possible by a series of profound changes in the way consumer goods were manufactured, distributed, packaged, advertised and sold. Local growers, manufacturers and merchants were replaced by corporate giants; bulk goods were replaced by packaged goods; the general store was replaced by chain grocery and department stores; and--above all-- "brand-name" products became the focus of intense and imaginative marketing efforts that constituted a whole new industry. Along the way, Strasser declares, the "customer" turned into the "consumer":

"Old-fashioned commodity relationships had been embedded in human relationships: Customersbargained over prices and quality with storekeepers," she explains. "As participants in the branded mass market, consumers entered mutually dependent but unequal relationships with large corporations."

The source materials of Strasser's study includes advertisements, posters, product labels, "trade cards," cartoons, photographs, even traveling salesmen's jokes and evidence from early trademark lawsuits, much of which is fascinating to see and read. She has delved deeply into the balance sheets as well as the legend and lore of antique capitalism, disclosing that R. J. Reynolds paid twice for the rights to the trademark of an obscure brand of cigarettes called "Red Kamel": "Reynolds's major concern was to protect the name 'Camels,' " she explains, "the product that established marketing practices for the modern cigarette industry." And she gives us moments of unintended hilarity, as when the National Cash Register company sought to persuade storekeepers to use their newfangled product by depicting the deathbed confession of an embezzler who availed himself of his boss' unlocked cash drawer:

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