Livin the American Dream

Last week of class was a little more digestible than the previous week of Marx and Baudrillard. By discussing Susan Strasser’s book, “Satisfaction Guaranteed”, we explored the 19th and 20th century process that took American customers and turned them into consumers. In the beginning of the 19th century, artisans produced goods. Customers bought local goods from “Mom and Pop” stores and often used bartering and their personal relationships with merchants to purchase goods at a fair price for home consumption. By the end of the 19th century, an explosion of national brands, new packaging, new modes of transportation and communication, and advertising campaigns began the movement towards a centralized, American consumer society. Consumerism went hand-in-hand with the genesis of industrialization. The United States was expanding west and becoming more urban than the agrarian societies of the past. Instead of having to trek to the nearest corner store, Americans were living in the heart of the marketplace.

We studied the birth of a few national brands, some of which are still around today, including Nabisco, Ivory, Libby, Coca-Cola, Procter and Gamble, Aunt Jemima, Heinz, Kodak, and Carnation. Strasser also provided an in-depth look at how Crisco became a household name by the early 20th century. Crisco, which was developed in 1905 and became a patentable product by 1910, was an innovative and unique product. Advertisements contributed to the success of the product. Lots of visual images in ads convinced people of their “need” for Crisco. “Crisco teas”, involving retailers in the sale of the product, recipie books, contests, cooking classes, and sending samples to restaurants and railroads all taught people to truly need this product. Because Crisco was kosher, it even was able to bridge cultural gaps by being usable to the new Jewish community. Americans everywhere wanted Crisco!

Trademarks, slogans, labels and stamps all helped sell branded products on a national level. Some products became so popular that other corporations attempted to copy the original, such as Coca-Cola. This lead to issues with legal precedent and protecting brands legally. Some brands were so popular that private labels (generic brands), flanker brands (upgrading or downgrading a product) and line extensions pushed the sale of the product even further. Companies were working hard at creating goodwill, or the favorable consideration of their customers. With the birth of wholesaling, the lines between the manufacturers and retailers were blurred. Instead of having a jobber or drummer act as the middleman, corporations began to supply retailers themselves. This saved money, as a middleman didn’t have to be paid. Strasser also explores the phenomenon of repositioning, or taking a product that is used for only a small portion of the market and expanded their consumer base in order to appeal to more people, such as olive oil.

It was also fun to analyze some advertisements from the mid 20th century in class on Friday. It was interesting to see the different techniques companies used to sell their products. Lots of the ads appealed to women, as the “economic man” of the 20th century was the middle class, white, female consumer. Ads for lightbulbs, washing machines, fruit juice, kitchen appliances, and cigarettes all attempted to make their products look desirable, stressing convenience, affordable prices and high quality. All of these techniques helped promote new products and make them staples of American living.

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