Review: Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market by Susan Strasser Print E-mail

mass_market(San Diego Union-Tribune January 5, 1990)

Sold to Death

My favorite mass-market character is TV's Murph at Union 76. Small-town guy with small-town values, watching out for my kids as they ride their bikes and wave, free-flat-fixing protector of the hapless motorist. Murph's not only good, he's also aligned with a multinational corporation whose orange globe stands for my uninterrupted access to, and consumption of, finely packaged gasoline and other oil products. Like Phillip Morris sponsoring ads about the Bill of Rights, Murph is selling us our deep-seated need to have corporations appear gentle, fatherly, wise-beyond-question.

Yes, it's deep, because our worldly desires have been conditioned for generations to have everything sold to us—from presidential candidates to toilet paper.

Everything is marketed, to death and sameness.

"Now at Theaters Everywhere!" cry the new releases. Where did such ubiquity originate?

To find out, read Susan Strasser's Satisfaction Guaranteed, a remarkably detailed and illustrated history of the birth of mass-market technology in the U.S. It is a source book really, one that charts the successes of manufacturers' marketing strategies. Strasser's own business savvy helps her articulate American capitalism's networks of buying and selling.

She explains it in simple terms: Modern marketing, she writes, is "an expanding market that was not defined by supply and demand but shaped by energetic manufacturers who understand that markets could be developed." Her point is that once, long ago, we just bought what manufacturers made. It wasn't a question of wanting good boot wax—good boot wax was usually available.

Nowadays manufacturers shape our desires by arguing that we are demanding certain goods, which is really Newspeak for their ability to make us want what they produce. Strasser, however, makes no argument out of such misguided desire.

She has written a history of the mass market—its nascent (1890-1920) systems of distribution, marketing, selling, promotion, retailing—selectively examining such product lines as Crisco and Gillette, and analyzing the fortunes of the chain store, trading stamps, product giveaways and mail order. The book suggests an ineluctable truth: We have inherited an economic system that is now an organism answerable only to its own needs.

It is "satisfaction guaranteed" at any cost—to the environment, our mental health, the sovereignty of other nations. It wasn't always this way.

To find its origins Strasser describes four essential steps in "the transformation of culture, from ideas and lifestyles based on local relationships and regional manufacturing to those contingent on mass production and a national market." The first step was to associate a label with a generic product.

Soda crackers once were made in small factories.

We didn't choose kinds—we ate from the barrel.

In 1898 the National Biscuit Co. (Nabisco) named its cracker Uneeda and sold them in a sealed pouch to "lock in freshness, lock out moisture."


The product is born. Second, manufacturers eliminated wholesalers, who as product distributors induced grocers to carry new brands, but didn't sell enough quantity. Third, producers replaced the grocer, who from behind the counter stood in the way of our handling and choosing the goods for ourselves.

The logical outcome was Piggly Wiggly, born in Memphis in 1916, the first self-service food store. The fourth step was to convince us that products made by the truckload were better than one-of-a-kind items. One solution: consumer loyalty.

Companies such as Heinz and its "57 Varieties" became known first in the home.

Soon, though, consumers demanded and got their ketchup in restaurants. Kodak became king by coaxing women to buy their cameras because the women, as portrayed in Kodak Christmas ads, were most responsive to recording their family's joy.

So alluring was the perceived munificence of middle-class buying power that millions aspired, with mass-market goods, to radical conformity.

Besides, why be different when over 4,000 locations could serve us? In an epilogue Strasser argues for a "new public discourse" that "must challenge the fundamental `privacy' of our buying habits, recognizing that production and consumption...always have been intertwined aspects of human culture." Perhaps she could be more forceful. Are Americans—only 6 percent of the earth's population yet using 50 percent of its resources—ready to admit to the ecological suicide of their consumption?

Not while being enveloped in the warm hug of Campbell's Soup, or banking on AT&T's vast new opportunities in Eastern Europe.

We probably will miss the world's end, so busy are we marketing it.