Consumer Engineering and the Rise of Marketing Knowledge, 1920s–1970s

Marketing knowledge—information and analysis concerning markets, consumers, and their behavior—became a crucial asset for businesses and governments during the twentieth century. In 1971, the German-American market researcher Alfred Politz drafted a memoir of his time in marketing research titled “How to Produce Consumers—Methods and Illusions.” Over the course of his career, from the 1930s to the 1970s, Politz had seen the marketing profession become a good deal more methodical. Yet by 1970, this Berlin-trained physicist-turned-consultant of marketing scoffed at the pseudo-scientific veneer that many marketing experts attached to their work. “The word ‘research,'” he wrote, “implies a sort of glamorous intellectual sophistication, and marketing research is a symbol of the modernity of the marketer. Marketing research has become a status symbol, and as such it need not perform; it need only exist.”1

One of the new consumer experts: market researcher Alfred Politz (1902–1982), ca. 1952. Source: Harris & Ewing Studio, Washington, DC, via Library of Congress.

Despite such misgivings, Politz, too, firmly believed in the possibilities of “scientific marketing,” which could increase “advertising efficiency,” identify product designs with “consumer appeal,” and craft an “image” for products that created loyalty to brands.” Experts in marketing, Politz and his colleagues argued, advanced modern consumption for the benefit of industry and society alike. Marketing knowledge became so vital by the early 1970s that few businesses felt they could get away without some form of scientific research and sophisticated planning to produce and use it.

The Concept of Consumer Engineering

The independent research consultant Alfred Politz was in many ways a textbook “consumer engineer,” an expert who set out to analyze and shape consumer markets. At mid-century, “consumer engineering” denoted an increasingly systematic approach to marketing, which had emerged in response to competitive consumer markets during the interwar years and the Great Depression.2 The decades between 1930 and 1960 formed only one chapter in a longer story of increasingly dynamic and consumer-driven “fast capitalism,” but they stood out with regard to marketing knowledge.3 They witnessed the rise of a discreet body of professionalized, “scientific,” and applied marketing knowledge in advertising, market research, product design, and consumer psychology.

In 1930, advertising man Earnest Elmo Calkins had coined the term “consumption engineering” for what he called a new “business science,” which would create sustained demand through “artificial obsolescence.”4 Two designers at his agency, Roy Sheldon and Egmont Arens, developed his ideas further in the 1932 book Consumer Engineering: A New Technique for Prosperity. The authors called on marketing specialists to “engineer a supply of consumers” by understanding and influencing market needs: “Market research and information regarding the consumer are his tools, and these tools he needs and will use in the creation of new consumer acceptance.”5 Sheldon and Arens highlighted the importance of “measuring consumer wants” and surveying markets. They also called for the practical application of academic psychology to marketing problems. Such “humaneering,” the authors promised, would make the world a “much pleasanter place to live in” as science began to “dominate the business world.”

The Professionalization of Marketing Knowledge

Of course, the ambitious agenda of early proponents of consumer engineering has to be read critically against the reality of marketing practice.6 Emphasizing scientific methodology and invoking engineering as a model were part of an effort to make marketing a legitimate and respectable part of business and to overcome the questionable reputation that advertising in particular had long contended with. Only very slowly and selectively did systematic social science make inroads into the marketing world and become part of the distribution (and later production) process. Still, there was progress for consumer engineering as an emergent profession. The middle decades of the twentieth century saw the appearance of numerous new degree programs in marketing, advertising, and product design on university campuses. The American Marketing Association, which took shape in the 1930s, furthered the field’s professionalization with annual conferences and new academic journals and publications.

Marketing knowledge within corporate structures: new market research departments increasingly occupied a central position in companies. Source: Elma Saunders Moulton, Marketing Research Activities of Manufacturers (Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, 1939), 19.

By the 1940s and 1950s, several handbooks and bibliographies touted the achievements of marketing knowledge. Corporations, in the meantime, introduced dedicated departments for marketing, market research, and design. Madison Avenue’s advertising agencies were at the height of their influence with sophisticated and globally active research and design departments. Additionally, a host of new consulting firms such as the one headed by Politz offered specialized knowledge in market surveys, advertising strategies, product and brand design, as well as consumer psychology. Around 1960, a new type of consumer expert trained in the methods of psychology or statistics had become a fixture in the world of American business

Marketing Knowledge as Social Engineering

To critics such as Vance Packard, author of The Hidden Persuaders (1957), the application of marketing knowledge amounted to little more than consumer manipulation in the pursuit of corporate profits. From the vantage point of a broader history of knowledge, however, corporate efforts in consumer engineering appear as part of a general, transnational trend toward technocratic social engineering across many countries and political regimes. State and civil society organizations were keenly interested in attaining knowledge about consumers and their behavior not only in New Deal America but also in Sweden, Germany, and elsewhere. Governments wanted to foster and steer aggregate demand. And consumer organizations, much like corporations, sought to understand and direct consumer behavior.

Many prominent consumer engineers, furthermore, came out of interwar social reform movements, including the architect and “father” of the modern shopping mall, Victor Gruen, and the renowned package and brand designer Walter Landor. Indeed, many social scientists concerned with improving working-class living standards contributed to mid-century marketing knowledge. Architects and planners pursuing affordable mass designs did too.

Cross-border transfers in consumer research and design force us to recognize the transnational dimension of this emerging marketing knowledge. Marketing history has often been told as a story of “Americanization,” in which American methods and strategies were exported across the world as part of America’s so-called Irresistible Empire (Victoria de Grazia). However, examples such as Alfred Politz, Victor Gruen, and Walter Landor, all of whom came to the United States during the 1930s as European émigrés, suggest that marketing knowledge could and did flow in the other direction as well. Interwar European design modernism and advances in social and motivation psychology all contributed to the consumer engineering efforts of New York’s increasingly global advertising agencies on Madison Avenue.

Whenever marketing knowledge flowed across the Atlantic, furthermore, local contexts heavily influenced its reception, as the example of the German marketing journal Verkaufspraxis demonstrates. From the interwar to the postwar years, this trade publication propagated “American” methods of rationalization in production and sales, but these “imported” ideas were significantly transformed and adapted to German business practices. Thus, we have to refrain from overly generalizing narratives such as “Americanization” in the history of marketing and mid-century consumer engineering.7

Manipulation or Service to the Consumer? Putting Marketing Knowledge into Practice

The translation of marketing knowledge into corporate or organizational practice took many forms during the era of consumer engineering. In some cases, marketers applied new methods and strategies to change consumer behavior and further social change. In postwar France, for example, the electronics financing company Cetelem targeted women in particular to promote the purchase of appliances on credit. Households would be further “modernized” through the proliferation of radio and television sets. In other cases, producers responded to changing consumer tastes and customer demographics. The German shoe manufacturer Adidas exemplifies how even smaller, tradition-oriented manufacturers increasingly adopted new marketing methods, offering a variety of products and styles to cater to more differentiated and segmented consumer markets. Consumer movements, by contrast, attempted to serve as a counterweight to corporate marketing by educating consumers, but ultimately they too required marketing knowledge.

Marketing knowledge and consumer movements: cover of October 1965 issue of Test Aankoop (the Flemish version of Test Achats), which contained test results for “electric water kettles” as well as “caviar and false caviar.” The magazine engaged in its own form of consumer engineering as historian Giselle Nath argues. Emphasizing household technology and luxury products, the cover’s layout shows the intention to appeal to the “modern consumer.”

As companies increasingly relied on marketing knowledge for their advertising and sales strategies, the line between the corporate manipulation of consumer markets and industry efforts to serve consumer needs blurred for many expert protagonists. As a consequence of the attacks on consumer engineering by critics such as Packard, marketing experts preferred to invoke a more customer-oriented notion of “marketing management” by the early 1970s. The renewed crises of consumer markets during that decade, however, spurred an even more powerful push (now aided by the use of computers) towards market research and design segmentation, as the example of the auto industry underscores most vividly. Here, market research became integral to marketing management and product development with fine-grained segmentation and psychological profiles to match new flexible production schemes.8

The era of prominent, pioneering consumer engineers such as Alfred Politz came to an end around 1970, yet marketing knowledge has continued to become ever more differentiated and sophisticated. To be sure, marketing knowledge has still not entirely shaken the pseudo-scientific veneer that concerned Politz some fifty years ago. Its findings frequently remain tainted by commercial interests, while its claims to be able to “engineer” consumer behavior continue to be overstated by critics and proponents alike. Still, by the end of the twentieth century, knowledge and information about consumers would become one of capitalism’s most valuable and fought-over commodities. In part, this development had its roots in the interplay of midcentury social engineering and contemporaneous academic and corporate efforts to advance marketing knowledge.

Jan Logemann is assistant professor (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) at the Institute for Economic and Social History, Georg August University of Göttingen, and co-editor (with Gary Cross and Ingo Köhler) of Consumer Engineering, 1920s–1970s: Marketing between Expert Planning and Consumer Responsiveness (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

I would like to thank the many colleagues who have helped me to understand this phenomenon. These include especially participants at the consumer engineering conference in March 2015 and contributors to a volume with the same name this year, including not least my co-editors.

  1. Alfred Politz, “A. P. Book (Draft #1),” December 22, 1971, Politz Papers, St. Johns University, box 1, folder 3, pp. 5–6. ↩︎
  2. See Jan Logemann, Gary Cross, and Ingo Köhler, eds., Consumer Engineering, 1920s–1970s: Marketing between Expert Planning and Consumer Responsiveness (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). This blog post draws on examples from this volume. ↩︎
  3. On the longer trajectory of marketing acceleration, see, for example, Gary Cross and Robert Proctor, Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014). ↩︎
  4. Elmo Calkins, “The New Consumption Engineer and the Artist,” 1930, quoted in Jeffrey Meikle, Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925–1939 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1979), 70. ↩︎
  5. Roy Sheldon and Egmont Arens, Consumer Engineering: A New Technique of Prosperity (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1932), quotes 55–56 and 95–96. ↩︎
  6. On the growing development of market research and product design in a transnational perspective, see Jan Logemann, Engineered to Sell: European Emigres and the Making of Consumer Capitalism (University of Chicago Press, 2019). ↩︎
  7. Such examples of the transnational circulation of knowledge can be traced in numerous areas of transatlantic relations at mid-century. See, for example, Jan Logemann and Mary Nolan, eds., More Atlantic Crossings? European Voices in the Postwar Atlantic Community (Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, 2014). ↩︎
  8. See Ingo Köhler, Auto-Identitäten: Marketing, Konsum und Produktbilder des Automobils nach dem Boom (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018). ↩︎