Engineered to Sell. European Émigrés and the Making of Consumer Capitalism

Logemann, Jan L.
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371 S., 21 SW-Abb., 1 Tab.
$ 35.00; € 34,80
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Florian Triebel, Corporate and Governmental Affairs, BMW Group München

Common knowledge holds that after World War II the United States used their political and economic strength to impose the „American Way” on the good (western) part of the globe. By pursuing this, the U.S. spread its value system, business principles and marketing strategies to foster a new world order with itself as the leader. Recent scholarship rebuked this narrative as a picture painted merely in black and white and stressed how differently the ideas and methods of the „American Way” were received and adopted by various countries, their national cultures and economies, their businesses and even individual persons. Moreover, in contributions concerning this matter scholars of marketing thought and business history stressed the point that the „American” business strategies after World War II were heavily influenced by Europeans who emigrated to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. But until recently there has been no comprehensive survey on these creative „cultural brokers” and what their respective contribution exactly was.

Jan Logemann’s book Consumer Engineers sets out to fill this gap and does so in a convincing manner. In his study he follows some of the European market research and commercial design protagonists emigrating to the U.S. He chose these two fields of activity because market research as well as commercial design raised in influence onto American businesses in the 1930s and 1940s and were widely adopted by businesses abroad as genuine „American” methods after World War II.

According to Logemann’s line of thought, European émigrés had a strong impact on the developments in these fields from the 1930s to the 1960s. He analyses how U.S. business leaders in the early 1930s looked for new perspectives and methodologies to uplift their depression-struck corporations. The European émigrés offered science-based and modern approaches which pledged to open up new access to and demand from customers. Applying methods of then state-of-the-art European psychological thought in market-research promised to understand what the motivations for individuals were to buy a specific product. The findings of market research were used in advertising, training of salespeople, store layout. Moreover, they were integrated in new functional styles for commercial design, influenced by modern European art, especially the Weimar „Bauhaus”. Interestingly, the émigrés had little or no hesitation to offer their knowledge to American Big Business, even though a large portion of them had had a past in the progressive and social reform movements of 1920s Europe which was pronouncedly critical of contemporary capitalism’s effects on the lower social classes.

Struck by the economic effects of the Great Depression, American business leaders were convinced that both streams – market research and a new and functional design – could be the urgently sought stimuli for new and previously unmet demand in customers. In the contemporary technicist understanding this was the key to „engineer the customers”. Logemann lays out how scholars of psychology like Paul Lazarsfeld from Vienna and Ernest Dichter from Berlin used their methods and knowledge to form science-based market research methods, like „motivation research”, and how designers like Raymond Loewy and Walther Landor (formerly Landauer) built a new philosophy for commercial design on these insights.

After World War II, the former émigrés, now firmly settled in the US „customer engineering” scene, visited Europe occasionally to work as ambassadors or „cultural brokers” and multiplicators for the new „American” business thinking. But it did not stop at thinking: Émigré designers such as Loewy and Landor shaped the design of a good part of everyday consumer goods. Moreover, the „International Design” – prevalent in the 1950s and early 1960s all over the globe and based on „Bauhaus” ideas – had a prominent propagandist and producer in Knoll Design, an interior design manufacturer founded by a German émigré in Pennsylvania.

Interestingly, hardly any agency or firm founded by the European émigrés turned American „customer engineers” outlived their founders. Partly they were sold to other companies in their respective field, or they were closed soon after their founding members handed over the operational responsibility to successors. This correlated with an increasing criticism of the technicist „customer engineering” approach in the 1960s which accused this approach of manipulating the customers. Nonetheless as Logemann shows, European émigrés had a strong impact on American Business thinking from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Logemann’s study is guided by three methodological considerations which I would categorize as „time, „direction” and „cause”. Firstly „time”: For a structural study in twentieth century history, Logemann sets the time-frame cross to conventional designs. Starting in the 1920s, he spans up to the 1960s, coining the term „mid-century” for these decades. While this frame is not uncommon in biographical studies, structural analyses tend to mark World War II as a „normal” start or end. For his actor-centric approach this „mid-century” timeframe suits well as it allows Logemann to follow his protagonists along their professional lifetime from Europe to the United States and back to Europe.

This takes us to the second methodological consideration: „direction”. Logemann’s study is an excellent proof that the concept of a monolithic „Americanization” does not stand up to reality. Rather, ideas, knowledge and innovations have crossed and continue to cross the Atlantic in both directions, leading to a more open concept of „Westernization”. Moreover, American influences were not applied in the same way in different circumstances and cultural environments. According to Logemann, the émigrés of the 1930s had an influence as „cultural brokers” that should not be limited to the diverse and tailored application of “American” ideas and business practices in post-war Europe.

Logemann’s third methodological consideration – which I would label „cause” – proposes to understand the emigration of his protagonists as part of a broader and long-term exchange phenomenon between Europe and the United States. As seen from the United States, this perspective seems viable, as long as the influx of people, ideas and cultural stimuli were welcomed and could be integrated into the “American Way”. A small part of his protagonists, like Raymond Loewy or Walther Knoll, were solely motivated to move to America because of the „unlimited opportunities” for them on offer. The larger part, however, saw their own sphere of action endangered by the illiberal tendencies breaking their path in 1920s Europe. Since some of them were of Jewish descent and had worked in progressive and social-reform projects, they must have felt increasingly endangered by the illiberal and anti-democratic tendencies in 1930s Europe. From this point of view, their emigration was not mainly driven by „unlimited opportunities” but to a large extent by the insecurity of their livelihood in Europe. In this context, the reviewer would have liked to find out more about whether and how Logemann’s protagonists had been affected by the suspicions and persecutions of McCarthyism in the United States in the 1950s.

All in all, Logemann’s study, which is easy and fluent to read, directs the interest to a field of research in the history of modern marketing that has been little explored to date. In his line of thought he manages to skillfully embed the approaches and impact of his protagonists in the broader context of developments. The book is to be hoped for a broad reception, especially beyond the boundaries of corporate and economic history.

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