Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 1, 1991
Edited by Alec McHoul

Finding the reader: early consumer activism and the project of consumer literacy

Peter R. Grahame

An earlier version of this paper was presented to the 7th International Conference on Communication and Culture (Philadelphia, October 1989).

Introduction: textually mediated consumption

The everyday world of the consumer is, to a massive extent, a textually mediated world. While the role of advertising in organising the social world of consumption has been heavily documented, 2 other forms of textual mediation have also played an important role in organising consumer experience. Women's magazines, government regulations, industry product standards and labels, popular entertainment (e.g., radio, film, and television), and movement-based campaigns for consumer literacy have entered into the constitution of a complexly mediated world of consumer practice. At the beginning of the post-World War II period, this world already had the appearance of a grand conspiracy 3 or an advanced social formation in which gestures of consumer protest appeared quaint. 4 Yet such assessments gloss over the oppositional elements of the organisation of consumption which was underway between World War I and World War II in the United States.

Examination of the popular literature produced by the consumer movement during this period shows that what we have come to call 'the consumer culture' was rooted in organised practices which included both accommodation and resistance, not just the wholesale incorporation supposed by grand theory. Consumers Union Reports (later Consumer Reports), the flagship publication of Consumer's Union, was a key discursive site within the US consumer movement in the 1930's, and later served as the prototype for other efforts, notably Which? in the UK (launched in 1957) which then became the model for establishing Choice in Australia (in 1960). In its very organisation, this publication was already positioned in relation to other key sites of the struggle over consumption in the US (advertising, home economics, women's magazines, business periodicals, government codes, etc.). 5 In this article, I consider one problematic aspect of the organisation of consumer literacy which was fostered by consumer advice during this period. Specifically, I examine how the problem of 'finding the reader' was evident in early consumer advice literature.

Defining the reader has emerged as a general problem in media scholarship. One version of this problem is evident in Schudson's treatment of advertising influence. 6 He argues that the impact of advertising on consumer behaviour cannot be read directly off the advertisements and that the influence of advertising is far less than is supposed even by more tightly controlled studies of advertising influence. Simply put, this is because reading advertisements is not a very central practice in the life of most people and because, even when advertisements are read, they are registered quite selectively within the larger deliberations of the individual buyer. Thus Schudson's examination of who the reader is debunks the supposition often made by media critics that consumers pay close attention to ads. To Schudson's credit, he argues this position with considerable force; yet he is by no means alone in the underlying moves he makes in developing his position. In effect, he postulates that (1) finding out who the reader is, is the analyst's problem and (2) that the answer is to be found by going behind the text to discover what persons' real behaviours are like. I contend that these moves result in treating the text as an epiphenomenon. The alternative, in my view, is a more strongly conceived program of textual analysis.

Textual Analysis

The approach I take to textual analysis focuses on the social organisation of knowledge in everyday life, with particular attention to how practical knowledge is mediated through talk and text. 7 This approach, as I understand it, avoids two pitfalls: (1) treating the text as an epiphenomenon, and (2) treating the text (and more generally, language) as the privileged model for the analysis of other phenomena.

In 'Advice to historians on advice to mothers', Mechling warns against confusing published advice to women with women's actual behaviour during a given period: what was recommended was not necessarily what was done. 8 The author suggests treating advice manuals as objects of study in their own right, but then focuses narrowly on the social conditions of their production and use (treating social class as the key determinant). The result is a refined version of the initial impulse: one should treat the text as an index of behaviour. In the effect, the analyst must 'get behind' the text to find out what is going on. In contrast, the view taken here is that the analysis of textual phenomena should not be made to depend on an invidious contrast with 'actual behaviour', face-to-face interaction, what is 'beyond the text', etc. The textual order is to be treated as an organised phenomenon in its own right, a specific ordering of the social world. For example, one may ask, what kind of active readings does the text support, in terms of the resources which it provides or invokes? What kinds of practical knowledge are taken for granted, and what kinds must be assembled via the text?

The point is not, however, to treat the world as a text. There is a current analysis within the broad field of semiotics which more or less explicitly treats the text as the privileged model for investigating a variety of phenomena, including organised social practices. Manning seems drawn to this notion when he says 'Social practices, indicated by signs, are like language bits (morphemes, sememes ... ), connected as they are and subject, therefore, to the same kinds of analytic techniques'. 9 But as Giddens has pointed out, it is just misleading to assert that social life is like a language, or like elements of it. 10 As ethnomethodology has shown, the stubborn facts of social life show that talk has entered into the very constitution of social practices in a whole variety of ways. Those practices are not 'like' talk; they are organised by talk (among other things). Following this insight, the point of textual analysis would be to study texts as constitutive elements of social practice, not as a mere analogy to them.

In this article, I examine the problem of defining the reader from the perspective of textual analysis. My point is not to use some notion of 'the actual reader' to undercut the texts I want to investigate, but rather to examine the apparatus of devices and resources which both enabled and constrained the growth of a readership for Consumers Union Reports. While finding the reader is often viewed as the analyst's problem (Schudson, Mechling), textual analysis presents us with another poss~ibility. In certain contexts, finding the reader can become evident as an ordinary aim and trouble of literature production. In such cases, it should be possible to address 'finding the reader' as a locally managed problem related to the organisation of the text. In speaking of 'text organisation', I mean to treat texts as sequentially and categorically organised and as organised in both producerly and readerly ways. I want to pursue these features of texts in connection with the broader domain of phenomena which Smith has termed 'textually-mediated social organisation'. 11 This involves consideration of how texts are inserted into and organise larger social relations. One can ask, for example, in what ways is the text to be investigated, already actively oriented to the problem of producing a readership? The case of movement-based consumer advice literature during the inter-war years is particularly interesting in this regard. During this period, 'the consumer' was itself a category undergoing specific forms of elaboration which connected it with the broad organisation of consumption which was emerging. At the time these forms of advice began to appear, it was unclear who the reader would turn out to be. For Consumers Union Reports, the problem of finding the reader was at the same time the problem of producing a preferred reader

Textually-mediated consumer advice

Elsewhere I have argued that consumer product advice in the 1930s was devised to engender a radical reorganisation of the social relations of knowledge about commodities, and a corresponding reorganisation of consumption practices. This kind of consumer advice involved politically aware reworkings of existing scientific and technical practice in order to create a new site for reading the marketplace. In my view, consumer advice was a locale which was not purely 'local' in the sense of that unfortunate term 'micro'; rather, it was a discursive site which involved the local management of extra-local relations. Some dimensions of the inter-war consumer movement not considered further here include the involvement of intellectuals on the left, like Robert Lynd, and the emergence of divergent solutions and activist strategies for dealing with problems of consumer illiteracy. 12

In this article I look at the beginnings of Consumer Reports (originally, Consumers Union Reports) and I focus on the use of editorials as part of the apparatus of shaping a readership. One can find directions to the reader in a variety of places, in prefaces, margins, headings, inserted within the text, and so forth. A distinctive property of the product test reports featured in Consumers Union Reports is that the reading practices involved recur; they (or some subset of them) are to be recycled for each further article read. There is thus an economy in placing directions in a space where they can be treated as general instructions which should be applied to any report's reading. The editorials make specific contributions to the ongoing practice of directing the reader - giving directions to him or her about how to interpret the text, what to pay attention to and what to avoid, how the text is to be taken. In the editorial section, one finds general guidance for the overall shaping of the readership, in contrast to the specific guidance found in particular articles. Attention to the editorials, then, offers potentials for discovering orientations to what were regarded as recurrent problems of interpretation. However, the decision to focus on editorials may invite questions regarding the relation between them and the product test reports which comprised the bulk of each issue.

It should be mentioned at the outset that Consumers Union Reports editorials had a feature which set them apart from the more customary positioning of editorial copy in periodical literature. According to a familiar convention of editorial writing, the editorial voice presides over a diversity of other expressions and speaks in a voice separate from them. For example, a feature article's author may be named and identified as a staff writer or outside contributor, so that the article's voice achieves a degree of distinctiveness from other articles, as well as from advertisements, columns, reader correspondence, and so on. Within this convention, the privilege of speaking for the magazine as a whole is largely reserved for the editorial voice. In contrast, Consumers Union Reports created a collective voice by dispensing with named authors, paid advertising, and other devices which establish separate author positions. In editorials, as well as in the featured product reports, authorship was identified with Consumers Union as a corporate entity - it was in each case Consumers Union that was advising, warning, recommending, and so on. The dominant code governing both editorials and product evaluations was collaborative technical reporting, not professional journalism with its emphasis on separate identities and differentiated roles. In view of this presumptive unity of voice, the Consumers Union Reports editorial was in a stronger position to direct the reader than would be the case in a magazine with a more conventional format.

Surely, one might object, the point of reading Consumers Union Reports was to benefit from the product evaluations, not to learn the views of the editor. In view of this, what is to be learned from giving attention to a magazine segment which many readers probably disregarded? One way to read the investigation undertaken here is to see it as using the editorial as an (unreliable) index of who readers actually were. From this perspective, it would be a mistake to suppose that editorial readers or authors of letters to Consumers Union Reports were typical readers. Rather,they could be easily seen as atypical, for example as unusually zealous readers, or as ones with an axe to grind. 13 Unfortunately, this perspective produces a narrowly empiricist conception of finding the reader. It implies that readership is, at some level, a brute fact. For example, the readership might be regarded as an aggregate of actual readers' practices, which should be sampled in accord with principles of validity associated with scientific measurement. The typical reader could then be profiled statistically. This is what reader surveys generally do, and in fact as the years passed, Consumer Reports began to pay attention to such surveys.

But this conception short-circuits the task of textual analysis. The issue here is to treat the editorials as themselves a significant phenomenon, to investigate their organisation, and to discover how that organisation was related to both the objectives and the larger organisation of consumer product reporting. That is, this study proposes that it is worthwhile to consider the editorials as a phenomenon in their own right, not just as a perhaps questionable index of some other order. The editorial is not a reflection - distorted or otherwise - of actual readers, but rather (among other things) a collection of proposals, some tacit but others quite pointed, regarding what the readership should be like. My aim in this article is not to treat editorials as flawed depictions of some aggregate of individuals identified as message recipients, but rather to inspect the materials for displayed orientations to preferred and problematic reading practices.

In Consumers Union Reports, issues related to finding the reader appear in editorials in at least two forms: (a) as problems of founding a readership: starting up readers, beginning the process, and (b) as retrospective/prospective formulations of the readership so far: the readers we have at this point, vs. those we need.

Problems of founding a readership are evident in the magazine's first issue (May 1936). The inaugural editorial takes the form of a two-page mission statement. This statement can be looked at as consisting of a set of 'preliminary instructions' to the reader. Woolgar has developed the proposal, introduced by Smith, that texts are often organised so that they provide readers with a set of instructions about how to see what the text will mean, what it will be about. 14 These may include the setting (e.g. appearance in a publication context of a certain kind), headings (titles, subtitles), and textual openings (first sentences or paragraphs of an article or piece).

The focus here is on openings. Consider the first paragraph (May 1936):

With this issue, Consumers Union begins its task of providing technical guidance for consumers. As stated in its charter, Consumers Union will attempt "to give information and assistance on all matters relating to the expenditure of earning and the family income; to initiate, to co-operate with, and to aid individual and group efforts of whatever nature and description seeking to create and maintain decent living standard for ultimate consumers". 15

Features of this opening which should be noted include the following:

(a) the statement of the fundamental task is placed up front: 'providing technical guidance'; (b) the task statement is followed immediately by a quotation from the organisation's charter which in turn is treated as a master document, a fact behind the scenes and prior to the first issue, which can be invoked to indicate the proper direction for the whole enterprise; (c) the use of the quote from the charter to imply a broader mission than technical guidance: Consumers Union will enter in various ways into efforts of 'whatever nature and description' which produce 'decent living standards'.

In fact, the editorial, as mission statement, goes on to place product test report reading in a larger context. There is structural evidence that the readers' orientation to report reading is being assumed: the report form is explicated and defended only in the last quarter of the mission statement. Earlier references to reports show them to be a problem, even an impediment, to broader efforts. Thus, less than a quarter of the way through, we have the following:

The directors of Consumers Union do not feel, however, that they have done their job when they have provided information which permits the saving of a few pennies, or even a few dollars, by buying one brand instead of another. "Decent living standards for ultimate consumers" will never be maintained simply by reporting on the quality and the price of products. All the technical information in the world will not give enough food or enough clothes to the textile worker's family living on $11 a week. They, like the college professor or the skilled mechanic, are ultimate consumers; but the only way in which any organisation can aid them materially as consumers is by helping them, in their struggle as workers, to get an honest wage. 16

This passage is clearly organised in such a way that the technical task of product reporting is subordinated to a larger mission. The pivotal sentence divides in to two parts, thus: (1) '"Decent living standards for ultimate consumers"' and (2) 'will never be maintained simply by reporting on the quality and price of products'.

The first part is already the third location of this phrase from the charter. Its source in a master document gives it a special weight - it references a sense in which Consumers Union is something already organ~ised, already properly and authoritatively constituted. And it serves as a device for linking types of concern and levels of organised effort. The second part proposes that this goal laid down in the charter cannot be realised within the confines of the magazine's ostensive purpose. Thus the mission statement is arranged so that the main technical task, 'simply reporting on the quality and price of products', has been artfully located as an element within a broader field of strategies.

The last quarter of the statement examines the product ratings, which are to be the heart of each product report. What is said to make ratings a 'reliable guide to intelligent purchasing' is their basis in laboratory tests: both 'technical competence' and 'freedom from commercial bias' distinguish the ratings from other opinions. So, a 'best buy' is revealed to be the outcome of a complex judgment.

Overall, the mission statement sets forth a mandate for promoting a readership which links consumer and labour issues, and which sees product rating in a larger context. It is a founding act. Not only does the reader need to be started up, but this is how readership should work.

The practical problem of finding the reader also appears in the form of troubles, troubles related to tensions between routine report reading and the larger mission statement. Recurrently in editorials, reading troubles are noted, and 'repairs' are ventured. Repairs often take the form of redirecting unwanted readings of the magazine. I consider two types of repairs. The first type responds to troubles generated by readers who reject the broader mission, and the repair seeks to restore the association of report reading with the larger mission. The second type responds to troubles generated by readers who become confused by multiple sources of guidance. The repair involves dissociating Consumer Reports from captive organisations and publications which only pretend to promote consumer interests.

An example of the first type of trouble figures prominently in the inaugural editorial, whose opening moves include the appearance of a reader's voice. The reader objects:

"Your job is to help consumers, not workers: the workers have unions and can take care of themselves." 17

The editorial voice resumes, explaining:

This comment has come into the Consumers Union office several times since the announcement that it would report on labor conditions under which goods are produced as well as on the quality and price of goods. 18

Note that this reader's objection is treated as a member's objection, not just the objection of a concrete person untutored in report readership - i.e., we can consider it in its aspect as a readerly objection. It then becomes the occasion for a quantity of work which aims to establish links between consumers and workers. Placing product ratings in a larger context, the editorial proposes that the consumer and the worker are the same person. Over the next decade, the issue of the labour connection recurs in editorials and, each time, passages from the inaugural editorial are quoted again. For example, in October 1937 a reader writes:

It is my thought that if you desire to get into the labor angle, you should publish a separate magazine and give it a true name and not try to deceive the public into reading labor propaganda by mixing it with reports on products.

How is this trouble handled? Consumers Union replies, 'Contrary to the reader's impression, CU is not departing from its original purpose by reporting on labor conditions ...'. And then the inaugural editorial is cited: '"Decent living standards for ultimate consumers" will never be maintained ... simply by reporting on the price and quality of products'. And so the link to the larger mission is restored: not only did we say this at the beginning, but it is laid down in the charter.

Now we should consider the second type of trouble. From time to time editorials discovered Consumer Reports readers reading other magazines, and found in this a source of trouble. For example, the second issue's editorial delivers a scathing attack on the Hearst publishing empire, noting that 'with his Good Housekeeping magazine and its fraudulent Good Housekeeping Institute he has helped advertisers exploit consumers'. 19 Readers were advised to line up against Hearst organs like Good Housekeeping, Pictorial Review, Harpers Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Metronome News, WINS, etc. (Note that in this attack on print and non-print organs, various media are pictured as doing the same thing - embodying Hearst's power). Apparently this provoked a reaction from readers, as evidenced by the editorial in the next issue: '... members have questioned the use in the June Reports of the term "fraudulent" in connection with the renowned testing laboratory of Good Housekeeping magazine. Letters from members show, too, that many still trust the Good Housekeeping Institute and its seal'. How is this trouble handled? The editorial reasserts that the Good Housekeeping Institute, 'with its "seal of approval" and its "scientists" ... is ... one of the greatest frauds being perpetrated on American consumers'. The device used in this repair involves contrasting Good Housekeeping claims with dissenting statements from presumably credible scientific witnesses. Here is one of six examples listed in the editorial as evidence:

Lysol - approved by Good Housekeeping as a safe and effective germicide and contraceptive.... Safety - 'it is gentle, soothing, refreshing' says a Good Housekeeping ad. Facts and Frauds in Women's Hygiene by Palmer and Greenberg ... reports a number of deaths from poisoning resulting from the use of Lysol, and quotes medical authorities to prove both its unreliability and its hazardous nature. 20

This entry gains its force both through an internal contrast, Good Housekeeping approval vs. medical authority, and through its external location within a sequence of entries which report government and medical findings. The repair involves displaying how Good Housekeeping's recommendations are linked to claims which lack a proper scientific foundation. Those recommendations can then be seen as having a different character from CU's ratings.

Discussion: activist principles vs. textually organised readerships

Both types of troubles I consider involve instances where present readers are seen as problematic. Retrospective consideration of the readership projected in the magazine's beginning is used to see present readers as requiring redirection. But the two cases differ significantly. Think of the resources used in effecting the two types of repair. In the first case, where readers reject consideration of labour issues, the repair involves a reinvocation of the mission statement as a resource. Once the link to the broader mission is restored, readers should be able to recognise that reference to labour issues was properly mandated 'after all'. The second case is different. Here the resource for dissociating credible and fraudulent recommendations turns out to be scientific testing itself. The test, not the charter, is the deep resource here. So in the two cases, the resources for redirecting readers are quite different.

This suggests that the editorial resources for shaping readership were unevenly distributed. Readings which ignore labour themes are perfectly possible: one simply zeros in on a product's ratings and disregards the labour conditions that produced it. On the other hand, the issue of credible recommendations is built into the very organisation of product reports. So the admonition to reject Good Housekeeping has the same basis as the product ratings themselves.

Close examination of the handling of troubles and repairs furnishes evidence that attempts to shape readership thus did not receive equal support from the text. Between supporting labour and denouncing phony advice, there was a fundamental asymmetry. Above all, it was the interest in comparing products which was supported in the very organisation of Consumers Union Reports articles. The work of finding readers turns out to be inseparable from the work of producing a readership. In spite on an ongoing recycling of the broader mission statement over the first decade, what finds the reader, in the sense of gathering a concrete body of readers, is not the guiding principle (namely, that the consumer and the worker are the same person) but rather the text's organisation. The product test report structure organises a readership in the sense that it provides for definite reading practices, and thus it can be taken up and used as a practical matter, quite apart from editorial counselling. And this shows that the weak link between consumer and worker during this period had a textual basis (the lack of a compelling discursive link) in addition to other conditions impeding such an alliance.

The irony, then, is that Consumer Reports, from its very first issue, provided such a clearly organised basis for reading that this machinery outstripped all efforts to place report use in the ideal broader context and to embellish it with 'higher principles'. By the time Consumers Union began to find out who its readers 'actually' were (white, male, middle-class), its magazine had already become captive to its own success.

There are, potentially, many projects of finding the reader - indeed as many projects as there are questions about the text (for each question projects a sort of reader). Yet the versions of the reader constructed in and through the text have a special salience. In the ways the text responds to the issue of who the reader is, it offers a local analytic of readership which any other attempt to find the reader must take into account in some way. It is a primordial sense of finding the reader, built right into the organisation of the text. It doesn't preempt other attempts at reader finding, but it precedes them and gives an initial shape to whatever could count as the reader. This can be contrasted with other approaches, such as the shapeless ethnographic solution found today in some versions of cultural studies: the reader is simply whoever shows up, or whoever is to be found, so to speak, in the vicinity of the text. In contrast, I hold that any serious attempt to deal with the text involves itself, however tacitly, in that text's own ways of finding the reader, and I have sought to show how this can be made a topic for analysis in the case of early consumer advice literature.


2. Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976. Gillian Dyer, Advertising as Communication (London: Methuen, 1982). Michael Schudson, Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion: Its dubious Impact on American Society (New York: Basic Books, 1984). William Leiss, Stephen Kline & Sut Jhally, Social Communication in Advertising: Persons, Products, and Images of Well-being (Toronto: Methuen, 1986). Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

3. Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Seabury Press, 1972).

4. David Riesman & Howard Roseborough, "Careers and Consumer Behavior" in Lincoln H. Clark ed., Consumer Behavior Vol II: The Life Cycle and Consumer Behavior (New York: New York University Press, 1955), pp.1-18.

5. Peter Grahame, "The Construction of a Sociological Consumer" in Jaber F. Gubrium & David Silverman eds., The Politics of Field Research: Sociology Beyond Enlightenment (London: Sage Publications, 1989), pp.70-93.

6. Schudson, Advertising.

7. Dorothy Smith, "Textually-mediated Social Organization", International Social Science Journal, v.34 (1984) pp.59-75. Anthony Giddens, "Structuralism, Post-structuralism and the Production of Culture" in Anthony Giddens & Jonathan Turner eds., Social Theory Today (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), pp.195-223. Steve Woolgar, Science: The Very Idea (London: Tavistock, 1988). Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1967). A.W. McHoul, Telling How Text Talk: Essays on Reading and Ethnomethodology (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982). Nick Hartland, "Texts and Social Organisation: An Ethnomethodology of State Documents", Journal of Pragmatics, v.13 (June 1989) pp.395-405.

8. Jay Mechling, "Advice to Historians on Advice to Mothers", Journal of Social History, v.9 (Fall 1975) pp.44-63.

9. Peter Manning, Semiotics and Fieldwork (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1987).

10. Giddens, "Structuralism".

11. Smith, "Textually-mediated".

12. On these, see Grahame, "The Construction".

13. The case of readers' letters on Consumers Union's labour connection, examined later in this section, further illustrates this point. The letters complaining about labour notes are not presented as typical or average reader responses, but rather errant or deviant. They are quite evidently selected and framed pointedly as occasions for repair. This suggests that their significance is not their frequency of occurrence, since whether letters are viewed as unique (the 'impression' of a single reader) or as a representative member of a collection of similar letters ("This comment has come into the Consumers Union office several times"), they are used in the repair to direct attention to preferred reading practices. The point is not to reflect actual reader practices overall, but rather to direct readers by example in the accomplishment of adequate reading. That actual readers are supposed to have produced such responses simply provides an occasion for offering such direction; but one can imagine other occasions - a fictionalised dramatisation of reader practices, offered as a regular feature, might provide an example. What is revealed is not a factual portrait of the average reader but rather the reading order which Consumers Union seeks to enforce.

14. Woolgar, Science.

15. "Consumers Union Reports", Consumers Union Reports (May 1936) p.2.

16. Ibid, p.2.

17. Ibid, p.2.

18. Ibid, p.2.

19. "Strike against Hearst", Consumers Union Reports (June 1936) p.2.

20. "The Good Housekeeping Institute", Consumers Union Reports (June 1936) p.24.

New: 23 December, 1995 | Now: 18 March, 2015