The preceding chapter took as its starting point elite perceptions of mass consumer society. Economic and cultural leaders maintained a keen interest in consumption, even as the state limited consumers’ access to nonprivileged goods and services. For Rotarians, social engagement and intellectual curiosity motivated discussions about commerce and consumption. Rather than bringing these discussions to a halt, the onset of a new political regime heightened the interest in the masses’ relationship to their material and cultural surroundings. Rotarians’ engagement with larger social themes always had a practical element, as businessmen aimed to promote their companies’ products and forge social connections that would benefit their firms. But it also had an idealistic component. These elite men put forth a vision of a perfected economic and political order, based on a combination of enlightened self-interest and the communal virtues of trust, sacrifice, and dedication to nation. They in turn helped give shape to the Nazis’ market ideals and bolstered the regime’s attempts to understand the spiritual and racist dimensions of the economy.
This chapter looks at another institutional setting where economic leaders explored the contours of mass society. This was the Society for Consumer Research (Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung – GfK), an organization that, upon its founding in 1934, devoted itself to understanding not just the abstract meanings of consumption, but also Germans’ own perceptions of their lives and the goods they consumed. Today the GfK Group is the fourth-largest market research organization in the world, with 7,500 employees serving in sixty countries. Over the seventy-five years of its existence, it has stood at the helm of the market research industry in Germany, spearheading efforts to integrate the latest scholarly findings about consumer psychology and behavior into the broader work of company self-promotion. This chapter focuses on the GfK and its intellectual milieu in order to continue our exploration of business leaders’ ideas about consumer society. But it combines an examination of elite discourse with a look at the grass roots by considering what consumers were actually saying in 1930s and 1940s about their lives, their purchasing habits, and the state. As we will see, the GfK’s oft-stated goal of discovering the “voice of the consumer” was not merely a rhetorical gesture. Rather, from 1936 to 1945, the GfK produced dozens of reports about men’s and women’s attitudes toward shopping and consuming. These reports offer a window onto the mind-set of Germans, who made decisions in the marketplace against the backdrop of scarcity, price controls, and the regime’s attempts to engineer a racially pure economy.