Consumer Advocacy

“To be pro-consumer militantly doesn’t mean to be militantly anti-business.”

Virginia Knauer, 1970

Consumer advocates used information, legal action, and political influence to protect and empower consumers. Consumer protection began with the formation of the National Consumers League in 1899 and gained strength in the 1930s.  After World War II, advocates focused on food safety, product design, clear labeling, lending practices, and environmental regulation. Backed by consumer frustration, they achieved significant legislative victories, but they fell short of creating a federal agency dedicated to consumer affairs.

Photograph, Byron Bloch with wrecked Ford Pinto, 1973

Photograph, Byron Bloch with wrecked Ford Pinto, 1973

Courtesy of Byron Bloch

Safety has been the focus of much consumer advocacy. In a series of high-profile cases, industrial designer Byron Bloch and activist Ralph Nader challenged Ford to redesign the Pinto and better protect drivers from rear- impact crashes.

Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile, 1965

Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile, 1965

Bloch’s drawing of the Ford Pinto, showing the design flaw that endangered drivers, 1978

Bloch’s drawing of the Ford Pinto, showing the design flaw that endangered drivers, 1978

Gift of Byron Bloch

Ralph Nader and Byron Bloch, 1978

Ralph Nader and Byron Bloch, 1978

Nader and Bloch highlighted the dangerous rear location of the Ford Pinto’s fuel tank at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Courtesy of Byron Bloch

Courtroom model of 1973 Ford Pinto used to argue the case about flawed placement of gas tank

Consumer laws safeguarded children by eliminating poisonous chemicals, small and sharp parts, and other unforeseen hazards from toys, clothing, and furniture. Much of the legislation came from grassroots efforts by parents.

Lawn darts, about 1970

Toys came under particular scrutiny in the 1970s. Guns and missiles were the first to draw fire.

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An Agency to Protect Consumers?

Advocates urged Congress to create an agency dedicated to consumer affairs. In 1977, Ralph Nader asked taxpayers to shower Congress with nickels demonstrating that the agency would cost each American only five cents a year. The Office of Consumer Affairs was established, but only in an advisory capacity.

Virginia H. Knauer, photograph by Steve Szabo, The Washington Post, about 1970

Virginia H. Knauer, photograph by Steve Szabo, The Washington Post, about 1970

Knauer, an energetic advocate, advised three presidents as director of the Office of Consumer Affairs. Knauer was the highest-ranking woman in the executive branch.

Courtesy of Getty Images

 “Nixon’s Consumer Record,” 1972

 “Nixon’s Consumer Record,” 1972

 “Checklist for Inflation Fighters,” 1974

 “Checklist for Inflation Fighters,” 1974

Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, 1977

Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, 1977

Lucy, in the role of a bossy consumer advocate, illustrated the tension between personal liberty and the common good.

Courtesy of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, Peanuts © 1977 Peanuts Worldwide LLC