In March 2015, Vroom & Dreesmann (V&D) CEO John van der Ent gave an interview with a Dutch newspaper. The company was suffering from an acute crisis of solvency. Drastic measures had been proposed to avoid bankruptcy. These included significant salary cuts and large reduction of rent payments, but such ideas were given up because of serious resistance from labor unions, staff, and property-owners alike. In the event, Sun Capital, a British hedge fund that bought the chain of department stores in 2010, decided to invest nearly forty million euros in an attempt to restore V&D’s status as a competitive player in the warehouse-industry. The firm appointed Van der Ent, and tasked him with restructuring the organization. In his 2015 interview, the new CEO announced that the company’s future policies had to rest to a considerable degree on the demands of ‘King and Queen Customer’.2
That van der Ent used this specific metaphor is interesting, not because the CEO was minting a new slogan, but because an old one was being given back its initial meaning in its focus on freedom and high levels of service. From the 1960s onwards, the metaphor had increasingly been taken up by actors who aimed at undermining the political and economic status quo. In 1968, for instance, Piet Reckman, proponent of the fair trade movement and prominent member of the Dutch Labor Party (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA), explicitly interpreted and legitimized his actions by referring to the role of the customer as king. According to him, every consumer of the commodities of world trade such as sugar and cacao was able to make a difference. As ‘the customer is king’ implied, consumers had the power to ‘demand’ products that were excluded from the European markets as a result of import tariffs and subsidies.3 A few years earlier, the socio-democratic VARA broadcasting company had premiered a critical consumer rights show entitled King Customer.4
Studies on the twentieth century economic history of the Netherlands have not systematically examined narratives about consumption and the consumer, placing weight on macroeconomic developments and the rise of a welfare state instead.5 In addition, accounts of Dutch political and social history have emphasized the importance of a post-war boom in consumption, yet have hardly explored its consequences in day-to-day lives as far as cultural dimensions were concerned.6 In his landmark study on twentieth century European history, historian Konrad Jarausch concluded that a profound transformation of economic structures, a rise in prosperity, and a spread of consumption from the early 1950s onwards tended to decrease social differences in both reality and perception. The mass consumption of all kinds of products resolved discrepancies when it came to dress and appearance, and markers of social status shifted towards subtle variances in style. Furthermore, employment patterns changed, access to education dramatically increased, and individual social mobility rose to unprecedented levels. In the opinion of Jarausch, such transformations eroded well-established social hierarchies, and changed the image and self-image of individuals as consumers in modern society.7
As people make use of narratives on morality and secularization, for instance, to define who they are and who they want to be or become, we argue that an analysis of narratives about consumption enriches the existing historiography of the modern Dutch consumer society.8 In order to better understand the influence of narratives on consumption in general and the consumer in particular, we propose a cultural conceptualization of these narratives. This approach ties in with recent historical research in which the socioeconomic conceptualization of consumption, which revolved around statistical evidence, has been complemented by a conceptualization encompassing a wide field of processes, historical actors, institutes, techniques, and actions.9 We hope to build on this field of research by recounting the historical journey of one of these narratives of consumption within the Dutch borders: the customer is king.
In the following, we will examine when and in what historical context the king customer narrative was introduced in the Netherlands, and how this narrative changed against a backdrop of international and national political and economic shifts. We will demonstrate that it was first promoted in the interwar years as an Anglo-American advertising industry effort to co-opt democratic aspirations for the market, with the Ford Motor Company operating as a trailblazing force. The narrative was soon adopted by an emerging Dutch retail industry. In the 1960s, especially, it was however reinterpreted in a politicizing fashion. The time was marked by growing popular advertising literacy and the Dutch social-democratic party’s views regarding consumer advocacy media, civil society, and polity organizations. In the mid and late 1970s, in contrast, the narrative moved towards depoliticization. This article also explores the political and cultural consequences of different meanings attributed to the king customer narrative over time, underlining its ‘discursive hollowness’ and analyzing accounts of the desired definition of the customer’s kingship.10
The dynamics of modern consumerism
Historians have dated the birth of the modern consumer society to the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The arrival of electric light, the dissemination of newspapers, and the development of the advertising business opened up new perspectives on ‘hidden persuasions’. In the twentieth century, the ascent of photography and the normalization of new media such as radio and television improved the chances of reaching a large audience. It has become accepted that the decades following the Second World War marked the emergence of mass consumption, notwithstanding the fact that different (sub)periods and patterns of consumption on the national and regional levels should be discerned.11
In the Netherlands, the years from 1870 until the economic depression of the 1930s were critical to the rise of a modern consumer society. Generally speaking, this was a period in which production and real wages grew gradually despite multiple reverses. Transformations in international trade politics and the abolition of British protectionism after the 1840s allowed the Dutch economy to align itself with that of the leading industrializing countries – England, Belgium, Germany – in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. New strategies of investment and risk-taking replaced the defensive approaches that Dutch entrepreneurs had often pursued in the years up to 1870. Infrastructural changes literally paved the way for the shaping of national and international consumer markets in addition to local and regional ones. Leaders of newly established companies such as Philips (1891) influenced these trends by expanding their enterprises in the first decades of the twentieth century. More and more, they wished to reach out directly to potential customers. Local shopkeepers also saw their positions affected as a result of the establishment of department stores.12
The Dutch economy particularly flourished between 1923 and 1929, with a steady 3 percent annual growth rate. In the immediate aftermath of the Wall Street crash of October 1929, however, economic growth in the country came to an almost immediate stop. The ensuing depression hit the economy hard, and one year later, the Dutch government started support-payments in order to reduce the potential of mass uprisings among farmers. This did not prevent unemployment from rising to unprecedented levels. Between 1933 and 1936, roughly one fifth of the Dutch labor force was jobless.13
In the wake of World War II, a new socio-political order emerged in the Western world on the basis of widely shared belief that society was in desperate need of a new set of political and philosophical norms. Convinced that political forces should have power over economic ones, this order sought to recreate social unity by constraining market freedom in the name of public interest. Following the economic recipes of John Maynard Keynes, in particular, state intervention and planning came to form the cornerstone of economic policies. Government spending was on the rise all over Europe, with an increase from 26.8 percent of the gross domestic product in 1950 to 45.5 percent in 1973. Whereas enduring hardship had been one of the few solutions to poverty before the Second World War, after 1945, an uncompromising faith in individualism was countered by trust in group action and participation. ‘The dogma of the invisible hand’, English Labor politician Anthony Crosland wrote in 1956, ‘failed to survive the Great Depression’.14
In the Netherlands, these new economic policies, which were financially underpinned by American dollars flowing into Europe via the Marshall Plan, had a significant impact on prosperity. The years between 1951, when the repair of war damages was completed, and 1973, when the oil crisis hit, marked a period of profound economic growth. The Netherlands’ gross national product grew 4.5–5 percent annually. Both real wages and consumer spending were on the rise, and the possession and utilization of durable consumer goods and luxury goods increased spectacularly. The proportion of households owning a refrigerator climbed from 3 percent in 1957 to 88 percent fifteen years later. The use of tobacco and alcohol increased, and meat became a vital part of the daily meal in more and more families. Possession of audio-visual appliances among Dutch citizens expanded from the late 1950s onwards. The traditional radio, which had been owned by 77 percent of families in 1951, was joined by an increasing number of record players and television sets. Perhaps even more stunning was a rapid growth of car ownership. Cars, like the growing number of telephones, enabled Dutch families to widen their horizons.15
Because these changes effected a great majority of the population, consumption and especially consumer rights became a major topic in political and societal debate. During the 1950s, Dutch governments reluctantly started to become aware of what they considered to be their responsibility for guarantying the quality of consumer products and services. Various organizations took up the issue of consumer rights instead, and through these organizations, the idea of consumer protection gained support.16 In the Netherlands, the Dutch Housekeeping Council (Nederlandse Huishoudraad) was established in 1950. Aiming at stimulating the efficiency of housekeeping business and representing consumer interest, it had close ties with a particular section of the consumer population, and heavily relied on the financial support of organizations working in the realm of housekeeping. Its focus therefore remained limited.17 The Dutch Consumer Association (Nederlandse Consumentenbond), in contrast, which was officially founded in January 1953, sought to represent all Dutch consumers. The association’s mission statement read that the institution was an independent and private organization which intended to supply consumers with information on both the quality and prices of goods and services, foster a general awareness of costs, and expose deals made between industry and sellers that could have negative repercussions for the consumer.18
Despite a strong argument in favor of this newly established organization, which Labor Party Member of Parliament Harry Peschar articulated during a debate on the budget for the Ministry of Economic Affairs, as well as a positive response by State Secretary Gerard Veldkamp, the foundation of the Consumer Association proved to be rather difficult. A request for a government grant of 30,000 guilders to fund it failed due to severe resistance by Confessional and Liberal parties. According to one Member of Parliament, the Consumer Association had enough members to fund itself, and it did not represent the entire Dutch consumer population.19 In its ‘frank commentary’, Catholic daily De Tijd suggested on 22 November 1954 that the Consumer Association was too inexperienced to be able to manage such a large amount of money. In addition, it argued, Parliament should prevent the organization from becoming a conglomerate of ‘masterminds’ who would prescribe ‘what kind of toothpaste we all should use’. Not only was such ‘paternalism’ believed to be unacceptable to Dutch consumers, it was also asserted that it would not serve their interest.20
Yet, despite this resistance, in the years to come, significant attempts to promote education and protection in order to steer consumers towards what was defined as ‘the right choice’ would come to be at the heart of new consumer movements in the Netherlands. The question at stake here was whether these customers acted as actual kings with true power, or whether companies and advertising industries were the ones in charge. It was at this time that the initial meaning of the king customer metaphor, as someone who had the right to choose and receive sound service, started to become critically scrutinized.
King customer and the quest for the favor of the consumer
The roots of the metaphor can be traced back to the United States at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, when social critics increasingly considered the consumer an important economic factor. In the early 1920s, liberal political thinkers in particular worked these ideas into new economic policies.21 From 1914 onwards, Charles Coolidge Parlin and other market researchers started to picture the marketplace as a ‘democracy of goods’ in which consumers could ‘vote’ and should perceive themselves as kings.22 The king customer metaphor gradually made its way into popular culture – on both sides of the Atlantic. Julias Elias, president of the British Advertising Association, contended in a public speech in 1938 that the largest value of advertising to society was ‘that it proclaimed the customer as king’. According to Elias, advertising constituted democracy since it offered to the marginalized ‘advantages denied even to kings and princes in the past’.23
In the Netherlands, the king customer metaphor entered the advertisement landscape in the 1920s. As an examination of the collection of digitized newspapers of the National Library of the Netherlands indicates, the metaphor appeared for the first time in a regional newspaper (see p. 102).24 Headed by the words ‘Ford=service’ and footed by the stock phrase ‘the customer is king’, the advertisement ensured readers that the car company held dear the principle of maintenance, and thus the problem of car trouble was minimized. The Ford-owner was to rely on the ‘expertise’ and ‘willingness’ of numerous Ford employees throughout the country. Ford’s employees fixed technical failures swiftly and cheaply in their Ford Service Stations, and used nothing but genuine parts. More so, he received the ‘highest value’ for his money, as Ford service ‘guaranteed’ user-friendliness and comfort. The Ford Motor Company departed from the conviction that it was impossible to do any business without customers. Since they gave the company its right to exist, the advertisement explained, Ford ‘always and everywhere foregrounds the interests of the customers’.25
In the economic context of selling and buying products, the Ford Motor Company attempted to increase its share of the Dutch consumer market by referring to potential Dutch customers as kings whose words were laws, and describing itself as the subordinate party. In its advertisements, the company made it look as if its own profit was irrelevant. The customers with their choice and demands mattered first and foremost. The English phrase ‘the customer is king’ was not translated into Dutch. It might have been left in English in order to give the advertorial a kind of exotic appearance. To be sure, the English word ‘service’ was not an anomaly in Dutch advertisements at that time, but its use increased from the early 1920s onwards. This was also true of the king customer metaphor.26 Yet, even though different brands and companies started to integrate it into their marketing strategies as well, many contemporaries continued to associate the metaphor with Ford.
On 27 January 1926, the English phrase seems to have been translated into Dutch for the first time. An anonymous letter to the editors of the Rotterdamse Courant complained about the sale of low quality products in local coffee shops. The author argued that every salesperson who sold inferior products was ignoring the English view that the customer was king. If consumers were not provided with the highest quality goods, they would not buy things. Shop-owners who disregarded the opinions and desires of their customers should simply close their shops, the letter argued, because in the end, it was only the decision of the buyer that led to profit.27
From the early 1930s onwards, king customer became a common figure in the Dutch advertising landscape, appearing in newspaper advertisements for a wide variety of products including clothing, cheese, fish, catering, cigars and cigarettes, lightning, glasses, insurance, beer, watches, furniture, and cars. The central narrative of these advertorials placed customers at the heart of the economy, and underlined the necessity of excellent service. ‘YOU are the one in charge’, a 1934 Brenninkmeijer advertisement for coats stressed (see p. 103). A pointing finger emphasized the core message: the customer was treated like a king at Lampe clothing company. A Kreymborg advertisement for suits published by Nieuwsblad van het Noorden on 27 May 1932 was among the first advertisements to convey the new saying in Dutch, a trend continued in the post-war years, for instance in a 1952 announcement by Boston cigarettes. As an arch constructed of Boston cigarettes depicted, the customer was indeed king when being served by Boston Cigarettes, now wrapped in a handy cardboard box (see p. 103). And as the quote from V&D figurehead Van der Ent at the beginning of this article suggested, the metaphor of king customer is still being used in this way today.28
Early supermarkets, which began to appear in the 1950s and swiftly replaced local grocers, highlighted not only their convenience and wide selections of products, but also the fact that the era in which someone behind the counter influenced the type of products one had to buy was over. Consumers had become able to make choices on their own.29 Even though sociologists have demonstrated that Dutch consumers made fairly similar choices over the last few decades, the freedom of consumers has evolved into a key ingredient of the self-image of modern Dutch society.30 According to German sociologist Ulrich Beck, consumption constitutes identities, since the availability of money allows people to escape from forms of social control, and should be regarded as a ticket to ‘the world outside’ someone’s own community.31
As briefly touched upon above, the particular conceptualization of the modern consumer as a king with the right to choose and receive solid service, as it emerged between the 1920s and the 1940s, was increasingly criticized from the 1950s on. Between the wars, Dutch ad-men and sales representatives had used the king customer metaphor in order to ‘empower’ the consumer, but their advertising strategies had by no means been part of a broader discussion on the societal, economic, and political role of the consumer. In the 1950s and especially the 1960s, when consumption and consumerism grew into topics of public and political debate, an emerging consumer rights movement claimed to unmask this alleged form of empowerment as a brutal strategy of maximizing profits and a deceptive manner of making uninformed citizens buy mediocre products or engage in unnecessary consumption. The first ever consumer rights show in the Netherlands, in October 1965, was meaningfully entitled King Customer. Journalists behind this show contended that the consumer should become a real king by getting hold of ‘objective’ information on products and services, and that proponents of the advertising industry acted as the ‘enemies of our kingship’.32 The two conceptualizations of the consumer as king not only differed in that they disagreed on the actual status of consumers as being kings. They also outlined different avenues to becoming or remaining king.
King customer and the quest for the citizen-consumer
The ascent of consumer education and protection in the Netherlands, with the Dutch Consumer Association turning ‘the right to choose’ into ‘the right choice’ from 1953 onwards, fitted into a larger transnational development in which institutions operated as key vehicles of thought and social action: the Consumers Union (1936) in the United States, the Union Fédérale des Consommateurs (1951) in France, and the Consumer Association (1956) in Britain, to name a few.
A distinctive feature of the development of the consumer rights movement in Western Europe was a strengthening of bonds with social democratic politicians, particularly, in the 1950s and 1960s. As historian Lawrence Black has pointed out in the British case, Labor’s leading thinker Antony Crosland gained a detailed knowledge of consumer issues in the early 1950s, when he became closely involved with the Consumer Association (CA). This association left an imprint on his understanding of consumer politics and participatory activism. What united Crosland and CA-representatives was a firm belief that markets could be shaped to meet the preferences of consumers, and that the views of well-informed, rational consumers were to be preferred to so-called ‘paternalist’ approaches to modern consumerism.33 Interestingly, several founders of the Dutch Consumer Association were active members of the Dutch Labor Party. And even though De Tijd newspaper warned against a possible paternalism within the association, too, its members were inclined to enlighten consumers rather than telling them what not to do.34
According to Crosland, affluence, choice, and self-fulfillment should be the guiding principles of modern socialism. In his 1956 revisionist manifesto The Future of Socialism, he declared the era of traditional socialism to be over. Because traditional capitalism was ‘reformed and modified almost out of existence’, the socialist ‘finds himself pinioned by a new, unforeseen reality’. A majority of the population had gradually attained a middle-class standard of living. Consequently, Crosland held, old appeals to working-class solidarity had to be regarded as outdated. Instead, middle class values such as personal freedom and cultural endeavor were gaining political prominence. In light of a rise of prosperity and the emergence of a consumer culture, Labor’s leading thinker understood the modern world as one in which a former working class had fully emancipated.35
A similar development took place in the Dutch labor party. In a 1951 report entitled The Road to Freedom, the party’s scientific bureau argued that prevailing socialist modes of thought should be reconsidered thoroughly. According to the editor of the report, economist Joop den Uyl, new perspectives on the near future had to be opened up now that the construction of the welfare state was edging towards completion. The report underscored the role of the state in economic matters other than the distribution of goods and services. In order to guarantee universal welfare and freedom, the state had to strengthen social cohesion, moral sustenance, and cultural vitality. Old boundaries between middle and working class should be crossed, den Uyl argued, since the government had to ensure equal opportunities for all.36 In his 1954 book The Proletarian Rearguard, influential sociologist Jacques van Doorn concluded similarly that the last remains of what once was the lower working class would soon adopt middle-class values and standards of living.37
Both Crosland and Den Uyl tapped into a strong socialist tradition of reasoning: a general rise of affluence could contribute to a weakening of the competitive spirit of man, and pave the way for a more humane and respectful society. Prosperity for all, they believed, would mean that envy and competition would be less of a factor in civil life. In the late 1950s, however, discussions of affluence and consumption often took on a rather pessimistic character. Consumption was believed to lead to degeneration. In her groundbreaking work on the human condition, philosopher Hannah Arendt stated that, ‘one hundred years after Marx’, the fallacy of his argumentation had become clear. Instead of investing spare time and growing income into self-fulfillment through education, modern man primarily pursued maximizing consumption. The more time, the greedier and more craving his appetites.38 In a similar vein, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith described a postwar consumer’s utopia as a fool’s paradise in his 1958 book The Affluent Society:
The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards, and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground. They pass on into a countryside that has been rendered largely invisible by commercial billboards [...] They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable ice-box by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings. Is this, indeed, the American genius?39
Here, the flipside of a new consumer’s utopia was highlighted, not only by contrasting expanding private wealth with a poor state of the public sector, but also by suggesting that a growth in consumption could have devastating environmental effects.
In 1963, a working group chaired by Den Uyl published a report entitled On the Quality of Existence, in which these ideas were incorporated. Like Galbraith, Den Uyl argued that increased consumption and production could never be the final test of social achievement. Both consumption and production had to serve the general good.40 At the same time, Dutch economists Jan Pen and Pieter Bouwman were contemplating what they perceived as some of the serious disadvantages of economic growth. Concerns regarding the environment went hand in hand with worries about individual wellbeing. Modern consumers, they noted in 1961, were confronted with increased spending possibilities and needed to be guided through the ever-expanding maze of hidden persuasion set up by advertisers. ‘Modern patterns of consumption’, Pen and Bouwman concluded, posed a ‘continuous challenge’ for society.41 This is exactly where consumer organizations came into play. These institutions ought to shape ‘citizen-consumers’ by informing them so that they were able to responsibly handle the options which rising incomes and increased leisure time provided them with. It is worth noting that this idea, while seemingly promoting freedom, nevertheless contained elements of paternalism.
Shortly after being appointed Minister of Economic Affairs in 1965, Den Uyl established the Committee for Consumer Affairs (Commissie voor Consumenten-aangelegenheden). In its formative years, this institution advised the Dutch government on comparative consumer testing, the labelling of products, and the transparency of the consumer market. Yet, Den Uyl envisioned the committee as playing an even bigger role in guiding citizen’s consumption. In his opening address to the Committee, he stated that the new institution should research the ‘true needs of the modern consumer’. Den Uyl wanted the committee to not only make consumers aware of the wide range of choices, but also advise the government on ensuring that they would make ‘the right choice’ in the end.42
Similar, albeit slightly less paternalistic, lines of reasoning about the modern consumer prevailed within the socio-democratic broadcasting company VARA in the 1950s and at the beginning of the 1960s. As early as in the first half of the 1950s, the by-weekly radio show De Ducdalf focused on questions regarding products, prices, and customer service. In 1959, VARA launched a radio series in which employees of the Dutch Consumer Association informed the public about certain products and services. From the early 1960s onwards, the idea of developing a television show on consumer affairs under the flag of King Customer took shape.43 In the opinion of VARA journalists André van der Louw and Tom Pauka, who came up with the idea for the show, their broadcast company had the duty to inform the public about the ‘deplorable state of affairs’ in contemporary society. King Customer proved to be an audio-visual avenue to turning this duty into reality. As a result of an increasing variety of consumer goods available and the evolution of advertising techniques, many people were thought to have become unable to judge the price-quality-ratio of their purchases, concluded a 1962 VARA documentary on modern consumerism.44 Gerrit Eerenberg, King Customer’s editor-in-chief, his companion Wil van der Smagt, and the first female presenters Hedy d’Ancona, Elles Berger, and Netty Rosenfeld believed that this situation should be changed. King Customer built on the intellectual work of economists such as Pen, Bouwman, and Den Uyl. It had become more and more accepted that consumers should be informed and trained to be critical about consumption. This particular conceptualization of the consumer as a king corresponded with the idea of ‘engaged journalism’ that was broadly supported at VARA from the early 1960s onwards, and which strengthened VARA journalists in their attempt to act as watchdogs of truth, or trustees of the informed citizen.45
King customer: modern consumerism or tiny problems?
In the early 1970s, the idea that all human behavior rested upon rational choice and economic calculation started taking precedence over the immediate post-war view that the state and institutions also bore responsibility for protecting the rights of consumers.46 Neo-liberal economic thinking, which gained considerable support in academia and politics in the wake of the oil-crisis in the mid 1970s and the following ‘crisis of welfarism’, put the post-war economic consensus that the state should have a role in consumption under pressure. Economists increasingly accepted consumption as part and parcel of modern life, understanding consumers as rational individuals.47
Ideas about consumption and the consumer thus shifted from politicized towards ‘depoliticized’. Some political leaders, too, came to argue that individual citizens were best placed to assess what was good for them. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, the communis opinio came to hold that governments should refrain from playing any role in matters of consumption, letting the markets, and thus supposedly the consumers, take control.48 This is not to say, however, that the rights of individual consumers were no longer deemed in need of protection. Yet, governments were told not to determine which products had to be bought, and encouraged not to perceive consumers as a group in need of affirmative action.
It is to these transformations in economic and political thinking that King Customer journalists had to relate their show somehow. First and foremost, the editors of the show focused on informing the consumer about ‘ill- or uninformed’ consumption and its repercussions on society as a whole. Here, the narrative on the informed consumer as an important political force dominated their work. All too soon, however, the editorial board of the show concluded consumerism to be more about ‘tiny daily problems’ in the lives of individual consumers. As Wim Boskoop, one of the members of the editorial board, wrote in an internal memorandum in December 1976, people had ‘finally discovered that solutions to their little irritations, which make their lives so difficult, do often exist’. King Customer was there to help overcome these minor problems by bringing them front and center.49 In this way, Boskoop and his colleagues sought to downplay what they deemed over-politicized consumption.
In October 1965, King Customer was broadcast for the very first time. The subjects of its first show were high meat prices and advertising on laundry detergents.50 Potential legal repercussions led the show to adopt a cautious policy, and prompted artistic director Gerrit Schilder to frequently refer to a legal specialist. Seemingly spontaneous conversations were scripted down to the smallest detail.51 In order to address basic consumer problems, and encourage the viewers as emancipated and perhaps even suspicious consumers, the overall character of King Customer was serious yet not didactic.52 Due to a limited budget, King Customer journalists were unable to invest money in conducting consumer research themselves.53 They had in fact little other choice than to forge alliances with the Dutch Consumer Association and similar institutions. Several recurring items made the show famous throughout the country. Whereas the attention of the viewers was directed towards buying during the weekends in ‘Calculated’ (Uitgerekend), ‘The Bad Bargain of the Month’ (Miskoop van de maand) focused on consumers who had bought malfunctioning cars. In ‘Know Your Rights’ (Ken Uw recht), viewers learned about legal aspects of modern consumerism.
King Customer attracted some critical acclaim. In January 1975, during the International Consumer Festival in Berlin, the European Economic Community awarded a special prize to the journalists behind the show. In the Netherlands, the show won recognition as well. An internal memorandum on the period 1965–1976 suggests that viewers valued King Customer on average more highly (with a score of approximately 74/100) than any other informative show broadcast on Dutch television (approximately 69–70/100). The show, which normally lasted for about half an hour, attracted a considerable number of viewers. Between 1965 and 1976, it had an average viewing index of 28. This meant that on average 28 percent of all the Dutch persons aged 15 and over with a television at home watched at least half of the show.54
According to Huub Wijfjes, the author of VARA’s ‘biography’, King Customer mainly attempted to activate a general consumer awareness by providing information and advice, thereby playing a minor role in the 1960s and 1970s in civic activism, and, in the end, a structural improvement of ordinary lives. Wijfjes’s conclusion built to a great extent on a comparison of King Customer and The Ombudsman (De Ombudsman), another VARA television show. Drawing inspiration from the Scandinavian political system with its ombudsman, who was supposed to give a voice to the ‘common man’, this show started in 1969 by addressing the refusal of the Dutch national telephone company to install telephones in the homes of elderly people. According to presenter Marcel van Dam, such forms of ‘conflict, sadness, and defeat’ needed to be shown to the entire nation, in order to provoke substantial change. The Ombudsman grew into a combination of a pressure group and a welfare organization. Strikingly, the advisory board of the VARA called on Van Dam self-censor the show because of its widespread influence.55King Customer was indeed less dynamic and vigorous than The Ombudsman. And true, King Customer primarily sought to shape citizen-consumers by providing them with ‘factual’ data and advice on products and services. Still, it is important not to underestimate its impact, as it familiarized millions with a specific, critical reading of the king customer narrative. Telling on this score is that the show cropped up in political discussions, too. Even though King Customer did not provoke a fundamental debate on modern consumerism, it was repeatedly used in the Dutch Parliament to provide evidence of popular tendencies.56
The programme’s biggest victory in the area of civic activism seemingly was a reduction of the motorized vehicle tax for natural gas vehicles. According to presenters Gerrit Eerenberg and Letty Kosterman, driving a natural gas vehicle had three advantages.57 Gas was cheaper than petrol. Gas hardly contained additional materials such as lead, meaning that the emission was cleaner. And gas extended the longevity of the car engine. But these advantages were not without disadvantages. In natural gas powered vehicles, both the acceleration speed and the top speed were lower. In addition, a person driving a gas vehicle had to pay more motorised vehicle tax because natural gas fuel systems were heavier than their equivalents in petrol powered engines. As King Customer demonstrated in 1977, the way in which this tax was calculated did not reflect the actual weight of a vehicle, yet this was supposedly the means by which the amount of tax to be paid was determined. State Secretary Martin van Rooijen from the Ministry of Finance reacted to this by promising altered measurement procedures. This victory of King Customer of behalf of the ‘common man’ was celebrated in a VARA press release. The example is interesting because it elucidates the previously mentioned shift towards ‘de-politicizing’ tendencies in the king customer narrative over the course of the 1970s. That is, it demonstrates how VARA journalists increasingly made broader socio-economic and environmental arguments subordinate to a possible gain of the individual consumer.
In this article, we have focused on the genealogy of the king customer narrative in an attempt to enrich the existing historiography on consumption in the Netherlands. The metaphor of king customer acted as a key messenger. Disseminated by advertorials and a popular television show, it reached mass audiences from the 1920s onwards. The figure of the king led all kinds of historical actors to engage in reflecting upon the idea of trading, selling, or buying products and services – from shop keepers, ad-men, and politicians, to journalists, market researchers, and customers – and to understand economics in terms of action, sometimes even politics.
At least two overarching conceptualizations of the modern consumer as a king aimed at persuading individuals in an era of mass consumption. In the interwar years, transnational transfer linked an emerging Dutch consumer society with developments in advertising in America. The immediate post-war years saw an increase of political awareness of consumer issues in terms of a desire to shape citizen-consumers, especially in the circles of social democrats such as Joop den Uyl, as well as a related transnational evolution of the consumer rights movement. In the Netherlands, these developments inspired VARA journalists in the 1960s to enter into the discursive field opened up by shopkeepers and salesmen in the 1920s. From 1965 onwards, they used King Customer as an audio-visual vehicle to warn against what they perceived as the ‘quasi-objectivity’ of the advertising industry. The journalists encouraged people to identify themselves as persons who not only had the right to choose but also the rights to be properly informed and heard, and ultimately make the right choices. Hence, king customer came to function as a crucial intellectual and narrative building block of a collective action of the consumer. Over the course of the 1970s, consumption was more and more depoliticized. VARA journalists, who had formerly aimed at politicizing consumers, moved away from a focus on the consequences of ‘ill- or uninformed’ consumers for the development of society as a whole, and began to focus on ‘tiny daily problems’ in the lives of individual consumers.
It was a discursive hollowness that has made the king customer metaphor so attractive. Like notions such as secularization, this metaphor could be easily ‘filled’ with any amalgam of ideas and meanings over time. The strong behavioral implications of the metaphor, which encouraged people to question and seize actual power, explain its discursive strength to a considerable degree. To shopkeepers and salesmen, the figure of king customer proved to be appealing to make sense of consumers, consumption, and the consumer society as a whole because it enabled them to symbolically equate the economic act of consuming with the political ones of exerting power and enjoying certain privileges.58 To early King Customer journalists such as André van der Louw and Tom Pauka, the king seemed to personify the tyranny of modern consumer society. And to some of their later colleagues, perhaps most notably Wim Boskoop, the modern man had to be assisted in solving his everyday problems in order to turn him into a king. By attributing such new meanings to the metaphor of king customer, transnationally traveling ideas on consumption were appropriated and re-interpreted in a distinctive national context.