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KAI RYSSDAL: So how did thrift get to be a vice, and consumption a virtue? It wasn't all that long ago Americans had to be taught to consume, too. Our sustainability reporter Sarah Gardner brings us a slice of the story.
Sarah Gardner: My mom's about to make a pie -- and in her book, that requires Crisco. Not butter, not lard, not some generic shortening. Crisco.
Mom Gardner: Because I like it, because it's all vegetable, and it's really better for your health, I think.
Mom: a marketers dream -- and a product of marketing history, too. See, Crisco maker Procter & Gamble was a pioneer in the emerging science of creating demand. Historian Susan Strasser says the Crisco experiment started in 1911, when the company was selling Ivory soap. Cottonseed oil was a key ingredient.
Susan Strasser: And they decided to develop a product that would use a lot more cottonseed oil, so that they could control that market, really.
P&G's scientists came up with this white, fluffy substance. It sort of resembled lard, and yet had no taste and no smell. It wasn't food, exactly, but the company would ask consumers to bake and fry with it. Thus began an American mass-marketing milestone.
Strasser: Originally, they tried to call it Crispo, but then they discovered that a cracker factory already had the trademark.
P&G hawked its new product as a "scientific discovery." The company sent free samples to every grocer in America. They held Crisco teas -- an early version of the focus group. P&G even niche-marketed the product as kosher to the Jewish community.
Strasser: One of the rabbis -- the Cincinnati rabbi -- famously said that the Hebrew race had been waiting 4,000 years for Crisco.
Marketing scholar David Stewart says P&G's genius was not only giving people a convincing reason to try the product but training them to use it as well, with free cookbooks and recipes.
David Stewart: First of all, they focused on the health benefits -- recognizing that this was a time we didn't know about transfat and so forth. And then they taught people how to use it, they taught people how to cook. They gave them ideas. And between giving them a real benefit and information about how to use the product, they were able to get people to adopt it.
Crisco's crowning achievement was creating demand for something nobody knew they wanted. That's the cornerstone of the consumer economy, after all.
Vintage Crisco Ad: "Keep cookin' with Crisco. It's all vegetable. It's digestible!"
Gary Cross: All of this really gave women a new role in society, particularly as consumers.
Historian Gary Cross pioneering mass marketers like Procter & Gamble won over American housewives with their persuasive pitches.
Vintage Crisco Ad: "You women kinda have your hands full these days." "Well, it's the truth, isn't it, friends?"
But women were eager pupils of the emerging consumer economy, too. Women may have lacked political power in those early days, but the new consumerism gave them economic influence like never before, particularly during World War II.
Vintage Crisco Ad: "There's so much volunteer work to do for the war even the children are helping out. Honestly, with a little Crisco in your frying pan, you can have supper on the table in a jiffy."
Funny, that's what my mom says, too. Her Crisco cherry pie has been a fixture in the family for half a century now. P&G may have created the demand for this fluffy, white stuff -- but ultimately, it's consumers like my mom who decide whether products end up a flash in the pan or one of life's necessities.
I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.