A Century of Service


Talking about the Better Business Bureau, the president said, “Your bureaus have not relied on propaganda extolling the virtues of business. They have gone to work to clean out the shady areas in the commercial world.”

If you assumed this was President Obama speaking, you’d be about 60 years too late. It was Harry Truman and he was speaking almost 40 years after the organization was founded. The organization is celebrating a milestone few organizations achieve – its 100th anniversary.

The defining moment that led to the formation of the BBB occurred in a courtroom in the early 1900s. Samuel Dobbs, the sales manager and later president of Coca-Cola, was listening to the company’s attorney defend it against charges of false advertising (later thrown out). Dobbs was shocked to hear the attorney say, “Why all advertising is exaggerated. Nobody really believes it.”

Dobbs became a fervent advocate for complete truth in advertising and his efforts led to the adoption of “The Ten Commandments of Advertising.” Ad clubs set up vigilance committees to eliminate abuses and set standards in advertising. A national vigilance committee established in 1912 became the Better Business Bureau.

The BBB still deals with many of the same ethical problems that occupied its early years. Modern-day snake oil salesmen sell miracle cures for all kinds of ailments, although the marketing medium is now the Internet instead of a peddler’s wagon. Ponzi schemes, which got their name from a 1920s predecessor of Bernie Madoff, continue to victimize investors hoping for above-market returns on their money.

Today’s consumers, however, are overwhelmed with far more advertising messages and potentially dubious offers than people 100 years ago. Internet commerce, mobile marketing and social networking have changed the way we buy and sell products.

Consumers have become more cautious and uncertain about which businesses to trust. The BBB has adapted its services throughout the past 100 years to help consumers and businesses navigate today’s marketplace.

We still review ads for compliance with the BBB Code of Advertising, an accepted industry standard. Consumers checking out a business before entrusting it with their money will request more than 750,000 BBB Business Review reports on local companies this year. Those who want to deal with a reputable business but don’t have a specific one in mind will request more than 150,000 rosters of BBB Accredited Businesses in all kinds of industries. We’ll work with consumers and businesses to try and resolve more than 6,000 complaints.

Through our Auto Line program, we help consumers resolve problems with new cars that fall under the provisions of state lemon laws. Programs launched by the Better Business Bureau in recent years include the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which promotes healthier food choices for children; and Military Line, which provides specialized consumer protection services to military families.

I opened with a quote from Harry Truman and will close with a quote from President Ronald Reagan about the BBB: “Your work is critical in helping to ensure that the traditional high ethical standards of the American business community continue to be observed in consumer affairs.”

Hutchinson is president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South.