Monday, December 24, 2007

Victor Lebow's Complete Original 1955 Article

  • The article is at the end of this post.
  • The article appears to be in the vein it is quoted - more a prescription of how retailers will have to market things than a critique of capitalism. But the quote itself shows he had a macro perspective as well as a micro perspective
  • I haven't been able to find much more about Victor Lebow.
  • There is the 1972 book titled, Free Market: The Opiate of the American People. Perhaps he got disillusioned about American business and this quote was an early insight he had.
  • Are there any students of Lebow? Family? If you ever see this please help fill in the missing links.
  • Kevin, this post is all your fault. Thanks.

[January 30, 2008 Update: I've just received and posted Lebow's bio from the 1972 book, Free Enterprise: The Opiate of the American People.]

[Update 13 May 2009: Yesterday's NYT article on Story of Stuff seems to have brought more than the regular number visitors here. Hundredgoals has given a link to a much easier to read pdf version of the 1955 article in a comment today.]

In a previous post I raised questions about a quote by Victor Lebow. Was this the serious blueprint for American business to insinuate consumerism into the spiritual center of American life or a critique of modern capitalism?

Most of the links I googled looked like they all linked back to the same source. There was no contemporary discussion of the 1955 article on line. The University library nearby didn't have the Journal of Retailing on line back to 1955, but did have hard copies. But then I found a 1972 book by Victor Lebow called Free Enterprise: The Opium of the American People. It seemed to me that someone writing a book with that title must have have written the above paragraph as a critique, not as a prescription. I decided not to follow up and find the original article.

But I got an email from Kevin in Chicago who was trying to track it down too. So I went to the library today. Got the microfiche and found the article. It looks like a serious retailing article, talks about the 1955 marketing year and what retailers are going to have to do. It's in that context the above quote is written. There is no electronic version available, and the copier connected to the microfiche wasn't working very well, so I ended up taking pictures. I still haven't figured out how to post pdf files on blogger, so I'm going to post the pictures of the microfiche screen. (See below)

In the midst of all this there was a fire alarm in the library and everyone had to evacuate. A staff person, it turned out, had burnt popcorn in the microwave. That all took about 40 minutes.

Googling today I've found a 1944 article:

The Nature of Postwar Retail Competition

Victor Lebow Journal of Marketing, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jul., 1944), pp. 11-18. [The link gets you page 1]

An OCTOBER 13, 1976 Manas Reprint article "MOTIVES OR METHODS?" that talks about a Victor Lebow book review of Robert Heilbroner's Business Civilization in Decline. Here Lebow appears as a critique of modern business culture, and is qouted writing, for example,
Capitalism is already showing signs that it can no longer generate the social morale so essential to continued existence. It is true that it has freed probably more than half the American people from scarcity and want. But at the heart of this business civilization is a "hollowness"—everything is evaluated in money terms. "Or consider advertising, perhaps the most value-destroying activity of a business civilization." That hollowness is further emphasized by the low estimation business places on the value of work, which it sees as a means to an end—not the true end in itself for that is profit, income, economic growth. Nor is industrial socialism immune to this outlook, for its roots lie "in machine process and worship of efficiency." Under a business culture [civilization as Heilbroner puts it sharply]. Stuffed into the dustbin of history would be[the values] of output are celebrated and those of input merely calculated."

Then there is a totally different sort of reference to a Victor Lebow. This is about a 1942 Wichita Kansas East High graduate who was part of a fantasy Martian Empire that was created in 1937, by the website owner's older brother.

My brother James was 13, and in the eighth grade at Robinson Junior High School in Wichita, Kansas. And in his mind he was fashioning a cosmic empire filled with strange and wonderful creatures and races — in which a stalwart group of Exiles from the planet Mars were the chief actors and heroes.

This Empire, the Martian Empire, eventually spread over most of the known Universe before it finally faded around 1948. During the eleven years it flourished, however, the Martian Epic became very elaborate — covering some 15 billion years of Martian history — and Martian technology, manners and morals, art, music, religion, language and literature. And it generated a narrative Epic that encompassed many galaxies.

Among the members of this empire he identifies Victor Lebow and includes a picture.

Victor Lebow: At East High: he was usually on the Honor Roll, was a member of the Nationally Honor Society, and a semi-finalist for the Summerfield Scholarship. At WU: he belonged to the Independent Students’ Association and Aesculapius.

I emailed Lee Streiff, the website owner, but the email came back undeliverable. [later: I guess that's because of this:
Thornton Lee Streiff, 72, died Sunday, August 1, 2004 in Wichita, KS. No service was held.]

This Victor Lebow graduated high school in 1942 and it is unlikely he would have authored an article in a business journal in 1944. He could be the author of the 1972 book on Free Enterprise. And the Lebow quoted in the Manas article above. But the Manas quote echoes thoughts from the original quote. It's probably a different Victor Lebow.

Meanwhile here are the bad copies of the original 1955 article that the quote comes from. The famous quotation comes from page 7, right column. There is a chunk that was skipped over, but it really doesn't change the tenor of the quote. But I saved these as high res photos so you should be able to click them and get them in readable = not good, but readable - size.

[Jan. 7, 2008 - Thanks to Nathan, one of the commenters on this post, I now have an account at where you can park word, pdf., and other files. So I cleaned up these photos and saved them as a pdf. file. You can enlarge the document in the window or even download it. This should make reading it easier. I'll leave one or two of the old pages up so you can see the difference. It's on p. 5-10 in the journal, then skips to 42, then a part of page 44. The oft quoted part is on p. 7.]

[January 4, 2021:  This post, and I'm sure many others, is the victim of the demise of FLASH.  I'll have to figure out how to retrieve some of these documents in a still usable form.  Thanks for your patience.] [A little later:  That wasn't hard. SCRBD has figured it out and I just went back to SCRBD and the new embedding code works fine.]

p.5 of the journal / (p.1 of the article)above


  1. When I read that quote, I too thought that it sounded descriptive, rather than prescriptive.

    Your investigative work was great. The internet documentary, The Story of Stuff, acts as if Lebow is some capitalist elder of zion, when in fact he was just an academic, and a critical one at that.

    Don't get me wrong, The Story of Stuff was mostly really well done. I'm just glad you set the record straight.

  2. Wow. Thanks so much for all your sleuthing! I was just watching the "story of stuff", and rather bothered by some aspects of this, including this quote. The fact that no one seems to be able to identify really well who this guy was (is?) is telling. If someone wants, I'm sure one can always find someone, in any age, who is for or against some ideology. Retelling their words later without context can be quite misleading. Sigh.
    My understanding is that there was a lot going on after WWII, and unlikely any single individual had as much influence as this quote seems to imply.

  3. Edward and David (names are so much nicer than Anonymous, even if they aren't real) Glad you found this exercise useful.

    My guess is that Lebow was a pretty smart guy who got a business degree. The article really is, on one level, pretty mundane. What's 1955 going to be like for retailers? He talks about different products and how they might sell. But he was also able to step back and very concisely capture the essence of marketing in the US - making consuming a spiritual activity.

    I don't think he was any sort of guru and that the business world ate up his words as the story of stuff implies, but he was part of the process and was describing how he saw things. It would be interesting to know how this quote came to the attention of the people who are using it today.

    While I personally try to be accurate, if the likes of Rush Limbaugh doesn't like you, they'll make something up to trash you if you don't have your own errors to exploit.

  4. Thanks so much for doing all this work and posting it. I'll see if I can get hold of a better-quality copy of the article through a college library. If I do, and if I can get it into decent PDF form, I'll send you a copy and maybe post it to or something.


  5. Nathan, Thanks so much for letting me know about I've been looking for a place to store written documents for the blog and no one's answered that question. I'm already a member. Thanks.

  6. Hi Steve,
    I want to add my thanks for your research. I was also wondering whether Lebow's words were prescriptive or a form of warning. I checked a lot of websites, including 2 that said Lebow was speaking critically and giving warning, one of which also said Lebow was an environmentalist, but there were no further details. It seems more like the jury is still out on whether he was in favor or against the kind of movement he saw in the American economy. I have wondered for a long time - who/what is BEHIND all of the interlocking features of the economy [including war], and was hoping the Lebow quote would provide some answers. Perhaps knowing the source - the why is our economy the way it is? - is not so important or even answerable. The more important question is what shall I/all of us do to move toward a sustainable future. Thanks again.
    - Heena

  7. Thanks Heena, can you email those links that say a little more about him? My email link is in the profile. Also, check out the window I added on this post with the file. Much easier to read.

  8. Thanks, Steve!

    Several years ago, I wrote an article using the infamous Victor Lebow consumption quote. Unfortunately, like so many others, I assumed, and subsquently implied in the article, that Lebow was promoting that "consume, consume, consume" mentality.

    A few years later, someone called me to inform me that Lebow was not, in fact, in favor of this state of affairs--just wryly observing its existence. The caller said he was writing a paper about Lebow and that he would forward a draft to me when it was done. I never heard from him again.

    But your inclusion of the entire article and subsequent writing leads me to conclude that my caller was probably right.

    I feel bad for (most likely) having slandered him in painting him as a myopic cheerleader of overconsumption.

  9. Nice job! Thanks for taking the time to do it.

  10. Excellent digging for facts. What I find curious is that Mr Lebow is such an obscure figure, despite the fact that his famous quote seems to sum up pretty well the state of capitalism in the US and to a lesser degree Europe as far as consumerism is concerned. Not even Wikipedia has an article on him. On another note, his article taken in totality clearly indicates that he was a firm believer in the consumption ideas he espouses.

  11. Excellent work. Thanks for taking the time. This sort of digging makes the internet worth it.

  12. Good work! I found a very well-researched book about the creation of this consumer culture, written by Lizabeth Cohen:
    She traces the choice for consumption back to a consensus between groups, not to a sinister body of mean industrialists.

  13. Wow, Thank you for researching all you could. I too found Victor's comment to be disturbing and felt the need to look it up.

    I like the burnt popcorn part.

  14. I think the question is not whether or not Mr Lebow's quote was "the blueprint" for American business, but whether or not it reflects the general spirit of the time.

    After all, Annie Leonard said that Victor Lebow was a "retailing analyst" and that he "articulated", rather than developed, "the solution that has become the norm for the whole system."

  15. Anonymous, I agree that ultimately whether Lebow designed this or critiqued it is not that important to the whole message.

    But I went back and listened to the section on consumption. Annie says:

    "How did this [doubling of consumption] happen? It didn’t just happen. It was designed. Shortly after WW II these guys [picture of cartoon fat cat with $ and black hat] were figuring out how to ramp up the economy. Retail analyst Victor Lebow articulated the solution that has become the norm for the whole system.”

    It's my reading of things that Lebow was not offering a solution, but was sneaking in a satiric comment, and his later book on Free Enterprise as the Opium of the American People seems to strongly support my interpretation.

    If you were Lebow and were now being blamed for designing the culture of consumerism when, in fact, you were highly critical of it, you would want the record set straight. That's all I'm trying to do here.

    The Story of Stuff message is strong enough with maligning Lebow.

    I could be wrong and I'm waiting for anyone to offer other evidence.

  16. I believe I am the person Dave T is referring to above. I have done a fair amount of research on Mr. Lebow, dating back to my first becoming familiar with the infamous quote when reading the book 'How Much is Enough', which was published by The Worldwatch Institute sometime in the early 1990s. I believe the author(s) of that book found the quote, out of context, in another book written in the mid-sixties (see below).

    The problem is that I became disabled at about the time I began to do my research. I have since been divorced, and my research is located somewhere in my house in a box, and I have no idea where it is, and until I am able to afford surgery, I am physically unable to find it. Therefore, I will simply provide you with a brief summary of what I found. I will attempt to get back with more information in the future, as soon as I am able to locate my research-- or unless one of you beats me to it.

    After reading 'How Much is Enough' around 1991, and seeing the quote, for years I was intrigued by it. Many times I sat down to write something critical of consumerism which included the quote, but there was always something about it which bothered me. I decided that until I could find the actual article and read the quote in context, it would be highly un-scholarly of me to use it-- I was trained in better historical research techniques than that. Unfortunately, before I could locate these materials, in 1994 I moved out to the middle of nowhere in western Kansas, with no access to a decent library anywhere within hours of driving-- and certainly not one which would have fifty year-old copies of an obscure journal like the one in which Lebow published his articles. However, a good friend of mine in Lawrence, Kansas-- with whom I had already been discussing the problem of Victor Lebow and his astounding quote for several years at the time-- was able to locate copies of Lebow's articles deep in the stacks at the KU School of Business library-- and he was kind enough to copy and send several of them to me. I believe this was in about 2001 or 2002. I was quite astounded by what I found in those articles.

    At about the same time, I got hooked up to the internet for the first time. This was about 2002 or 2003, I believe. I did a search on Victor Lebow, and up popped literally hundreds of references to this ONE quote, but nothing else. Talk about inbreeding. This thing had spread like a bad case of venereal disease-- and just like is often the case with venereal disease-- all the improper citations could be traced back to one original 'infection'. I was shocked at the number of people who were using the quote without having read a single one of Lebow's papers. It was at that time that I began to email people, and contacted a few people who listed phone numbers, to see if they really had any knowledge about Lebow or not. No one, it seems had taken the time to verify the context of this quote. Very few had even tracked the quote as cited in 'How Much is Enough' to another book written in the mid-1960s (I believe- as I said above, I don't have access to the exact facts here, folks), which I believe was called 'The Merchants of Greed', 'The Greed Merchants', or something like that. This was the earliest reference I could find to Lebow outside of the actual articles he wrote for the Journal of Retailing and the book mentioned in the blog entry above, and it was this book that is cited in 'How Much is Enough'. I cannot even find my copy of 'How Much is Enough'-- I'm afraid it is in the lost box with my research-- somewhere next to the box containing the Lost Ark of the Covenant from the Indiana Jones movie, I guess. My basement looks a lot like that warehouse.

    To make a long story short-- Victor Lebow was a prophet. He has been slandered by all who have used this infamous quote to paint him as a cheerleader for consumerism when in fact he was one of the first-- if not the first-- to see the future implications of its corrosive influence. The fact that so many people, organizations, and websites have used his quote completely out of context and nearly all got the quote from the SAME source should give people GREAT pause-- and should be an object lesson in scholarship for progressive people. Don't believe everything you read. And don't write articles or create websites using materials you haven't primary sourced, either.

    Lebow coined the term 'draft consumption' to describe the new paradigm which he saw developing-- just as a fireplace uses a self-feeding 'updraft' to clear the smoke from the top of the chimney as it is produced by the fire and draw oxygen in to feed the fire at the bottom of the chimney, Lebow saw how mass advertising and mass production were going to create a self-feeding orgy of artifically created desire, fed by cheap but shoddy goods designed to rapidly wear out and require replacement, presented in irresistable displays of overwhelming temptation in stores specially designed for the purpose.

    Lebow had been a seller of fine hosiery in the 1920s and 1930s but had been driven out of business by the rise of such retail outlets as Woolworth's-- which was the prototype of Wal-Mart-- stocked as they were with cheaper, more mass produced, and lower-quality goods. Lebow correctly saw the arrival of such stores as being the sign of impending death for purveyers of better quality mass-produced goods (like himself) AND the traditional 'department store' which sold those higher-quality goods and which had ruled American commerce since before the Civil War, when the 'department store itself had begun to replace the previous paradigm-- the 'general store'-- which sold 'hard goods' and 'soft goods' like flour, sugar, coffee, kerosene, cooking utensils, liquor and cloth-- everything-- in bulk, from the very same containers in which the commodity had originally been shipped. Pickles sold from barrels. Crackers sold in large tins. These were small stores stacked from floor to ceiling with bulk goods, with the owners and employees busily filling out orders as people dropped them off and then went off for an afternoon of doing their banking, visiting the cobbler, seamstress, blacksmith, etc-- or taking care of what ever other business they might have in town, coming back later to pick up their requested supplies-- much like in the old Western movies which depict that era.

    But the Civil War gave birth to a new industrial base-- and the mass manufacture of armaments gave way-- with peacetime and greater modernity-- to the mass manufacture of goods for mass consumption. The writing was on the wall for the various local manufacturers, artisans, and craftsmen mentioned above-- as well as the 'general store' itself-- and the 'department store' was the perfect replacement from which to sell larger quantities and varieties of factory produced, mass-manufactured products, many previously obtained or manufactured locally, and stocked in local stores along Main Street. The railroads, big steel, big oil-- all appeared at this time. The 'Robber Barons' were soon followed by 'The Gay 90s'-- America's first binge of real consumerism-- and real cocaine-laced Coca Cola. This era was punctuated by WWI during which a new wave of industrialized war effort produced greater mass production techniques and then gave way to another wave of peacetime consumerism after the war-- 'The Roaring 20s'. And so on up til the present. I could go on, detailing each phase, but I'm sure you all get the picture. Besides, without my actual research before me I'm largely shooting in the dark here, and I don't like to do that.

    Victor Lebow was two generations ahead of his time. Someone needs to get up into the stacks of a good University library and look up every article he ever wrote, and every book. His voice needs to be heard. I wish it could be me, but as I said, until my health issues are resolved, I am incapable of even finding the research I've already done.

    But I'll be back here before then to read any follow up comments to mine, and especially from the author of this blog, whom I respect for shining a light on this issue. Sorry for the poor quality and rambling nature of this post, as well as the lack of citations, but I have explained my situation regarding those issues above, and I wanted to get something up here, at least, in case some of you are more able to pursue this subject at this time than I.


    "Professor Marvel never guesses. He knows!”

    The Wizard of Oz

  17. Correction:

    A miracle has occurred. I actually found my copy of 'How Much is Enough?' in a stack of my books. In it I found the correct title of the other book I mentioned in my comment above from which Alan Durning-- the author of 'How Much is Enough'-- took the Lebow quote. That book is called 'The Waste Merchants', and was written by Vance Packard (New York: David Mckay, 1960). The citation is from chapter 1, note 5.

    The Wizard of Oz

    1. Dear Wizard, thank you for this detailed and instructive post. A very small clarification: the book by Vance Packard (1960) is called "The Waste Makers". There is also a book called "The Greed Merchants: How the Investment Banks Played the Free Market Game" (2005) by Philip Augar, but I don't believe you're referring to this book.

  18. Wizard, thanks for joining the conversation. Sounds like we had similar experiences with the Lebow quotes and checking them out. My email link is in my profile (the right column - View My Complete Profile under "About Me.") Send me an email and we can follow up on this.

    I'll check out your links.

  19. Found my way to this discussion while doing a "mash-up" of the Lebow quote with a Walter Benjamin quote from "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Thought you might like to see the result. URL is

  20. What a marvelous post and comment thread! Thanks to all.

    As I read the deeper history provided by Anonymous I did wonder about the description of "draft consumption" as analogous to a chimney updraft.

    Due to the near to WWII date of the article, I suspect intuitively that "draft" referred to conscription, as in "Uncle Sam Wants You" and "Ads Want You to Shop."

    I'm not quibbling though. This is a truly excellent piece.

    Thanks again.

    Lou Gold
    Visionshare Blog

  21. you somehow managed to clip in part of another quote from Manas and lost a little near the end of the Lebow...

    Original reads:

    "Capitalism is already showing signs that it can no longer generate the social morale so essential to

    continued existence. It is true that it has freed probably more than half the American people from

    scarcity and want. But at the heart of this business civilization is a "hollowness"—everything is

    evaluated in money terms. "Or consider advertising, perhaps the most value-destroying activity of a

    business civilization." That hollowness is further emphasized by the low estimation business places on

    the value of work, which it sees as a means to an end—not the true end in itself for that is profit,

    income, economic growth. Nor is industrial socialism immune to this outlook, for its roots lie "in

    machine process and worship of efficiency." Under a business civilization as Heilbroner puts it sharply. "the values output are celebrated and those of input merely calculated."

    A Review of Heilbroner's business civilization in decline in The Nation July 17 1976
    --Victor Lebow

  22. Thanks Anon. It seems I dropped eight words that should have been there and somehow stuck in nine that shouldn't have been there. I've corrected it. It really made no sense that way - scary that you are the first to say something about it.

  23. Steve,
    Grato pela pesquisa sobre LeBow e aos leitores de seu Blog. Depois de assistir The Story off Stuff, fui pesquisar sobre a frase do LeBow utilizada no filme e, no final das contas, sua mãe tem toda a razão.
    Abraços a vocês e mais uma vez obrigado

  24. Dan, thank you. My Portuguese is limited to what I can figure out through my high school Spanish. So I Googled Portuguese - English translation and got this:

    "Grateful for the inquiry on LeBow and to the readers of his Blog. After assisting The Story off Stuff, I investigated on the sentence of the LeBow used in the movie and, in the end of the counts, his mother is right.
    Embraces to you and again obliged."

    It's not perfect, but I can get the gist. You can translate between English and about 16 other languages and between some of those other languages on the site.

    This website also let's you hear the Portuguese. You might have to cut and paste the Portuguese back in.

  25. Referrring to a 'correction' in-line above (dated May 18th) "That book is called 'The Waste Merchants', and was written by Vance Packard (New York: David Mckay, 1960)." I cannot find such a book, but I can find "The Waste Makers" in a (London UK) Penguin Paperback of 1970; ISBN 9780140205893

  26. said...

    You are correct. I rechecked the endnote in 'How Much is Enough?' and the title of the cited book was indeed 'The Waste Makers'.

    Sorry for the goof.

    The Wizard of Oz

  27. yo steeevo! nice blog boy. nice investigative work that is tight.

  28. d rohe, yours is not the most insightful comment, but it brought the biggest smile to my face.

  29. Much appreciated, this whole blog. I found reading through the article very interesting and am curious to read more of Victor Lebow's writing. I don't suppose anyone who has been participating in this blog would be able to create a PDF of some of the other Lebow articles that show his role as prophet foreseeing the enivitable results of consumption as a way of life.

  30. On the question of whether Victor Lebow was critical of postwar American consumption or a proponent of it:

    To begin: Many thanks to Steve for putting in the seminal research to uncover the Lebow mystery. I also found the reference to Lebow in “The Story of Stuff” very interesting, and set out to find out more about this man who is painted as the guy who figured out how to “solve” the problem of increased post-war production in the United States (that is, the problem of what to do with all the “stuff”). My university library has an on-line collection of the Journal of Retailing, but unfortunately it only dates back to 1964; the previous hard copy volumes are hidden in storage. But thanks to your good work, I was able to read the famed quote in its original form as well as the full article. My university does have on-line access to the full collection of the Journal of Marketing, so I was able to download and read Lebow’s 1944 article, “The Nature of Postwar Retail Competition”.

    However, it is hard to find out anything about Lebow’s book, “Free Enterprise: The Opium of the American People”. This is a key factor in helping us determine what was Lebow’s normative stance on consumption. The title is most likely a reference to Karl Marx’s famous phrase that “religion is the opiate of the people” from his 1843 “Contribution of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”. But having read the two short articles of Lebow of 1944 and 1955, and given his titles in those articles as “Sales Manager of Chester H. Roth Co., Inc.” and “Marketing Consultant and President of Victor Lebow, Inc.” he hardly seems to fit the label of a Marxist! Unfortunately, my university library does not have a copy of the book, but I did manage to order a copy through the Inter-Library loan system. Time will certainly tell…

    In the meantime, I did find one article in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology (Vol. 50, No. 1; January, 1991) which references Lebow’s book. The article, “’Proxy Power’ and Corporate Democracy’ ” is by Frederick P. Zampa and Albert E. McCormick, Jr. However, it does not offer much as far as a clue regarding the content of “Free Enterprise”. It merely says (on page 3) that “management [of corporations] is also extraordinarily capable of maintaining itself in the face of attacks. The stockholders’ proxy right, though protected by law, is seen as largely ineffectual due to management command of powerful challenge-blunting techniques.[9]”. Endnote 9, in turn, lists seven sources for that single reference – the fourth of which is Lebow’s “Free Enterprise” (it specifies page 39 of Lebow’s book). Just to complicate matters, the third book in the citation is Irving Kristol’s free enterprise-loving “Two Cheers for Capitalism,” and yet the sixth source in the citation is Ralph Nader’s anti-free enterprise article “Who Rules the Giant Corporation?” (1976)… the mystery continues…

    Although the depiction of Lebow in “The Story of Stuff” is somewhat misleading, I think that Annie Leonard’s exact words are fair. As those of you who have read the two articles note, Lebow has this odd style of sort of telling it like it is without necessarily telling us what he thinks about how it is. Nevertheless, his work does come across as ‘prescriptive’, but for who? Given his title and his choice of publications, it is pretty clear that Lebow is writing for a business-oriented audience. He does not seem to be fond of giant corporations or mega stores, but he is nevertheless an advocate of capitalist enterprise – perhaps a state-mediated capitalist enterprise that characterized the postwar “Keynesian” years. This explains why he describes advertising by large car companies as “crude”, and yet why he concludes by telling his retailer audience that the only way to “avoid the most devastating effects of price competition” is to ensure your marketing is sensitive to both the standard of living to which the consumer aspires and to the pressures upon him by manufacturers and retailers. In this light, I think it is totally fair that Annie Leonard claims that he “articulated” the solution used by capital, while it is not clear that he supported that solution. He appears to be more concerned about the small business.

    Finally, I disagree with those comments which have suggested that Lebow was some kind of “prophet” warning about the dangers of commodity consumption. This is nonsense - even Marx wrote about the problems of “commodity fetishism” in his 1867 book, “Das Kapital”. Though perhaps the guy who first linked the ecological problems associated with free enterprise production and consumption is Karl Polanyi. In his 1944 “The Great Transformation” he suggests that there are “fictitous commodities” (including “land”, by which Polanyi appears to be talking about “nature”) which when treated as commodities (when bought and sold on the free market) are ultimately destroyed. Under a system of market liberalism, noted Polanyi, “nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed.” Marx and Polanyi and Lebow are all smart, but they certainly are not phrophets or gods. Anyone with an iota of good sense can look at the production-consumption chain in our society and tell you that we're driving our planet towards the cliff of ecological destruction.

  31. Thanks, guys, for some fun research. This is from the Social Security Death Index, and the last record is obviously your friend from the Kansas H.S. yearbook and is probably not the Victor Lebow of note. I have a query out to an acquaintanace, Prof. Jay Lebow, of Northwestern University, who could be the son of the Kansas guy but may know more.

    Name Birth Death Last Residence Last VICTOR LEBOW 03 Sep 1898 Aug 1973 11235 (Brooklyn, Kings, NY) (none specified) 050-01-5563 New York
    VICTOR LEBOW 26 Dec 1902 Aug 1980 10023 (New York, New York, NY) (none specified) 081-01-5099 New York
    VICTOR LEBOW 05 Apr 1911 Jun 1971 (not specified) (none specified) 213-09-5468 Maryland
    VICTOR LEBOW 11 Jun 1925 Dec 1979 (not specified) 60201 (Evanston, Cook, IL) 513-22-0607 Kansas

  32. Peter, nice work yourself. Thanks for the contributions. Let me know what you hear from Prof. Jay. My sense when I talked to Victoria was that the Wichita Victor didn't have any children, but I may be mixing things up.

  33. This is what it says about Lebow inside the cover of "Free Enterprise: The Opium of the American People":

    "Victor Lebow arrives at his view of American private enterprise out of a long and successful business career. He has been an executive, an officer, and a director of large corporations. In his consulting practice, he has been an advisor to many enterprises in both the United States and Europe.
    He has testified as an expert witness before the Senate Small Business Committee in its investigation of competitive practices. His writings on economics, sales management, advertising and marketing have appeared in Harper's Magazine, The Nation, Challenge Magazine, The Journal of Marketing, New York University's Journal of Retailing, The Journal of Business of the University of Chicago, as well as in dozens of business publications such as Printers' Ink, Business Week, Advertising Age and others.
    At Columbia University, Victor Lebow is a co-chairman of the University Seminar on the Economics of Distribution."

    Anyone have it in them to track down his articles in Harper's and the Nation?

    As for "Free Enterprise", the book seems to confirm my earlier assessment of Lebow. He is an insider of the corporate/capitalist/business community who is lamenting the way free enterprise has gotten out of control in the post-war era (the book was written in 1972) - at the expense of the social and communal good. The book basically calls for a restructuring of the American economy so as to make the practices of business more socially responsible. From page 13: "This book argues that the great changes which this country must undergo in order to flourish in a peaceful world cannot be achieved without a radical restructuring of that system of power which is Business."

    Actually quite a good read... He takes corporate America to task and imagines what a better world would look like in the future (in his chapter "Toward the Year 2000 A.D.").

  34. Organic, thanks. I posted the bio from the Free Market book last January (there's a link to it at the beginning of this post). I've also contacted someone at Columbia University to see if there were any people there who remember Lebow. If that pans out I'll post it.

  35. And one more thing... (I'll stop wasting your comment space after this Steve... my bad):

    It is very disconcerting to see prominent environmentalists and organizations using Lebow's quotation in the same incorrect way that Annie did in "The Story of Stuff".

    Not only did Annie excise two key parts of the original text, but she also incorrectly writes that Lebow "articulated the solution that has become the norm for the whole system". We now know (thanks to people like Steve - who check their sources!) that Lebow was quite critical of what had become of American consumption.

    And yet both the Sierra Club and David Suzuki have used the same incomplete quotation AND portray Lebow as being the mastermind of American overconsumption.

    Dave Tilford wrote on the Sierra Club's website the following: "Retail analyst Victor Lebow's statement might sound crass today, perhaps even a bit quaint in its unabashed promotion of materialism and waste. The words ring with a certain post-World War II naiveté-an unexamined faith in personal and spiritual fulfillment achieved via an endless stream of cheap and disposable consumer products." OUCH! Lebow was not the naive one, but the perceptive one!

    And like Annie, David Suzuki writes that "retailing analyst Victor Lebow expressed the solution". As much as David Suzuki is one of my greatest heroes, I am a bit sad to see him talk of Lebow this way when it is now clear that Lebow was not proscribing solutions but was lamenting the social irresponsibility of corporate America.

    In sum: Steve's right - Lebow has been misrepresented, and with "The Story of Stuff" growing in popularity, more and more people out there are going to be hearing of Lebow as some capitalist jerk who invented overconsumption. That ain't right.

  36. I think that the Story of Stuff was great, even if it did demonize Lebow. What he said, whether he meant it or not, still became true. It's important for people to hear the truth so that they can look inside themselves, say "oh, sh**, that's me," and change.

  37. Anon, no quarrel with you that the Story of Stuff tells an important story well and that many people may recognize themselves in it.

    But it does matter that she get the Lebow part right. If you were 'demonized' by mistake, wouldn't you want that corrected?

    And if critics spot one glaring error, they can start using that to attack the whole video.

    Thanks for your comment.

  38. I saw this quote in the late 1980's or early 1990's and have been trying to find it again for several years, off and on. My problem was that it was long enough ago that I couldn't remember enough of it to google for it, though I remembered the gist. I saw it in a graphic design trade publication. I found it astonishing then and tried to get others to see the impact of it, but was not very successful. Now, 15-20 years later, I'm glad that people are finally ready to consider the impact of this fatally bad philosophy.

  39. I took the time to type up the article and thought you might be interested in being able to offer a typed version for your readers. It is available here:

    I transcribed as best I could from the photos provided, though there were some places which I could not read as a result of the glare. I marked these areas with (***). Also I was wondering if this was the complete article as I'm not sure the last photo shows the conclusion to the article. Enjoy!!!

  40. Thanks 100goals. I"ve posted the link above too.

  41. Wow! Thank you so much for doing all this research and sharing it! I am surprised Fox hasn't found this yet... It's sad how the carelessness with this quote could be used to undermine the whole "Story of Stuff"...

    I had hoped that the "Story of Stuff" had pointed me to an answer to the question "how did we become the overconsumers that we are?" I became suspicious about the quote, though, when I saw that the cite was a citation - not a good sign... That often means a quote is taken out of context and/or misquoted.

    Right after the Lebow quote, comes a quote attributed to President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisors Chairman ("The American economy's ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.") The "Story of Stuff" transcript has no source for that quote, again raising some red flags. Did you by any chance do some digging on that?

  42. Not that I can make a difference, but I sent the following email to the Story of Stuff website:

    In your movie "The Story of Stuff" you quote a 1955 article written by Victor LeBow titled "Price Competition in 1955" in the Spring 1995 edition of the Journal of Retailing stating:
    "We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace."
    The context in which this quotation was used leads viewers to infer that LeBow is promoting the consumption of material goods and that he is responsible designing the system of planned/perceived obsolescence. In fact, the article written by LeBow is a critique of the consumer system and using the quote from LeBow is an unfair representation of his work.
    I encourage you to check your sources, and while he does in fact make the statements which are qouted in "The Story of Stuff" they are being used out of context and opposite of how they were intended to be interpreted.
    Thanks for reading, have a nice day.
    If anyone else is interested in contacting them, their email address is:

  43. Rachel, I don't think the quote invalidates the video, it's just unfortunate. But Lebow's motivation was isn't relevant to the bigger story. From an academic perspective, one could say it was careless. But making an animated film is very time consuming and I can understand things slipping. Who knew this would take off the way it did? A lesson to get your projects right. You never know who might see them.

    I did not check out the second quote. Lebow kept me plenty busy and I feel we still know relatively nothing about him. I even tried to see if I could contact older faculty at Columbia U who might have known him to no avail. Let us know what you find.

    100 - "In fact, the article written by LeBow is a critique of the consumer system and using the quote from LeBow is an unfair representation of his work." I don't think the first part of your characterization is accurate either. The article was a pretty mundane business forecast into which Lebow slipped these phrases. We can't say with total certainty why. I'm guessing, from his later book that this is sarcasm.

    I'm also thinking back to high school and a lazy (but nice) teacher who we suspected of grading our papers without reading them. A couple of us slipped "fuck you" into the papers a few times each to check. We got our A's.

    I suspect it was in this vein that Lebow slipped that passage into the article. Could he get it passed the reviewers and editors?

    Thanks to both of you for taking the effort to comment.

  44. Steve: I absolutely agree with you that the quote doesn't invalidate the video! I just think that it gives ammunition to those who will try to use it that way... I'll let you know what I find on the CEA chairman quote - so far I've found out that it is attributed to Arthur F. Burns (see wiki article). But no context is give - when did he say it? Where? And what else did he say? If I find out more, I'll be sure to share!

    (Who knows you might've gotten A's from the high school teacher because she/he admired your courage ;-)

  45. Endless thanks to you folks for this conversation. I'm working on a magazine article about conspicuous consumption, and this research into Lebow has been very helpful (yes, some of us still do research).

    Anonymous (Wizard), i'd like to quote part of your very articulate post for the story. Would you mind contacting me at i.critic at gmail to tell me how you would like to be attributed?

    Thanks again.

  46. Thanks for the great analysis. A complete,far more readable, and apparently accurate, transcription is at (note: I have nothing to do with that site, just found the PDF)

  47. As I am preparing an article on the origins of the childhood obesity epidemic in the US/world, I recalled a passage from "Story of Stuff" that I wanted to quote and began a search which lead to this blog. As I began to read about Victor Lebow, I came across, "But I got an email from Kevin in Chicago who was trying to track it down too." Well, my name is Kevin, I am from Chicago and I do remember emailing someone about my questions concerning Lebow and how he might relate to this aspect (obesity) of our current crisis....maybe I am the guy, bit not really important. If anyone is interested in understand more about the evolution of the causal factors leading to this "perfect storm", get familiar with a biochemist from the late 1950's/early 1960's named Ancel Keys (the "K" in K-rations for you military people). Understand Keys "research" on dietary fats and heart disease, along with Nixon's Sec. of Agriculture, Earl Butts' "solution" to the problem of soaring food prices in the 1970's, will provide a good foundation. As to how Victor Lebow is also a piece of this puzzle, well, go to and learn what you will about Sigmund Freud's American nephew, Edward Bernays. For me anyway, this documentary helped me understand how Lebow, Story of Stuff and current obesity/chronic disease epidemic, are all related pieces of the same big puzzle. Good luck.

    Kevin Boyd

  48. Kevin, thanks for your additions. I've felt bad about not pursuing information on Lebow harder. I did try to see if people at Columbia University remembered him, but that didn't go anywhere.

    Your comments remind me to get back to this thread. Thanks.

  49. Fantastic thread, thanks, everyone! I have used the Lebow quote myself, and am still struggling to understand his intent. The link to the BBC documentary is terrific as well.

    The big question is how do we deprogram our society (and now the world) from this consumerist indoctrination? How do we become citizens again? Or it is too late?

  50. Wizard,
    I don't know if you are still checking comments here. Your research sounds very interesting and I would be interested in working with you on this project. Contact Steve to get in touch with me.
    - M

  51. Hi
    I'm the sister of Thornton Lee Strieff who someone was trying to reach about Lebow's Identity. Lee passed away in Aug of 2004. We were writing a book about the Epic of the Martian Empire together, that our brother James and his friend had concieved back in the late 30's and Lebow was a friend of my Brother James Streiff, so he(Lebow) would have been about 20 in 1944. Most of JAmes friends were highly intelligent guys so 20 is not to young if you are Brilliant. you can contact me at: and I'll help if I can in this mystery. Sincerely,
    Celeste Streiff, Hammond.

  52. Grateful for the inquiry on LeBow and to the readers of his Blog. After assisting The Story off Stuff, I investigated on the sentence of the LeBow used in the movie .
    Obrigado, Lilian - Brazil

  53. I understand Victor was foreseeing what would have to happen in order to continue on this path, but his words were still very sinister in nature. I read the article and I don't believe he really understood the impart this would have on humanity. In my view he just saw it from an economic view.

  54. completly taken away ... thank you for all the struggles and information... I will now jump on the waggon

  55. Thanks very much for doing this research. I too, was bothered by the way the quote was used in "The Story of Stuff," even though I thought the overall piece was strong.

    Here's a NYT death announcement on Mr. Lebow (found through a Factiva search):

    Metropolitan Desk; B
    Victor Lebow, Marketing Official And Activist in Civil Rights Here
    130 words
    27 August 1980
    The New York Times
    Late City Final Edition
    Copyright 1980 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.
    Victor Lebow, a former advertising and marketing consultant, died of of a heart ailment yesterday at Lenox Hill Hospital. He was 77 years old and lived in Manhattan.

    He was a former vice president of the Kyser-Roth Corporation and a former director of Faberge. He retired in the late 1950's. Since his retirement he had been active in the civil-rights movement. He was the author of a book entitled ''Free Enterprise, the Opium of the American People,'' and a frequent contributor to such magazines as The Nation, Challenge and The Progressive.

    Surviving are his wife, the former Lea Markel; a daughter, Nina Reed of Warwick, N.Y., and a sister, Mildred Liebowitz of Manhattan.

  56. Anon 4/26/11 - Wow! Thanks. I've been feeling like I should try harder to find out more, so I really appreciate you tracking the obituary down.

  57. What I understood of what she said is that the government had a consulting group that in fact proposed the implementation of what Lebow write.

    Things, as they are said in the movie may be misleading on Lebow's intentions or even participation of that consulting group.

  58. Greetings,
    thanks for this post, and one question. Can you please put the high-res pictures of the original article somewhere else online too, in places that don't need both signing on AND paying a fee to download the pictures, as scribd is asking me to do now? Thanks!

  59. Marco, You shouldn't have to pay to read this on scribd. I have it opening ok here on my blog. In any case, hundredgoals gave us a link to a much easier to read copy here:

  60. Steve, thanks for the quick answer (though I wonder why I only got it by email and it does not show up here on the blog). I see the pictures here on your blog too. What I would like to do is also to DOWNLOAD them from scribt on my own computer, to read them even when I am not online and/or zoom them properly. It is when I try to do that that Scribt asks me to pay. Regardless of Scribd, the other link you provided doesn't work:

    isn't there another one? Thanks!

    1. sorry, what I just wrote in the previous comment is partially wrong. The link to the PDF file DOES work, but that is a transcript, not the pictures of the pages of the original magazines. Those are what I would like to download from somewhere else than

  61. First, I realize this is a 7 year old thread. I hope some participants (Steve, Wizard of Oz) are still monitoring. Years ago I read Vance Packard's The Waste Makers and this thread enticed me to pull my copy from the shelf. The Victor Lebow quote is from chapter 3, not chapter 1(sorry, Wizard... just clarifying...perhaps you have a reference to a different edition). Interestingly, Packard introduces the quote thus: "The emerging philosophy was most fervently and bluntly stated perhaps in two long articles in the Journal of Retailing during the mid-fifties. The author was Marketing Consultant Victor Lebow. He made a forthright plea for "forced consumption".
    Lebow's intent, being argued more than 50 years after he wrote those now infamous words, and more than 30 years after he died, is difficult to discern. The initial post (and all the follow-up comments) have not really produced a "smoking gun" in my mind (The idea that he snuck in the comment as a kind of 'tongue-in-cheek' rail against the audience he was obviously targeting is, in my opinion, naive and highly unlikely). Looking at Packard's comments - written, by the way, just five years after the quote in question and well within Lebow's lifetime - seem to indicate some mal-intent and goes against the gist of Steve's conclusions.
    Packard continues: "At other points he spoke of the "consumption requirements of our productive capacity" and of the "obligation" of retailers "to push more goods across their counters.""
    Apparently, Packard interpreted this in much the same way as was portrayed in The Story of Stuff... and he did so contemporaneously. Has anyone looked for the other Journal of Retailing article on this subject, by Lebow, mentioned in Packard's book? He doesn't identify it (that I can tell). If we could identify and read that we might see a trend. If Packard is right, and he wrote about this subject in "two long articles", wouldn't that help determine his intent?
    I'm not necessarily saying he was promoting that consumptive mindset; more like playing Devil's advocate, here.

  62. Follow-up to my immediately previous post: Packard does identify the two articles in his end notes: "Victor Lebow, The Journal of Retailing, Spring 1955, p. 7; Winter 1955-56, p. 166."
    Perhaps we should be looking at this second article, as well?

    1. Brian, I appreciate your comments and suggestions. What tipped me in my speculation that this was not his personal prescription, but rather a description was his later book, Free Market: The Opiate of the American People.

  63. Pasaron 10 años desde que comenzó este hilo y seguimos investigando...

  64. What a great pleasure to read this illuminating blog post and thread! I'm writing an art history thesis on "art and economy", or more specifically on artists who integrate economic elements into their work. I situate the origins of this phenomenon in the post-war period, at least in its most widespread and enduring form. It was an unexpected surprise to learn about Victor Lebow, who definitely deserves all the attention we grant him. Thank you all, I most certainly will cite this blog and its references in my bibliography.

  65. Rosemarie, I'm glad to hear about your project. Can you explain what you see as the art part of Victor Lebow. You can do that here in comments or send me an email (near top of right hand column.) I appreciate your kind words.

  66. I would like to say that this blog really convinced me to do it! Thanks, very good post. Submit Articles


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