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TRUTH AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE PROFESSIONS: A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF `TRUTH IN ADVERTISING’ AND `TRUE AND FAIR’ FINANCIAL STATEMENTS IN NORTH AMERICA DURING THE PROGRESSIVE ERA

Both advertisers and auditors wrestled with the truth of their text during the Progressive Era (1880-1940). Although in North America, advertisers adopted “truth in advertising” as a theme, auditors rejected “true and fair” as a description of financial statements. Auditors instead adopted the weaker statement that financial statements were “consistent with accepted accounting principles.” It is paradoxical that auditors compared with advertisers made the greatest progress toward professionalization during this era. This article documents debates about the concept of “truth” in each profession during the Progressive Era and examines the professional and legal consequences of each profession’s engagement with truth.

The Progressive Era, roughly the period from the depression of the late 1880s through to the late 1930s, represents a period of institutional, technical, and social innovation. During this period, most developed economies made the transition from rural to urban and from agrarian to manufacturing economies. It is a period when sectional interests, including many of the modern professions, developed. The Progressive Era is particularly marked by the conjunction of scientific knowledge and traditional values. It is a period when science and technology were thought capable of providing for the material wants of all and that the issue of social justice could be resolved through knowledge. This conjunction provides the setting in which “truth” is seen as an achievable state.

The modern professions emerged from this milieu as occupations concerned with the moral and technical mysteries of life. The exemplars of the professional model were medicine, the law, and teaching. The successful professions lay claim to areas of expertise that were used to define what is normal or “right,” mediating the client’s individual needs and the values institutionalized in society (Richardson 1997). The process of professionalization requires an occupation to legitimate its claims to status and authority. An occupation might adopt certain structural features such as codes of ethics or university training as a means of establishing a claim to professional status. In this process, the ability to claim to have found and practice the “truth” could be a powerful rhetorical weapon.

Coincident with the rise of the modern professions, large business firms developed during this period (Galambos 1983). Two characteristics of these firms provided opportunities for the developing professions. First, the modern corporations needed significant amounts of capital to create the infrastructure necessary to carry out their missions. In North America, this capital was typically raised through public offerings in the stock markets. The reliance on outside capital created the need for financial audits, and the accounting profession organized around this opportunity. The key to the success of the audit profession was the ability to add credibility to financial statements (i.e., to tell the “truth” about the financial state of the company). Second, large corporations achieved economies of scale through the use of technology, but this required a mass market for their products. Customers without firsthand knowledge of a company or its products had to be convinced to spend their money. The advertising industry developed to meet this need.

Financial statements and advertisements represent the major forms of communication between large corporations and two groups of stakeholders: investors and customers. Auditors and advertisers emerged as the occupations that mediated these links, and each wrestled with the problem of the “truth” of these corporate communications. Each of these occupations had professional aspirations. Consistent with commonsense definitions of what constituted a profession, they organized professional associations, created codes of ethics, and attempted to set educational standards for their members.

The literature of this period provides an indication of the success of these professionalization attempts by advertisers and accountants. Palmer (1914) was willing to concede that a broad definition of professions might include some members of the advertising industry. He offered that “nowadays… we should… probably be inclined to place as a kind of intermediary between the minister and the lawyer the philanthropist and the publicist as those who study the well being of the community” (p. 43). Carr-Saunders and Wilson (1933, 29) undertook “a review of those vocations which by common consent are called professions.” They devoted eighteen pages to accountants but failed to mention any of the occupations in the advertising industry. Schultze (1982) later studied the advertising industry’s efforts during this era to establish standardized instruction and licensing or certification requirements (two of the three common characteristics of a profession identified by Schultze, the other being codes of ethics) and concluded that the industry did not succeed; even with university instruction in advertising, they were unable to create a profession. Laird (1998, 242) added that none of the many advertising associations formed during this era ever succeeded at formulating the standards for preparation and admission to a profession such as medicine and law; furthermore, their efforts to pressure members to conform to codes of ethics went unenforced. As we will see below, the language used by the advertising industry itself during the Progressive Era makes clear the gap between their perceived status and their professional aspirations. By the end of the Progressive Era, only one group, accountants, had successfully established their claim to professional status.

The success of the auditors in achieving professional status and the failure of advertisers stand in a paradoxical relationship to these groups’ positions on the truth. In Canada and the United States, the advertising industry lobbied successfully for legislation requiring “truth in advertising,” while auditors successfully lobbied against the requirement that they attest to financial statements being “true and fair.” The purpose of this article is to examine the relationship between these groups’ engagements with the “truth” and their success or failure as professionalizing occupations.

The remainder of the article is organized as follows. The next section examines the meaning of truth in philosophical perspective. This section provides a vocabulary for understanding the various ways in which truth may be interpreted and used. This is followed by two sections that summarize the history of truth among advertisers and auditors. The discussion then draws out the key factors that explain the observed differences between these occupations’ engagements with the truth.

THE MEANING OF TRUTH

For a word with wide currency in everyday use, the meaning of truth remains surprisingly elusive. Many philosophers are willing to concede that no adequate theory of truth has yet been found (Horwich 1990, 1). If theorists of truth have met with limited success, it is perhaps a result of the nature of the task itself. Truth theories set for themselves the goal of characterizing the essence of truth in all of its various linguistic uses. The truth theorist, in other words, seeks to answer the following question: what do we say of something when we say that something is true?(n1)

Historically, three classes of answers to this question have emerged as dominant: correspondence theories, coherence theories, and pragmatic theories (see Table 1). Like most efforts to specify typologies, this one is stymied by ambiguous cases that seem to fit neatly into none of the categories or that seem to belong to more than one. For our purposes, however, it is sufficient to focus on the paradigmatic example of each of the three classes, leaving the ambiguous cases for the philosophers to entertain.

Correspondence Theories

Of the three classes of truth theories, correspondence theories are both the oldest and the most intuitively appealing. Originally espoused by some of the early Greek philosophers (most notably, Aristotle and the Stoics) and revived again in the modern era by Descartes, Locke, Hume, Russell, Wittgenstein, and others, correspondence views hold that the essence of truth is a relationship of correspondence between what is asserted and some state of the world in which we live. In other words, truth is that which corresponds to the facts.

The paradigmatic correspondence theorist is committed to ontological realism. For the realist, objects exist independently of the human mind; the linguistic assertion and the state of affairs to which it refers are therefore distinct and independent of one another. The truth of an assertion is, then, a matter to be adjudicated by reference to the independent object world. It is true that the book is on the desk because, indeed, the book is on the desk.

Despite strong intuitive appeal, correspondence theories suffer from one major weakness that has rendered them less than satisfactory in the eyes of many philosophers. This weakness consists of an inability to specify what constitutes a fact. For the proposition that the book is on the desk to be true, it must be a fact that the book is on the desk. Yet what can the correspondence theorist mean by the fact that the book is on the desk, except that it is somehow true that the book is on the desk? The theory threatens only to say that a proposition is true when what it names is a truth (Johnson 1992, 42). This, it is argued by some, does not go very far in identifying the essence of truth.

Coherence Theories

This theoretical shortcoming in the correspondence view of truth helps one to appreciate why alternative–and, for most people, less intuitive–theories also have been advanced. Coherence theories are the most widely held of these alternatives (Horwich 1990, 9). For coherence theorists (e.g., Bradley, Blanshard), the truth of a proposition is judged by its coherence with a body of propositions that are held to be true. It is true that the book is on the desk because such a proposition coheres with an entire web of interrelated beliefs that we also hold to be true. This web of beliefs comprises what Johnson (1992, 25) calls “the world of our awareness,” within which books, desks, their roles, and their meanings are understandable. It is only by recourse to this “world of our awareness” that the truth of the proposition “the book is on the desk” can be assessed.

The paradigmatic coherence theory is informed by a metaphysics of absolute idealism. Absolute idealism makes the object world dependent on the mind, such that “brute facts,” in the realist’s sense of an independent object world, simply do not exist. In their place, the idealist posits an absolute reality, in which all things are what they are only by virtue of their relationship to other things. This reality, moreover, is accessible only through the human mind.

Given these metaphysical presuppositions, there is no independent object world to which we might appeal in adjudicating truth. Instead, for the idealists, there is only the one large web of interrelationships that comprises the totality of what we currently know of the absolute. The truth of any given proposition, therefore, can only be judged on the basis of how well that proposition coheres with the body of propositions that determines what we presently know of absolute truth.

But even if one is willing to accept that coherence is a reasonable way to assess the truth of at least some propositions, this does not imply its adequacy as a description of the essence of truth. To serve as an adequate theory of truth, there must be no truths that cannot be said to be so on coherence grounds. For many critics, coherence theory fails in this regard. The point of contention generally is that coherence theory does not seem to admit a distinction between what we would, given our existing corpus of beliefs, be warranted in holding to be true and what is, in fact, true. While the coherentist might well respond that this is merely indicative of an incomplete knowledge of the absolute, critics with less faith in idealist metaphysics remain unconvinced.

Pragmatic Theories

Around the turn of the century, the American philosophers Peirce, James, and Dewey elaborated versions of an alternative theory of truth, inspired by the philosophy of pragmatism for which they are known. Although there are important differences in how each of these thinkers conceptualized truth, all pragmatic theories assert that in one way or another, truth is what is useful to believe. For Peirce, “usefulness” was inextricably bound up with scientific methodology and the resulting scientific knowledge. For him, as for Dewey after him, “truth” was that which is or would be agreed to on investigation. For James, by contrast, “usefulness” was operationalized as “long-term expedience,” a criterion that was meant to extend the definition of truth beyond science and into religion and metaphysics as well (Johnson 1992, 64-65).

Pragmatic theories of truth, unlike the correspondence and coherence theories to which the pragmatists explicitly opposed them, are not concerned with identifying the essence of truth (Allen 1993, 63). Instead, the pragmatists provide an account of the practical value of truth, where this value is measured by the favorable outcomes that the belief makes possible. Such a conception of truth is consistent with pragmatic philosophy, which holds that all meaning is anchored in practice. Thus, a difference in meaning–such as the difference between a “true” and a “false” belief–must involve some difference in practice. “True” beliefs, therefore, are simply those that work out well in practice.

Pragmatic theories of truth have been criticized as being too subjective to serve as an arbiter of truth. What is useful to believe, it is argued, depends on what is useful to the individual holder of the belief. In addition, what is useful in the long run to the holder of the belief may well differ from what is immediately useful to the holder of the belief. In response to numerous criticisms such as these, pragmatists have refined the concept of usefulness, resulting in many different variations of the theory, some of which are only marginally compatible with one another. Nonetheless, objections of this sort have remained major stumbling blocks for pragmatic theories of truth.

Truth Theories and Truth Criteria

Each of the theories discussed above seeks to provide an account of the nature of truth in all of its various linguistic uses. Thus, for any given claim or belief, each theory would provide its own account of what makes the claim or belief true. Consider the proposition that “the sun rises in the morning.” Supposing that theorists of each of the three camps were willing to ascribe truth to this claim, the differences in theory manifest themselves as differences in the reasons each group would give for its willingness to grant that the proposition is true. For the correspondence theorist, it is true that the sun rises in the morning because such an assertion corresponds to a state of the world that is independent of the person who is making the assertion. For the coherence theorist, the proposition that the sun rises in the morning is true because it coheres with numerous interrelated propositions about the relative position of the earth, the sun, and the observer–propositions that themselves cohere with the one absolute reality. For the pragmatists, in turn, the proposition that the sun rises in the morning is true because such a belief produces beneficial results in practice–it allows, perhaps, one to gauge the passage of the day by the position of the sun, or it suggests where to look in the sky to observe the appearance of the morning sun.

When proponents of the different theories appeal to different reasons for asserting that a proposition is true, they are effectively proposing different criteria by which truth may be assessed. For correspondence theorists, the relevant criterion is correspondence with an external reality. For coherentists, it is coherence with accepted belief. For the pragmatists, truth is assessed by its usefulness in practice. Because of the emphasis on truth criteria, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that each theory sees itself not as identifying merely a criterion of truth but as capturing the very essence of truth. Indeed, the distinction between truth criteria and the essence of truth has been invoked by proponents of one theory to grant the criteria while rejecting the essence of a rival theory.

With the exception of a handful of philosophers, most people probably do not hold any particular theory of truth. That is, most of us have probably never considered–much less resolved–the issue of what essential attribute identifies “truth.” By contrast, we routinely employ truth criteria in our interactions with others. Truth criteria are evident in the reasons people give for believing what they do or the reasons that speakers offer for why their claims should be accepted as true. Truth criteria, in short, play a prominent role in the linguistic activities of justification and persuasion. Thus, by examining what a speaker says, it is possible to discern the truth criteria employed by that speaker, even if the speaker has never considered the underlying issue of the nature of truth.

In the discussion that follows, this article draws on the concept of truth criteria to illuminate the types of truth claims proposed or opposed by auditors and advertising agents. In doing so, we avoid attributing truth theories to either professional group or to either of the two principal stakeholder groups with which they were communicating. The historical records that inform this analysis do not permit one to make further inferences.

TRUTH IN ADVERTISING

In the movie Miracle on 34th Street, there were actually two miracles. We learn that there really is a Santa Claus. More miraculous, however, was seeing the Macy’s managers tell customers the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Truth has been an issue of concern in advertising for centuries and remains so today. However, a significant movement from within the industry for truth in advertising began with magazine publishers’ campaigns against patent medicine companies during the 1880s and culminated in the 1910s with efforts by the Associated Advertising Clubs of America (AACA) to enshrine truth in state legislation supported by an industry-organized police force of vigilance committees. By 1914, the movement had spread to Canada as the AACA became the Associated Advertising Clubs of the World (AACW), and the American strategy was largely mimicked in Canada.

By the late nineteenth century, fraudulent advertising was commonplace in North America (Wood 1958). Reputable manufacturers of branded products generally were truthful in their advertising. Some disreputable ones were relatively harmless, such as the mail-order company in the 1880s that offered a “Potato-Bug Eradicator” for ten cents and delivered two pieces of wood with instructions to place the potato bug between them and press together. However, many others were reckless and irresponsible, none worse than the patent medicine companies. Some of those “medicines” contained as much as 40 percent alcohol; others contained poisonous drugs. Brown’s Vegetable Cure for Female Weakness promised to cure “a dragging sensation in the groin, sparks before the eyes, hysteria, temple and ear throb, a dread of some impending evil, morbid feelings, and the blues” (Wood 1958, 331).

In 1892, the Ladies’ Home Journal announced that it would no longer accept advertising from patent medicines and followed with a long and bitter campaign of editorials and articles against the entire patent medicine industry. It even attacked other magazines that accepted and published patent medicine advertising. Lydia E. Pinkham became rich and famous during the 1870s for her cure-all Vegetable Compound. It was advertised as

a sure cure for Prolapsus Uteri, or Falling of the Womb …. Pleasant to taste, efficacious and immediate in effect. It is a great help in pregnancy and relieves pain during labor …. For all weaknesses of the generative organs of either sex. It is second to no remedy that has ever been before the public and for all diseases of the kidney it is the Greatest Remedy in the World. (Wood 1958, 327)

But for years after she died in 1883, the Pinkham company kept Mrs. Pinkham’s picture in their ads and invited women to write to her for advice. By 1904, the Ladies’ Home Journal had had enough and reproduced some of these ads together with a photo of Mrs. Pinkham’s gravestone showing that she had been dead for twenty years (Wood 1958,327). That juxtaposition of the actual circumstances with the statements in the ads clearly relied on the lack of correspondence between them to demonstrate rather dramatically the lack of truth.

What many of the publishers were really after was passage of food and drug legislation to drive the patent medicines from the market. In 1906, they were successful as the U.S. government passed the Food and Drug Act. Two years later, the Canadian government followed suit with the Proprietary Medicines Act. In both cases, the intent was to protect the public against unsafe food and drug products; false advertisements of such products came under the acts’ jurisdictions. Government wanted truth in advertising to protect consumers from harmful products; publishers wanted truth in advertising to create greater public confidence in advertising and generate more advertising business.

As early as 1888, there was concern from even deeper within the advertising industry over the issue of truth in advertising. Printers’ Ink (PI) was the first advertising industry trade journal. The first issue of PI featured an editorial that included the following:

It is no greater mistake for him that has something good and genuine to sell, to leave the public to find it out for themselves than to attract people by a “taking” advertisement that lacks the element of truth. In the profession of the law, the capable yet conscientious advocate makes use of all the address and skill of which he is possessed, to present his client’s case in its most favorable aspect or bearing, yet he never departs from the evidence. So with the advertiser–he should commend his wares or services to the public in the strongest and most skillfully arranged light they will bear; but the things commended should be the things he has at his disposal and he should never represent them as having properties they do not possess. (Quoted in “It’s Still Good” 1938, 31)



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