Progressive Stuff

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