The richest man I’d ever known sat on the unkempt lawn of his half-finished mansion for the last time. The sun was setting over the roof’s exposed bones, casting long shadows below.
Standing behind him, I coughed gently. “There are appointments to keep, Mister Saunders.”
He got up, brushed the grass off his trousers and made for the car.
“I turned lying in a profession, you know.”
“Sir?” He never spoke to me like this. Why now? “I’m pretty sure that was around long before you.”
“Well, I made it a proper thing then. Advertising, hmph. Marketing, hmph. More like Devil’s work.” He scoffed.
“Before I came along, clerks got your groceries for you. I changed all that. Let people do it themselves. But that meant packaging mattered, branding matter, lies about this being better than that mattered.”
He stopped abruptly and I nearly ran him over.
“I gave people choice. And then they went and took it back from them, like they took this from me.” He growled, jabbing a finger toward the aborted construction.
“I know what I made. But I didn’t understand the thing it made.” Then he turned away, forever. “And that’s what ruined me.”
Clarence Saunders was the found of Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain, the first grocery store that let the consumer pick the items they wanted off a shelf without a clerk’s help. But, this new consumer empowerment created the need for what we think of as modern advertising. Packaging, branding, marketing, all of these things mattered like never before. When his business was challenged with a hostile investor takeover, Saunders used advertising to flaunt his determination to protect his company. It was this bravado and openness that would lead him to lose nearly everything when the market turned against him.