In the early 1900s, much of advertising was limited only by the boundaries of the imagination, and many unscrupulous sellers perpetrated numerous scams on an unsuspecting public like the charlatans promoting miracle cure tonics and creams. The legitimate business community faced a crossroads. How could they protect this important tool before the less reputable destroyed its credibility? How could it be made clear to the public that ethical failings of the few did not represent policies and practices of the majority of advertisers?
The response to that challenge was to create self-policing Vigilance Committees of local ad clubs. These Committees were devoted full-time to eliminating abuses and creating advertising codes and standards and quickly spun off into independent Better Business Bureaus.
During the 1920s, Wall Street was a beehive of activity, not all of it legal. Members of the Stock Exchange became ardent supporters of the BBB after seeing how effective Bureaus were at exposing swindlers.
After World War II, the BBBs began their heralded War Savings Protection program to help service personnel and war industry workers keep their money out of the hands of waiting con artists and shysters. Bureaus sent out warnings under the slogan, "Before you Invest, Investigate," trying to impress upon the holders of War Savings Bonds that they possess an excellent investment which should not be converted to other forms without most careful consideration.
The marketplace began a series of rapid changes as new and more consumer goods reached receptive consumers. Quality and service did not always keep pace with the claims of advertisers and the expectations of consumers. And outcries for consumer protection challenged the business community on all fronts.
Vast and restrictive legislative programs were proposed, aimed at real and exaggerated charges of business exploitation of consumers. As the marketplace heated up in the sixties, Bureaus were ill-equipped to service the growing volume of consumer requests for BBB service.
By 1965, consumers would have been justified had they believed that BBB was an abbreviation for the state of the Bureau’s phone lines….Busy…Busy…Busy. And by the end of that decade, local and national business members of the Bureaus had developed a renewed appreciation for the important role the BBB played in helping business in their relations with their customers and in limiting government intervention by fostering business self-regulation. In 1970 the local Bureaus and members of the National Better Business Bureau formed the Council of Better Business Bureaus. The Bureaus voted to support the new organization as national business leaders pledged millions of dollars in new funding to equip local Bureaus with new telephone and file retrieval systems.
It was during this time that the BBB system began reviewing charities for the public, adding a new cornerstone to BBB services. In addition, the Bureaus developed speedy, effective arbitration programs to deal with unresolved consumer complaints, the first of which was to help General Motors avert lengthy government litigation.
In this modern era, the cornerstone for the BBB’s financial support and governance remains its voluntary business members.
The mission and values of the Better Business Bureau were shaped from the very beginning with zeal and spirit that Bureau pioneers described as the "torch of truth." -- the torch that proudly sits atop the BBB’s registered logo -- the torch of truth that the Vigilance Committees and the early founders "carried" into the fight for truth in advertising. It is on this foundation that the current programs and services of the Better Business Bureaus have been built.