Developed to arm against false claims in the marketplace, BBB was born at a time when advertising held no bounds. Though today’s marketplace yields more choices than ever, the consumer still demands truth.

Picture it: a time when the majority of roads in North America were made of dirt. A car of any make or model was a luxury item, as were home telephones. Gas averaged seven cents a gallon, and you could buy a loaf of bread for a nickel.

Consumers were tempted by businesses advertising everything from electric hairbrushes to cure headaches to dimple makers to put a crease in your cheek and everything in between. The only limitations placed on advertising seemed to be the imagination! The year was 1912, and upheaval—both socially and in the marketplace—was in full swing.

Americans faced issues not unlike those we face today—immigration and poverty, labor and monopoly battles, work safety and child labor. But in many cases, this decade marked the first time people were really taking a stand, and there was a tremendous effort made to give the common man, woman and child a greater voice.

This is the environment in which the organization we now know as BBB was born. Tired of the deceptive advertising practices and false claims running rampant in the marketplace, Samuel Dobbs, who would later become president of The Coca-Cola Company, started a campaign in 1909 on behalf of higher ethical standards in advertising. As a part of this effort, “vigilance committees” were created to look into alleged misrepresentations, eliminate abuses, and create advertising codes and standards to help advertisers regulate themselves. In 1912, spurred on by the success of these committees, the president of the Associated Advertising Clubs of America decided to form a national vigilance committee to focus on regional and national advertising. Thus was born the organization which became the National Better Business Bureau, or BBB.

There’s no question about it—the marketplace has changed significantly since BBB’s founding a century ago. And in some cases, technology has made those “gray” areas even grayer. Consumers are overwhelmed with choices—often exposed to 3,000 to 5,000 advertising messages daily. And, despite thousands of free and subscription-based websites offering “information,” it’s hard to know which ones can be trusted and which ones can’t.

Internet commerce, online advertising, social networking and mobile marketing have impacted and changed the way we do businesses. E-commerce—despite the instability in the economy—is seeing record growth. There are literally thousands of mobile applications designed to help shoppers compare prices and make transactions.

Consumers today have access to more information than ever before, and interactions between a buyer and seller have changed more than we could have ever imagined 100 years ago. EBay and Craigslist are a far cry from the marketplace of the early 20th century! But despite these changes, the need for an honest, ethical marketplace has remained constant. In fact, some may argue that trust is more important now than ever before.

General discontent with the marketplace is responsible for a new breed of consumer. Frustrated by an overwhelming number of marketing and media messages, today’s “get real” consumer values authenticity, honesty, integrity, reality and trust, and they expect these same values in the companies with which they choose to do business. Their lifestyle is one of hard work, family, common sense and community. These are people who value values, place priority on right vs. wrong and take pride in making smart decisions. These consumers are doing their homework and want to make sure they are working with businesses that value the same things they do.

Restoring consumer trust and confidence is going to require the cooperation and support of businesses, and a willingness to accept responsibility and rebuild trust on the part of the consumer. Consumers have to take responsibility for their actions, which includes doing their homework on businesses before they agree to buy their products or services, and understanding the terms and conditions to which they’ve signed. Additionally, in a time of great skepticism, consumers have to be willing to give the marketplace a chance again. While there has been great reason to doubt, there is also great reason for optimism. Trust can be rebuilt, and that trust will be critical to moving our marketplace forward.

For businesses, it means communicating and living by a set of standards, honoring your promises and acting with integrity. Do what you say you are going to do, deliver what you promise when you promise it, and treat your customers with the respect they deserve. It sounds simple enough, but remember: actions speak louder than words. iBi