No one could pigeonhole the multiple careers of Betty Furness who lost a battle with cancer on April 2 in New York City at the age of 78. If the only true ageing is the erosion of one’s ideals, she never did age. Instead Betty Furness was the paragon of ageless living with the last 27 years of her life committed to consumer advocacy.
She did not start out doing that kind of work, however. From a well-to-do family, she grew up on Park Avenue and went into modeling for a brief period before becoming an actress in about 35 movies. All but two of these movies, she decried years later which foreshadowed her blunt manner of speaking that many a corporation executive can recall with more than a little discomfort.
From a career in Hollywood, she hired on with Westinghouse where she sold refrigerators for twelve years with the famous signature phrase — “You can be sure, if it is Westinghouse.” Having campaigned with Lady Bird Johnson in 1964, she caught the notice of White House staff who asked her to become a special assistant for consumer affairs to President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.
When I heard the news of her nomination, I was nonplussed, saying to reporters who called for comment: “She is moving from ‘You can be sure if it is Westinghouse’ to “You can be sure if it is the White House.” I didn’t think a company saleswoman could become a strong consumer advocate going after misbehaving companies. Was I ever mistaken!
Betty Furness became a pioneering champion of consumers, first at the White House where she quickly showed she meant business vis-à-vis business crime, fraud and abuse to her role in spearheading television consumer journalism on the Today Show and WNBC between 1976 and 1992. Earlier she was head of the New York State consumer affairs board, quit when the legislature
ignored her serious requests for action, and then assumed the post of New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs in 1973. For a time she wrote a consumer column for McCall’s magazine and for a longer time served on the Board of Consumers Union which publishes the monthly magazine, Consumers Report.
The above list of achievements may appear routine today, but at the time, Betty Furness broke new ground at many of these posts and reached millions of people in the process.
Many a local television station brought on a consumer reporter in various cities around the country because producers saw Betty defy the conventional odds and make the Today Show segment a highly rated few minutes.
Before Betty Furness broke the television ice, the stations were afraid to touch investigative consumer news. They said it would be bad for their advertisers and people weren’t interested. That was a rationale for cowardliness in the days when stories about defective automobiles would not dare to mention the model or brand name. (Corvairs were described early on as “a mid-size, rear-engine American car.”)
Betty Furness overcame those taboos and raised the integrity of journalism more than a few notches. She came through on television with clarity, honesty, and sometimes a bit of humor. With her strong voice and graphic illustrations of how more than a few businesses rip off or harm consumers, she made a public service out of the public airwaves. In a line of work where one serious error could shorten a television journalist’s career, Betty Furness persevered and prevailed.
When she became ill in 1990 she took a leave of absence from WNBC and, against the odds, recovered enough to return to her post on the evening news. But the station eased her out shortly thereafter, prompting her to observe: “This was their idea, not mine.”
At a celebration of her 70th birthday, Betty Furness was surrounded by wellwishers who hailed from a diversity of occupations — from the theatre to government officials to the media to the people she helped so often.
I recall raising my hand to say a few words, but the master of ceremonies did not look my way. What I wanted to say was this: “Betty, you taught millions of people how never to retire, how always to grow into different careers while using the skills developed from prior work to be ever more useful to the society around you. You’ve earned a place in American history all by yourself, your true grit and irrepressible interest in what is important in peoples’ lives. No one had a larger constituency — the consumers of America. No one was truer to their claims for justice.”
In the Seventies, Betty would complain about how difficult it was to shake the public’s television image of her side-by-side with refrigerators. “I feel I’m a very serious person who wants to do things.” You made us forget the refrigerators, Betty. Instead, we’ll always remember your tireless work for the health, safety and economic well-being of the people who pay the bills.