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Nielsen: Celebrating 90 Years of Innovation

Cheryl Pearson-McNeil, Special to The Washington Informer | 8/20/2013, 7:53 p.m.
Cheryl Pearson-McNeil

Isn’t it fascinating how a person can have a single idea or dream planted, take root and change the world as we know it? Well, that’s exactly how Nielsen came to be. This week, Nielsen will celebrate its 90th Anniversary. So, I’d like to give a sincere kudos to Nielsen on such a momentous, milestone anniversary. On Aug. 24, 1923, in Chicago, a visionary engineer named Arthur C. Nielsen, Sr. (also known as A.C. Nielsen) first came up with the idea of selling performance surveys. He borrowed $45,000 to start a business to test the quality of conveyor belts and turbine generators. With those first, simple measurements, Mr. Nielsen introduced the concept of market research. Today, 90 years later, Nielsen has evolved and grown to become a global market research company with a presence in more than 100 countries – headquartered in New York and the Netherlands.

Did you know that Nielsen has many “firsts?” And we are most known for our TV ratings, but there is so much more. So, if you don’t mind, how about I share with you a short Nielsen history lesson today?

So here we go. After the engineering surveys, Nielsen began measuring drug and retail store sales in 1933, followed by food and department store sales the next year. Client service teams were assembled after in order to make sure the data being collected would be interpreted correctly and so that clients would have a liaison to work with on their day to day operations. And fueled by his passion and curiosity for consumer insights, A.C. Nielsen created the concept of “market share” in 1935.

Folks were listening to radio long before TV came along, so Mr. Nielsen acquired the rights to the first instantaneous Audiometer in 1936. This device attached to a radio to record when it was on and what station was being listened to. A few years later, in 1942, Nielsen’s radio index was launched in the U.S.

Also in the 1940s, the U.S. Chicago headquarters doubled in size and two more international offices in Canada and Australia were opened (the first opened in the United Kingdom in 1939). In addition to radio, the consumer and pharmaceutical indexes were introduced. Mr. Nielsen really stepped out on a limb in 1948 and invested in the first commercial computer, the UNIVAC 1. Now you can imagine this computer was far from today’s PC or even the new portable tablet devices. You know those giant, clunky metal and cable masses you may have seen in old sci-fi movies? Yes, that’s what it looked like. I wonder what Mr. Nielsen would say if he could see how technology has evolved today?

The infamous “Nielsen Ratings” as you know it, made its debut in 1950 when the company began measuring TV audiences. National daily TV ratings in the U.S. weren’t offered until 1973. And, who remembers when those now-ubiquitous bar codes (officially known as Universal Product Codes or UPCs) started popping up? Yes, it was Nielsen that introduced the scanning of bar codes in 1977. This revolutionized the way marketers and retailers were able to understand how and why consumers make purchasing decisions every day. Today, Nielsen measures 400 billion retail product transactions a year in more than 600,000 stores around the world.