Marketers, whose number is legion — there are times when I think there are more marketers than there are actual markets — will tell you to your face that you're an important part of the cycle of commerce, and that manufacturers are hanging on your every word, hoping to earn your dollars. This is, of course, complete and utter balderdash. How much balder could it be? And the answer is none. None more balder.

People who work in retail, of course, have reasons to suspect that not all of their customers have both oars — indeed, any oars — in the water. LeeAnn has examples just about every week, much like this:

Lady With A Funny Haircut: So you can't order it because...?

me: Because it's not in the system.

LWAFH: Then put it there.

me: What?

LWAFH: Type in the name and then it will be there.

If anyone invents the phrase "opaque on the concept," there's a citation.

In my younger days, I took part in little exercises called "focus groups," which gathered together likely consumers and attempted to extract useful information from them. To me, they always seemed to be just this side of desperate: I mean, why would you want to know what I might buy? And why would you pay me to tell you that, anyway? If you're that hard up for amusement, you could watch me go to the store and save your twenty bucks. Still, I didn't consciously try to subvert the system: I answered their questions with as straight a face as I could manage, and didn't make up bizarre scenarios unless they really seemed to want some.

Still, when I see something that's billed as the Result of Extensive Market Research, I'm more often than not tempted to guffaw. It was careful, detailed research that told Ford that what they really needed was another mid-priced car, alongside Mercury but below Lincoln. And we all know what happened to Edsel — and, eventually, to Mercury as well.

Which leads to the question: Are they just spinning their wheels? Jamie Kitman notes in the January 2011 Automobile Magazine:

I'd bet my last euro that Ferdinand and Ferry Porsche never came to America in the late 1940s to ask people how they'd like a bunched-up little sports car with a 40-hp air-cooled noisemaker stuck where the trunk ought to be. I'm also pretty sure no customer ever told Subaru to build a car with a farty-sounding flat four, ungainly lines, four-wheel drive, and microbial performance because that's what 1970s America would want. The fact is, the customer doesn't know what he wants, and when he does, he's probably wrong.

Eventually I quit signing up for focus groups: as close as I would come to the term ever again was in the fall of 2000, when I test-drove an actual Ford Focus. It was an entertaining little car, but its interior looked kinda screwy to me, so I passed it by. And they kept that funky dash for five whole years, so evidently losing that one sale bothered them hardly at all.

Which is by way of saying, much the way John Wanamaker is supposed to have said, that half the money they spend on this sort of thing is wasted — and they don't know which half.

The Vent

  23 February 2011

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