Posts tagged “consumption”

What is advertising really selling us?

The Boing Boing post about ludicrous advertising claims echoed an earlier post here (Products with (fake) benefits) and brought to mind this photograph I took recently in downtown San Francisco, entering a BART station.

Who says you can’t buy happiness?

At least Twix, Red Bull and SoyJoy have an element of ironic bemusement in their claims, but McDonald’s is playing it pretty straight: buy this and you will be happy. Does this sort of pronouncement raise an eyebrow anymore? Do we actively or passively subscribe to that premise?

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • In Recession, Strategy Shifts for Retail – It's hard to parse this piece; it's about a lot of cost-cutting stuff that is happening in retail but the tone suggests that these are innovative ways for companies to be more responsive (better customer service? better localization of products?) and integrated (linking the in-store and online experiences?). I'm skeptical and don't believe the concluding statement that this is happening because we're not spending in stores like we used to, it's too close to the whole "innovate your way out of a recession" talk and I don't think retail is an adaptable industry to take on a frame shift like that.
  • An evolutionary perspective on what we display to others with our consumption (not clear how there's anything new here, though) – Instead of running focus groups and spinning theories,marketers could learn more by administering scientifically calibrated tests of intelligence and personality traits. If marketers understood biologists’ new calculations about animals’ “costly signaling,” they’d see that Harvard diplomas and iPhones send the same kind of signal as the ornate tail of a peacock.

    Sometimes the message is as simple as “I’ve got resources to burn,” the classic conspicuous waste demonstrated by the energy expended to lift a peacock’s tail or the fuel guzzled by a Hummer. But brand-name products aren’t just about flaunting transient wealth. The audience for our signals care more about the permanent traits measured in tests of intelligence and personality, as Dr. Miller explains in his new book, “Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior.”

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Reasonable Consumer Would Know "Crunchberries" Are Not Real, Judge Rules – Judge England also noted another federal court had "previously rejected substantially similar claims directed against the packaging of Fruit Loops [sic] cereal, and brought by these same Plaintiff attorneys." He found that their attack on "Crunchberries" should fare no better than their prior claims that "Froot Loops" did not contain real froot.

    (via BoingBoing)

  • A Manhattan Writing Of Six Therapists – “Everybody comes in with their own stories, and they can be so staggeringly original,” said Bonnie Zindel, the psychoanalyst who started the writing group seven years ago. “We all need stories to make sense of our lives, we’re all wired to tell stories, and nature gave us that. For us, we wonder, ‘What is the story that our patients are telling?’ There are mother stories, father stories, ghost stories and the eternal universal story of a child trying to separate from its mother.”
  • 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive – Read this post now, it won't last long! Most of our readers – including people like you – are already choosing to look at this post.

    (Lone Gunman, I'm giving you folks credit for this and look forward to you reciprocating, thanks!)

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • 100-WATT BULBS IN STOCK. (FOR HOW LONG WE DO NOT KNOW) – “Let some government official come in and tell me I can’t sell these,” Jonathan Wright, who has owned Classic Lighting for 40 years, said defiantly as he surveyed his warren of upscale light fixtures and shelves filled with neatly stacked bulbs. “I’ll find them wherever I can get them and sell them for whatever they cost. People are buying in bulk because they want them.”

    In the last two months he has sold 3,000 of the 100-watt bulbs — the traditional mainstay of British light fixtures — more than 30 times the usual. People are buying 10 at a time, the limit per customer, even though their price is nearly 50% higher than it was a year ago.

    Indeed, his customers have a litany of complaints. CFL light is too dim, especially for reading and putting on makeup, the bulbs, which are a bit longer than incandescents, protrude from small light shades; they take a long time to reach full brightness; they cannot be dimmed by switches; they contain mercury and require special disposal.

Rage With The Machine

Biodiesel-fueled coupe made from old semi truck, Half Moon Bay, California

lawnmower-race-sequence.jpgLawnmower Races, Half Moon Bay, California

I went to a huge auto and machine show recently at a small airfield down the coast from San Francisco. I really love this kind of stuff, but my machine lust was battling thoughts of carbon footprints, sustainability and global economics that made it a little difficult to see the event as entirely wholesome.

Living in and trying to navigate this consumption/sustainability paradox is the conundrum of the day for anyone who loves things.

Nokia’s Jan Chipchase gave a talk at Adaptive Path a couple of weeks ago, and showed a model of the Remade mobile phone concept. The Remade is produced almost entirely by upcycling, a Cradle to Cradle concept whereby potential trash is transformed into something valuable and useful.

Appearance model, Remade mobile phone concept, Nokia. (picture from

The extruded aluminum body of the Remade model seemed really tough, and made me think about what it would be like if products were built so well that they rarely broke.

Would that be the most sustainable approach to the object cycle-making things that lasted, and using them for as long as they lasted?

It’s a complex picture: there’s technological evolution constantly rendering our stuff obsolete, there’s the need for producers to continue to produce and sell what they make, and then there’s that crow/magpie thing-our persistent desire to add new objects to whatever we already have sequestered in our nests.

Thinking about a system this complex always leads to big questions. Here are some of mine for this round:

  • What is the relationship between remaking how objects are produced and shifting cultural attitudes toward consumption?

  • Can producers profitably focus on business models that take advantage of long use (for example by focusing more on post-purchase relationships and less on product replacement)?

  • Can it ever be as cool, sexy, and fun as buying new things to use our things for years and years, so that they acquire a patina, shape themselves to our bodies and our personalities, and bear scars that tell stories?

Or will that leave something fundamental in our natures (our crow-selves??) unsatisfied?

Reality is Consumed by Perception

Interesting methodology (and findings) for understanding the factors that influence our eating behaviors at the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell

In an eight-seat lab designed to look like a cozy kitchen, Dr. Wansink offers free lunches in exchange for hard data. He opened the lab at Cornell in April, after he moved it from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he spent eight years conducting experiments in cafeterias, grocery stores and movie theaters.

Although people think they make 15 food decisions a day on average, his research shows the number is well over 200. Some are obvious, some are subtle. The bigger the plate, the larger the spoon, the deeper the bag, the more we eat. But sometimes we decide how much to eat based on how much the person next to us is eating, sometimes moderating our intake by more than 20 percent up or down to match our dining companion.

Moviegoers in a Chicago suburb were given free stale popcorn, some in medium-size buckets, some in large buckets. What was left in the buckets was weighed at the end of the movie. The people with larger buckets ate 53 percent more than people with smaller buckets. And people didn’t eat the popcorn because they liked it, he said. They were driven by hidden persuaders: the distraction of the movie, the sound of other people eating popcorn and the Pavlovian popcorn trigger that is activated when we step into a movie theater.

Dr. Wansink is particularly proud of his bottomless soup bowl, which he and some undergraduates devised with insulated tubing, plastic dinnerware and a pot of hot tomato soup rigged to keep the bowl about half full. The idea was to test which would make people stop eating: visual cues, or a feeling of fullness.

People using normal soup bowls ate about nine ounces. The typical bottomless soup bowl diner ate 15 ounces. Some of those ate more than a quart, and didn’t stop until the 20-minute experiment was over. When asked to estimate how many calories they had consumed, both groups thought they had eaten about the same amount, and 113 fewer calories on average than they actually had.

A sidebar listing other experiments and results is here (link may expire).

The Ethnography of Marketing (or, rather, the marketing of Ethnography!)

The Ethnography of Marketing is another BusinessWeek piece about, well, ethnography. (It should be entitled The Marketing of Ethnography, perhaps).

The Institute of Design…[has] developed the User Insight Tool, an ethnographic methodology designed specifically for business. It relies on disposable cameras, field notebooks, and special software that teases out new understandings from consumer observations.

How does the User Insight Tool work? Researchers decide what human behaviors they want to observe. They give observers disposable cameras to take photos of those activities. With pictures in hand, researchers talk to the people using a standard framework outlined in their field notebooks. The goal is to understand each person’s activities over a number of dimensions such as comfort level and product use. The notes are analyzed and entered into the software along with general insights and the original field notes.

The software lets the researchers look for similarities among all the insights gleaned from the different subjects. It organizes them graphically on the computer screen so large patterns of similarities appear as dense patches or clusters. The value of clustering is that it can reveal hidden patterns of behavior.

Interesting. The Institute of Design has been talking about this tool for a while now, and this is as close to an actual description as we’re probably going to ever get. It’s still remarkably opaque. Is this some advanced Artificial Intelligence system that does Natural Language Processing? That would be surprising to see emerge from the ID, wouldn’t it? If not, then perhaps the article is suggesting that the “observations” that are entered into the system must be put into a set of categories (pre-defined?) and then it does some rudimentary sorting on them? For it’s the creation of that categories that seems enormously challenging.

In science, you can determine your parameters ahead of time; you can even set up all your stats before you do your data collection. But in fieldwork, you don’t really know what the categories are, you can hypothesize, but the pattern recognition has to let you go broader than you imagined (that’s why you are doing this in the first place!).

I’m always a little nervous when I see a piece of technology emerge as the panacea to complex human problem (and we see this all the time, either it’s software, or hypnotism, or MRIs or something else presumably objective). In this case, we’ve got messy people (those who we study) and a slippery skill set (doing ethnography). And it seems that the story here is throwing some gizmo at the problem to eliminate that. Are the people doing the “observations” considered ethnographers or are they simply data collectors working to a script?

There’s always a market for short-cuts, easy answers, quick-and-dirty solutions. Although their case studies sound intriguing from the little bit of detail we’ve been given, I would want to know much much more about what they’re actually doing to get to these results.

When the Institute of Design compared the ethnographic data of both the P&G and Lenovo studies, it found that while the kitchen is the center of family activity in the U.S., the parents’ bed is the family social center in India. This is vital information for any company making global consumer entertainment products.

Is “the parents’ bed is the family social center in India” an ethnographic insight or something that any Indian would be able to tell you? On that note, Dina Mehta has documented a whole series of Indian cultural norms around business, consumption and beyond. It’s a brilliant reference piece. Check ’em out: part 1, part 2, part 3.

Target looks at Wired Glamour

Target Ad 6-1.jpgTarget Ad 5.jpgTarget Ad 4.jpgTarget Ad 3.jpgTarget Ad 2.jpgTarget Ad-1.jpgclick on any picture to enlarge

A while back Virginia Postrel wrote about Wireless Glamour – the absence of wires from the glam photos of technology used in advertising, etc. I found these pictures in a Target advertising circular called Room Solutions. I was amazed to see pictures of messy rooms, where people own lots of stuff, it’s messy, askew, and yes indeed, there are wires – cables, cords, the whole real deal.

Sure, the pictures are entirely stylized and sort of hyper-real, but somehow it’s relieving to see a significant move away from the more idealized and yes glamourous consumer images that advertising is so fond of. I was at an annoying deisgn conference a couple of years ago and was struck when someone from IKEA showed fieldwork photos – messy homes overflowing with stuff. Of course, it wasn’t the photos that I was struck by – in doing ethnographic research, I’ve taken a million of those “real” pictures myself over the years but I was struck by the reaction – laughter. Designer after designer showed luscious product pr0n but one person showed realistic images and were met with ridicule. Now Target is using the mess of real life to help depict their ideal world – where consumers’ homes are messy and overflowing with stuff – stuff purchased at Target.


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