Friday, November 21, 2014

The Illusion of Choice

So, you walk down the soft drink aisle at the supermarket and think that among the dozens of flavors and brands you have a robust and meaningful choice. Okay, find a diet cola without aspartame as the chemical sweetener. Oh, you can do it, but you'll be fortunate to locate more than one or two.

Similarly, try to find a regular soda not sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. In other words, sweetened with sugar.

I was at Ralph's just now and I got the hankering for root beer. I looked at all four brands (A&W, Barq's, Big K, and IBC. All four regular ones sweetened with high fructose corn syrup and all four diet sweetened with aspartame. If I recall correctly, Mug is the same story.

Wouldn't  you think that, just for competitive edge, one brand would have a sugar-sweetened root beer and a Splenda or stevia sweetened diet version? And while I'm at it, try to find a "less sweet" soda or a "less sweet" iced tea. In iced tea you get the full ten teaspoons per can or nothing (unsweetened). And, in fact, try to find unsweetened iced tea in more than a couple of brands. That major maker, Lipton, doesn't seem to make it. (Yeah, yeah, I know, consumer preference and all that. But how can consumers prefer something if they never have the choice?)

So, let's hear it for a modestly sugar sweetened root beer or cola or ginger ale.

And while I'm whining, what about more non-carbonated soft drinks? You realize that the phosphoric acid in soft drinks not only puts the bite on your tongue, but it dissolves your teeth, too. Ever see the teeth of a habitual soda swigger? Not a pretty sight.

The bottom line is that foot and drink manufacturers seem to be in a rut, using the same formulas and techniques to make what only appears to be a diversity of products. It reminds me of the old Taco Bell menu: Taco--ground taco meat in a taco shell. Bell Burger--ground taco meat on a hamburger bun. Something or other cup--ground taco meat in a cup.

Here's what will happen.

"Hey, Harry, we need to innovate to stay competitive."

"But Stan, we make ten different soft drinks: Yam Cola, Diet Yam Cola, Cherry Yam Cola, Cherry Diet Yam Cola, 10-Calorie Yam Cola, Organic Yam Cola, Zero Zero Yam Cola, Organic Diet Yam Cola, Organic Cherry Yam Cola--"

"But need something totally new."

"Double sweet Strawberry Yam Cola?"

"No, something like, "Lightly Sweet All Natural Lemonade--Made with Pure Sugar."

"Are you crazy?"

"Let's try it."

"Okay, but it will have to be sold at a premium price to enhance its unique, upscale appeal. I'm thinking four 10-ounce bottles for six dollars. That will give it real cachet."

[Six months later}

"Well, Stan, I hate to say I told you so, but the lemonade didn't sell. Your idea was no good. Don't ever ask us to go against the flow again."

Trester's Ideas: Restaurant Themes

It is said that genius and insanity live on the same street, next door to each other, in  fact. I don't know if that's true, but my brother, Trester suffered from schizophrenia for many years and in the process created many ideas that might be of use to the world. He wrote what he called "Headline Cards," notes on 3-by-5-inch cards. Most of these were imagined news headlines, such as "Whole Area Bombed Here Again." But occasionally, he wrote down some ideas for products, stores, foods, and so forth.

Here, then are a few ideas I've gleaned from his note cards. They might not be unique, but they might also be of use to stimulate further creative ideas. I've taken the core note and expanded it to clarify what I thought was his own idea and then added my own thoughts to it.

As a gift from my now-deceased brother, these ideas are in the public domain. To expand these ideas, I'm available as a consultant.

1. Ancient Days Restaurant. Create a theme restaurant with multiple rooms, each of which serves authentic food from historical eras and locations. For example, the 1,000 B.C. room would feature the breads, soups, and stews and barbecue eaten in, say the middle east at that time. The 1,000 AD room would feature robustly spiced mutton stews and so forth. More fun might include a Renaissance, and an Eighteenth Century room, and maybe a 300 B.C. China room. Period decor (clothing, farm tools, weapons, cooking utensils) would enhance the experience. Tabletop TVs could show short films discussing the historical period and tying menu selections to the history (thus encouraging people to try the dishes).

2. Soap for the world. Develop an anti-bacterial soap that is effective in cleaning, mild to the skin, and biodegrades easily and quickly. Market it as (1) good for you and (2) good for the world. For every bar (or 2 or 3 or 4) purchased, another bar will be donated to third and fourth world countries where a lack of hygiene is a cause of so many ailments.

3. Medicated Floor Cleaner. Develop a floor cleaner that contains, say, menthol and eucalyptus oils, so that a hospital or sick child's room can be cleaned with it, leaving the nose-clearing aroma in the room. Another angle on this is to combine an antiseptic or antibiotic chemical with a floor cleaner, so that two kinds of cleaning can be accomplished at once. A third possibility is  to combine an aromatic substance with the floor cleaner so that when floors are cleaned in third-world countries, a mosquito repellent will be laid down as well. (You might need to sponsor a "Concrete Floor Project" in tandem with this, for areas where floors are still dirt.)

Sunday, November 02, 2014

What Is It About the Scarcity Principle that We Find Irresistible?

I'm sure you're aware of the scarcity principle--how marketers make you think that unless you buy the item right now, you might not get it. Ever.

Examples are everywhere:
  • Act now while supplies last!
  • Limited time offer!
  • Limited to stock on hand.
  • Hurry! Sale ends soon!
  • One day only!
  • Quantities limited!
Then there is the ploy of the last chance ever. Some bookstores have a bin full of books labeled "Last Chance." Unless you buy now, you will never see these books again. Or, more dramatic is the "Going Out of Business" sale. Wow, better get in on the bargains before they are all gone. Related appeals to end-of-the-world scarcity:
  • Closeout sale!
  • Liquidation sale!
  • Everything must go!
Related is the limit-per-customer ploy. If we see an ad for something with the restriction of "one per customer," we think the price must be so low that other dealers or resellers would be pounding at the door to get as many as they could, were it not for the limit put on it. (But then you see an ad for an angle grinder that includes the note, "Limit 8." That doesn't have quite the same power of threat that "Limit 1" has.)

So my question is, why are we such suckers to the scarcity principle? "Closeout? I'd better buy a few right now before they're gone forever." And no doubt most of us have had the experience where we bought a product on  super sale, then returned to get several more, only to find them sold out. That seems to preprogram us for succumbing to the scarcity principle even more strongly.

Experience teaches us that "Supplies Limited" really means "the supplies are limited to the number ca can sell. Ever." And experience also teaches us that, when we don't get the sale item we wanted, something else becomes available that might even be better and cheaper.

The scarcity principle rushes some people into marriage. "If I don't marry him/her now, he/she will marry someone else and be gone forever." Read the slogans at the beginning of this blog entry and you'll see nearly everyone could apply to the marriage situation.

1. Just because someone says it's scarce doesn't mean it is really scarce.
2. If  you are tempted by the scarcity marketing ploys, just think "alternatives," "substitutions," and "equivalents."

Saturday, November 01, 2014

We Cannot Assume that the Customer Is Not Making Assumptions

One of the sources of "sad humor" is that defensive obviousness that product manufacturers practice in an effort to prevent customers from getting angry because something they assumed about the product was incorrect. Or, it may be that in our litigious culture, manufacturers want to avoid being sued over some issue that any reasonable person would find laughable (hence the source of humor) but that someone out there somewhere could conceivably claim to have assumed about the product.

Example: An advertisement for a toolbox for $14.95 shows it in a picture filled with tools. The caption says, "Tools sold separately."

Example: A set of jack stands includes the instruction, "Raise vehicle to desired height using
an appropriate jack (sold separately)."

Example: A new 5-gallon propane bottle is sold for $28. On the label are the words: "Empty. Does not contain propane." Anyone lifting it or just reasoning from the price should know that, but someone might assume. . . .

Example: A small clock radio includes a sack of desiccant to keep the item dry during shipping and storage before sale. On the pack is a message: "Warning: Do Not Eat." Is that because otherwise, someone would think they were buying a clock radio and a snack?

Example: A razor comes with a protective plastic cap covering the blades. On the package is the note: "Remove protective cap before use." (Hmm. No wonder I wasn't getting a very close shave.)

Another, somewhat similar category are messages accompanying dynamic demonstrations of a product (often a car or truck) warning the viewer: "Do not attempt. Warranty void if product abused in this way." Our hopes are as deflated as the tires after that jump through the air when we read such a disclaimer. Here we were hoping to buy that car just so we could run it off lift ramps at high speed and fly over drainage channels and fallen causeways.

Disclaimer: This blog entry is not guaranteed to make you wiser or smarter or to help you get a high score on the GRE. No warranty is expressed or implied. Use at your own risk. Your mileage may vary. Knowledge sold separately. Wisdom not included.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Unintended Consequences and the Failure to Think Systematically

There seems to be too much shallow thinking in modern life. When a problem occurs, we throw a law at it or cobble up a solution with some instant bandaid. The problem is that we don't think down the road, and consider what unexpected events might be caused by the solution. This knee-jerk failure to consider the consequences can bring about more harm than good.

Example: A building owner wanted to save money and water, so he installed low flow toilets in every bathroom. Within days the sewers backed up and caused a mess. The owner neglected to think through the situation. Instead of thinking systematically--thinking of the waste system as a whole--he thought only of saving water. However, the sewer pipes were designed to handle high-flow toilets, making use of the water volume to move the waste along the pipes. When the flow was cut in half, the it was insufficient to move the waste along.

Example: Feeling sorry for single mothers, the state set up payments to them, based on the number of children they had and on the fact that they were the sole support for the kids. Unexpectedly, the new welfare system both discouraged marriage and encouraged illegitimacy. If the single mother got married, her support would be reduced or eliminated, creating a disincentive to marriage. And the more children the single mother had, the larger the payment she would receive, thus incentivizing illegitimacy.

Economist Thomas Sowell reminds us to ask, "And then what?" after every proposal. Think beyond what you intend and think about what others might interpret or how they might respond in a way you wouldn't dream of.

Example: After an airplane accident where an infant was torn from its mother's arms and slammed against a bulkhead by the force of the crash, a law was proposed that would require a parent to buy a seat for the infant and strap the child in a carrier in the extra seat. But then some economists did some figuring. They argued that enough mothers and fathers would be unable or unwilling to afford an extra seat and would choose to drive instead. As a result, there would be nine infant deaths in automobile accidents for every infant life saved by the required seating in the aircraft.

And then what? What else would happen? How could the crafty take advantage of this? Where would this lead? What might be some unintended consequences?

Remember that each law, practice, behavior, and so on is an integral part of a system will remind you to ask how the proposed change will affect the entire system, both upstream and downstream.

A creative type was hired to improve the look of an old corporate web site. The designer moved a bunch of pages around, organizing them much more logically. However, the links from page to page were almost all rendered inoperative.

Think down the road. Think systematically.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

If a Tree Falls in a Forest When No One Is Present, Does It Make a Sound?

The practical philosopher's answer to this apparent conundrum is actually simple. It hinges on the definition of the word sound. If sound is defined as a perceived auditory sensation, then without a perceiver, nothing is perceived, and  hence there is no sound because sound is a perception.

But I think most of us would agree that sound refers to the waves of sonic energy emitted whenever something makes noise--a falling tree, a screeching bird, or even the whisper of the wind through the treetops. So, observer or not, the tree does make a sound.

Thought experiment: A man goes on a hike. It starts raining and he is unprepared, so he drops everything and rushes back to his  car. A couple of days later he returns to his hiking spot and finds his voice recorder, which has the sound of  falling tree on it.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

More About Sex

In a previous post, I mentioned that we have lost quite a few formerly perfectly good words--words we cannot use in their literal meaning--because they have become euphemisms referring to sexual matters.

I'm reminded now how many words have become slang references to women's breasts. The thought was brought up again recently by a friend who washed a van for a female friend. He was on top of the van wiping down the luggage holder bolted to the roof. Enthusiastically, he shouted down to her, "You have a great rack!"

Sure, sure, "Think before you speak," but why do we have to step so cautiously through these verbal minefields lest we convey the wrong idea?

"Boobs" used to mean "simpletons," or incompetent folks. A 1920's silent film took advantage of this  change in meaning by the title, "Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs," the boobs being some slapstick characters.

Words that in the singular are still largely safe, take on anatomical slang meanings in the plural: Jug, jugs; hooter (an owl), hooters; knocker (door rapper), knockers; and so on. One web site lists 138 slang terms for breasts.

I guess some folks are so obsessed with "the girls" that they need lots of synonyms in order not to sound repetitive. And, for some, the terms are slightly humorous, so it's a cheap way to sound a bit scandalously witty. For others, it's just for the titillation.

Aesop's moral: Isn't it kind of a shame that we are so sex-obsessed that we have to keep prostituting formerly nice words into sexual meanings?

Reading Is Only the Beginning

I've recently begun my fourth journey through the Rambler essays of Samuel Johnson, and it occurred to me that there is a great difference between simply reading something--such as a novel for enjoyment or a magazine for information or a textbook for an assignment--and reading for improvement.

It further occurred to me that reading for improvement tracks the three steps of hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation).

1. What does it say? This step is in common with ordinary reading. We want to comprehend the material, to grasp the writer's point. Of course, we need to be alert for metaphors, irony, exaggeration, and so forth.

2. What does it mean? This step might be thought of as understanding in context, or as the larger significance of the work. As we read at this level, we always have the "so what?" in mind. What are the implications? This step shows we care about the ideas we are reading and are thinking about them and their role is the great conversation.

3. How does this apply to me? This last step takes the reading home to ourselves as we ask how it should affect, challenge, influence, or change the way we act, think, feel, and understand the world and our place in it.

Reading only for comprehension, so that you can do well on a test, limits the effect of the author-reader interaction to a simple, safe level. But if you want to grow wiser, better, happier, you must examine the ideas in the text at a higher step.

There is a saying, "We read because we find ourselves there, and we read because we don't find ourselves there." That is, we read in order to feel human, maybe normal, and to recognize our own feelings and thoughts, fears and hopes, ambitions and hesitations though those we read about (fiction or nonfiction). And we also read to escape from ourselves and our patterned lives, to move into the magical realms of story and interesting people, circumstances, challenges, and events.

To read well is to read through all three steps.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Why Our Culture Is Declining

As a culture, we've moved from admiring a poem by Shakespeare, John Donne, or George Herbert to admiring (if that's the right word for it) scantily clad young women shaking their body parts while singing quasi-melodious songs with lyrics that push the definition of superficial banality to new depths. Why, you ask, is this so? What has caused this? Several factors are at work in a perfect storm.

First, there is the human desire for constant novelty, exacerbated by the supply of constant novelty. Lots of leisure time has turned us (especially the young who seem to have lots of leisure time) into a culture of entertainment. In the entertainment economy, there is a constant flow of entertainment, that, however derivative, needs to continue to demand attention. In the attention economy, ever more surprising, shocking, amazing things must be included in the entertainment package so that people will pay attention to the next new thing instead of the competition's next new thing. Thus does the stunt ratchet get constantly cranked up. One movie blows up a car. The next movie blows up three cars. The next movie blows up a building. The next movie blows up a town. And so on.

That's how we got from a young woman singer holding a microphone twenty years ago to a naked young woman singer swinging on a wrecking ball today.  What was surprising yesterday is soporific today. What was shocking yesterday is cliche today. So, in order to maintain a shock value to get attention, ever more exaggerated, low brow events must be staged. We're already passing by vile and detestable into regions that have no words for them.