A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Be A Critical Consumer

Good evening fellow Toastmasters, welcome guests, and perhaps the odd lemming. Yes lemmings – those small animals that supposedly follow each other off the edges of cliffs, because they don’t think independently and merely follow the crowd – there may be one or two of you among us!

I certainly don’t want us to behave like lemmings, and that’s why tonight I want to stress the importance of being a critical consumer, and avoiding what I call “passive consumerism”. Passive consumerism is something I’ve noticed quite a bit lately; it’s a lazy approach to buying – one in which the average, placid consumers disengage their internal cognitive link and merely accept what is marketed to them.

There are two reasons for this. The primary one is that it’s easier to accept than analyze. It’s much less work to merely assume that the manufacturers or the service providers have completed all of the necessary research and product testing, and are presenting to us, a polished and well-thought-out product or service. The second reason originates with the marketers themselves. Perhaps it’s ivory tower thinking, or the lack of effort on the behalf of the marketers to really understand the consumers, but during the past few years I’ve noticed a slight arrogance and condescension in the tone of advertisements and the attitudes of some salespeople. They seem to expect consumers to simply accept every new (or updated) product or service that is placed in front of them, and not ask any probing questions.

One of the best examples of this “I know what’s best for you” style of marketing occurs three times a year, during the Apple Corporation’s product rollouts, which up until June 2011 have been led by their iconic CEO. Steve Jobs was a master marketer. In fact, his sales pitches were so mesmerizing that many people said that he possessed a “reality distortion field”. When audience members were caught up in this aura, they stopped thinking, and started drooling; they just had to have Apple’s latest iGadget. A good example of this is the recent launch of the iPhone 4S. While Steve Jobs wasn’t a part of the presentation, the reality distortion effect was still present. On the outside, the iPhone 4S looked just like its predecessor, the iPhone 4, although there was some additional functionality added to it. When the iPhone 4S was launched, people all over the country once again lined up outside Apple stores and around the block – some even camping out overnight – to be the first to own one. In fact, Steve Wozniak himself was one of those waiting in line.

The effect of the reality distortion field is only temporary, and seems to last only a couple of weeks. When it finally wears off, balanced coverage and diverging opinions return to the online discussion boards. Less than a month after the iPhone 4S was launched, someone posted the following graphic to one of these boards:

About 4-5 years ago, I was in the market for an MP3 player. Before I buy any electronic items, I always do my research first: I examine the various products online, compare their features, read any user reviews, and then shop around for the best price, and the closest store. I went to a neighbourhood Future Shop, walked over to the portable audio section, and found the item. While I was looking at the other MP3 players that the store carried, a sales person approached me and asked if I needed any help. I replied “No thank you, I found what I want right here, but if you would be kind enough to ring this up for me, that would be great”. So we walked to the cash register and as he was ringing up the item he said “Rogers has a great deal on high speed Internet, and if you sign up today we can offer you a great price”.

I answered “No thank you”, but my thoughts were quite different. What I was thinking at the time was “Oh thank you so much Mr. Future Shop floor-walker! As soon as I walked in the store you must have spotted my vacant “offline” expression, identifying me as the one of the digitally disenfranchised. In fact, for years now, I’ve been wondering why everyone around me seemed so happy and connected. I’ve been wandering around in a fog until today, when I finally realized what was missing in my life: the Internet! Thank you so much for identifying this gaping chasm in my life, and offering to fill it – I never would have figured this out on my own!”

To be fair, I knew that this was obviously a reciprocal promotion between Future Shop and Rogers. In marketing meetings, I’m sure that these reciprocal arrangements are hyped as a win/win strategy for both companies – but only if the consumers are perceived as brainless zombies who are unable to think for themselves. Those consumers who take the time to analyze the promotion will see that choosing an Internet provider is a long-term arrangement and shouldn’t be an impulse decision. [take a step toward the audience] How long have you been with your Internet service provider? Three years? Five years? Ten years? Some marriages haven’t lasted as long…

My third and final example is something a little more recent [pick up Insider’s Report]. This is the current copy of the President’s Choice Insider’s Report [Oct-Dec 2011]. Some of you probably have this flyer in your homes right now. I usually enjoy leafing through it, but some of the marketing in this issue is just driving me up the wall. Take a look at this page:

First of all, let me say (in all fairness) that I have nothing against the product itself. I’ve bought President’s Choice chicken wings before, and I quite enjoyed them. I’d certainly buy them again and would even recommend them to others. My issue here is not with the quality of the product, but with its repackaging and marketing.

As you can see, they’ve separated the wings and the drums, and are selling each type separately – one box contains only winglets and one box contains only drumsticks. Now, before I say anything further, how many of you think that this is a good idea? OK, how many of you would buy this product? Ok, now how many of you think that this is a tremendous innovation in chicken wing marketing?

I have three points to make about the accompanying text. First, let’s examine this sentence “We even asked everyone around our PC kitchen which ones they prefer, and sparked a great debate with votes for both sides coming in strong”. A great debate? Really… I’m surprised, because there is actually nothing to debate. If they had asked “Which is the best – the wings or the drums?”, that would be a good subject for a debate. However, that wasn’t the question. The question was “Which do you prefer?”. You can’t debate someone’s preference. How did this sentence make it into print? Where is their editor?

OK, let’s skip to the last sentence “Now you can pick up the box your family loves best!”. Their assumption here seems to be that when it comes to chicken wings, my entire family thinks as one. Like the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation, we all think as a single organism. In the President’s Choice test kitchen, as we just read, everyone has his or her own opinion. In fact, they were so unwavering in their gallinaceous culinary preferences that they even sparked a “great debate”. Why wouldn’t my family members also have individual – and similarly strong – opinions? Personally, I find their statement to be a bit condescending.

My last point comes from an analysis of this sentence “So we decided to make everyone happy by offering [both types of chicken wings]”. In this scenario, assuming that my family members do in fact have individual opinions, I have to buy two boxes of chicken wings in order to make everyone happy. Before this new and innovative product was launched, I could simply buy a single box of chicken wings containing both wings and drums, put everything on a plate, and let my family members take whatever they wanted. I don’t see anything innovative here – all I see is a doubling of my chicken wing budget to achieve the same level of contentment. In my opinion, the President’s Choice people are offering a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

As I mentioned before, I do enjoy the President’s Choice chicken wings, but this new marketing idea of theirs should not have made it this far. In my opinion, it should never have left the drawing board (or the brainstorming session) because a moment’s thought would have made anyone realize that – unless your entire family likes only one type of wing and will categorically refuse to eat the other type – there is no compelling reason to buy it. I believe this product made it into production only because nobody was brave enough to say “I’m sorry, but this is just not a practical idea – no intelligent consumer is going to fall for it.”

Fellow Toastmasters, this is my call to action – I want you to be critical consumers instead of passive ones. Don’t merely accept whatever is marketed to you. Question everything you see and read, and try to find a compelling reason why you should buy a particular product or service. If you can’t think of a good reason then just ignore it.

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