Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

You Are a Product That Must Be Sold

In his classic New Yorker piece on Ron Popeil, Malcolm Gladwell points out that Popeil comes from a family of kitchen-appliance sellers with an interesting philosophy of product design:

They believed that it was a mistake to separate product development from marketing, as most of their contemporaries did, because to them the two were indistinguishable: the object that sold best was the one that sold itself.
Think about that for a moment. You might imagine developing a product as follows: first, identify a need for a new product. Then, design a product that optimally meets that need, taking into account cost of production, etc. Finally, market the product to the public.

What Popeil and his family realized was that capitalism actually calls for a different approach. Marketing is "too important to be left to the generals." The product must be designed with an eye to convincing people that they need it, even at the expense of functionality or cost of production (Gladwell does not make this last point explicit, but it seems inevitable - otherwise there simply wouldn't be any trade-offs). See below for some examples from Gladwell. Of course, I don't think this approach originated with the Popeils. However, it may be increasingly common as society becomes more affluent, because a higher and higher percentage of our income is spent on products that we must be convinced that we need. One does not expect a tremendous amount of marketing to go into the design of shoelaces.

But what is disturbing is that this approach is not confined to products in the marketplace. People organize their lives for maximum "marketability" so as to compete more effectively in status games - they do not separate life decisions from the marketing of themselves. And they embrace marketability even at the expense of other important considerations. Of course, one can be more or less effective at this - nakedly angling for status is itself looked down on. But as in so many other areas, we can't escape the disgusting logic of modern life even in our most private domains. Though I suppose that in this case capitalism is not to blame - our self-promotional tactics long pre-date it.

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Postscript: Here is one way Popeil incorporated marketing into product design.

Why does [the pitch for the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ - set it & forget it!] work so well? Because the Showtime--like the Veg-O-Matic before it--was designed to be the star. From the very beginning, Ron insisted that the entire door be a clear pane of glass, and that it slant back to let in the maximum amount of light, so that the chicken or the turkey or the baby-back ribs turning inside would be visible at all times.

. . .

Ron understood that the perfect brown [skin of a chicken cooked in the Showtime] is important for the same reason that the slanted glass door is important: because in every respect the design of the product must support the transparency and effectiveness of its performance during a demonstration--the better it looks onstage, the easier it is for the pitchman to go into the turn and ask for the money.

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