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Friday, January 21, 2011

Marketing: The (d)evolution of the "Smart Potato" and the duped consumer

One of my greatest professors was Dr. Daryl Hobbs, a brilliant rural sociologist and a good 'ol boy to the core. As a graduate student in his class, one was forced to actually think; there were no fill-in-the-blanks questions, and being a sociology class - few absolutely right or wrong answers..

At the start of a class with maybe 17 students, he asked: "What's the hottest toy going to be for Christmas." Being September and us being mostly half awake (as grad students are wont to be at that time of day), everybody guessed at various popular toys and baubles. When we were out of things seen on TV commercials, he said: "It's whatever the marketing people want it to be."

To start, let me present the "Smart" potato, which can be had for $1.00 to $1.50 in 1/2 lb, 1-potato units.
Smart potatoe - you've got to be kidding!

Of course, it is just a tater and it sells for about 1/4 the price of the above, by weight. The yummy staple of the American diet. Asians have rice, mid-Easterners have cous-cous and in Europe they have pasta and other grain starches. In the Americas we have potatoes.

These starchy tubers come raw, and in various cans, boxes and jars. Sliced, slivered, diced, grated, julienned, whipped, chipped, chopped, extruded, and mashed, from soup and hash to McDonald's fries - they are as nutritious as any other starch and probably contribute to the increase of diabetes in America as much as refined sugar products and twinkies ever did. How, you may ask, can you hype a blob of starch covered in a brown skin to the point where consumers would make dumb decisions and pay through the nose (or taste buds) for these?

Enter the marketing crowd. They sat around and said: "We can't add much value to this. After all, it's a tater!" This is where marketing types earn their pay. They figured that if they extole every minor virtue the spud has, under-play any negatives and package it in a different way that they could get people to buy them for about 500% of their value.

Apparently that works.The item above is just a spud, hopefully washed well and covered in plastic wrap. The insidious part is in the labeling. At the bottom, not shown here, it says "Microwaveable potato." So what? They're all microwaveable; I've been doing it for years. The label says "Hand Selected," "Simply Smarter," and "Pro-Health" too. All meaningless labeling ploys. The brand name "Smart Potato" implies that you, by the very virtue of falling for this marketing ploy, are somehow smarter as a result of wasting your money on them.

Come on guys - it's a damned tater!

The "Smart" consumer would buy the same thing for 1/4 the price and not add to our landfill problem by adding the plastic wrapper to his purchase. Other ridiculous marketing creations are: pre-sliced carrots, pre-chopped onions and bagged chopped lettuce. Most of these are sold with the idea that the purchaser is "Smart" for being a time saver, and as such they are designed for the "busy" homemaker.

Have we really come to the point in human evolution where we can't chop an onion or slice a carrot? Does it save time when it takes almost as long to open and discard the unnecessary packaging as it does to rinse and prepare our food? Seems like homemade is becoming a thing of the past where our food is prepared elsewhere and assembled at home. Kind of like our cars. Do the marketing types really believe people will fall for this? Apparently so.  How lame is that, when one can't even chop an onion?

Here's my version of the smart carrot. 
If anyone needs instructions, take it out of the fridge, wash it and use a sharp knife. It takes maybe 30 seconds and you can even take a photo when you're done ;-)
Smart carrot

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