Column March 10, 2010: Marketing – the greatest menace of our age

I WENT to Costco on Sunday. Well, I had to. I’d completely run out of 60-litre bottles of olive-style oil, whirlpool baths and big tellies, and where else was I going to get them all in the one shop?

In amongst the pre-braised lamb shanks and mammoth multi-packs of contraceptives (Who buys those, by the way? It would be quite the statement of intent) I found a packet of prunes. 

Now, I do like a prune and don’t mind who knows it. If you’re put off by the name, redolent of 70s sitcoms and old people’s homes, then that’s your problem – more prunes for me and to hell with the consequences.

But I refused to buy these prunes, because they had been rebranded in a desperate attempt to bypass the prune stigma.

And what were they now called? Fruity Snax 2.0? Fun Plums? Mega Raisins? 

No. A marketing numpty had renamed them “pitted dried plums”. Pitted and dried. It would be difficult to imagine two more dismal words used to attract consumers. “Diseased and disappointing,” possibly. What sort of person would refuse to buy prunes because of the image problem, but happily snap up a bag of pitted dried plums? I suspect there wouldn’t be many.

I went on to Tesco, because life as a journalist isn’t all glamour, glamour, glamour, and was assailed again by the marketer’s art. I was looking for a torch and Tesco had just the thing, a nice silver jobbie, like one would imagine Fox Mulder would hold at shoulder height if The X-Files was still on the television.

But this wasn’t an ordinary torch, apparently. This was a “high velocity” torch. I scoured the packaging to work out exactly what this meant in the context of a torch, but gleaned no clues. Was it more aerodynamic than other torches? And why would one throw a torch in any case?

Or maybe, somehow, the light from this torch travels faster than light from other torches. It was starting to look like a bargain. For years, I’ve bemoaned the sluggish performance of conventional torches and their frustrating way of casting out light at the speed of light and no quicker. My misery was at an end. Take that, physics!

The alternative did not bear thinking about. Could a marketing gimp have just chosen a couple of words which sounded good but were essentially meaningless? Surely not.

But the portents were there. It was clear the marketing divvies had taken over. And the proof was all over the deodorant shelves. There, I saw two different varieties of the same brand of deodorant. One offered 24-hour protection, another reduced underarm white marking. What a dilemma. If I opted for 24-hour protection, and, let’s face it, I should, I was leaving myself open to white marks under my arms. But if I wanted pristine pits, and, let’s face it, I should, I was going to have to forego 24-hour protection. I could only expect 18 hours, tops.

I suddenly understood why Roman Catholic priests don’t marry. Those black shirts would look terrible under the arms if they chose 24-hour protection. On the other hand, if they didn’t want the white marks, they’d be a bit whiffy after a long day. No wonder women aren’t interested in them.

Celibacy has nothing to do with tradition and papal authority, and everything to do with the unwillingness of deodorant manufacturers to put all the things one actually requires from a deodorant into one bottle.

It’s not even as if we can combine deodorants. For one thing, they all have different smells, so anybody coming close to your underarm would experience the same nauseous effect as one does walking within 50 feet of a branch of Lush.

I blame the marketers. They’ll be running the country next.

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