This is Not a Myth. This is Some Real-Ass Shit.

There will be a myth tomorrow, I promise. But something happened to me yesterday and I have to tell you guys about it and this is basically the only website where people come to hear me tell them about shit (other than this website, but that website is for faces only.) So chill out, and let me tell you a story:

(Forgive me if I don’t do the line break thing today.)

There’s this building in Downtown Chicago where I go every week for therapy. It’s a tall building with lots of offices in it. One of those offices belongs to a market research company. I know this because every few weeks I am accosted by the same cheerfully frumpy woman with the same beat-up clipboard, asking me if I want to be paid fifteen dollars to participate in a 30-minute marketing survey.

I desperately want to be paid fifteen dollars to participate in a 30-minute marketing survey.

Wanted, I should say. It’s not that I particularly needed the fifteen dollars. Part of my motivation was that I thought it would be a fun opportunity to lie to some marketers. Mostly, though, I was just insanely curious about what a thirty-minute marketing survey consisted of.

The problem was that I never seemed to be part of the demographic they were looking for. I simply didn’t buy enough things. The lady on the street would ask me a series of screening questions, and time after time I would fail out for not spending enough on shaving products, or not spending enough on cookies, or not being a thirty-one year old female who regularly dyes her hair. I knew what I had to do: Next time I saw the woman and her clipboard, I was just gonna say yes to fucking EVERYTHING.

Yesterday I finally got my chance.

“Wanna make 15 dollars by doing a marketing survey?” she said.
“Shit YEAH I do,” I said.
“How old are you?”
“TWENTY-FOUR YEARS OLD, BABY.”
“Do you buy any of these products?” she asked, holding out a creased color photograph of a supermarket shelf stocked with salty snack food.
“ALL OF THEM,” I said, “EVERY DAY. ESPECIALLY LAYS BRAND POTATO CHIPS.”
“Perfect,” she said, “Come with me.”

I was in. She lead me to the 8th floor, where her office was marked by a logo on an 8.5/11 sheet of paper:

 

 

and down a corridor into one of about a dozen tiny interview rooms. She asked me more questions, about what specific types of salty snacks I preferred, how often I bought toothpaste, what my average household income was, etc. I lied about half the time. I’m not sure why I told the truth when I did, but when I lied it was because I felt like I had entered a life-or-death game with this cheerfully frumpy woman and her clipboard, a game that was scored based on who walked away with the most information. I was determined to win this survey.

The woman finished her questions and told me to wait in the waiting room for the actual study to begin. I had thought that the questions were the actual study. I was suddenly nervous. Almost immediately a young woman appeared and asked me to follow her. She lead me down a different corridor and into … well it took me a second to figure out where I was.

I was in a supermarket, looking down the hair care aisle. These terrifying people had constructed an exact replica of a bare-bones supermarket, complete with jazzy christmas muzak on the PA, and a little red shopping cart just for me. The woman told me to place items in my cart as I normally would while shopping, and promised to meet me at the exit. I had no choice. I began to shop.

This was complicated by the fact that I had lied about most of my product preferences during the survey, and was now attempting to act natural as I struggled to remember what I had said. Luckily they did not seem to have most of the products I’d claimed to prefer. I put a box of Swanson’s chicken broth in my cart, since it seemed like the type of thing I might actually buy, and in the midst of this weirdness I desperately needed to do something natural. Then I rounded the corner into the salty snack food aisle.

The first thing I saw was a WALL of Lays Brand Potato Chips. Fully a third of the left side of the aisle was full of them, ludicrously more than were necessary. I noticed some salt-and-vinegar chips among them, and immediately grabbed a bag for my cart. I like salt and vinegar chips. This was not a lie. I was not capable of lying. There were too many bags of Lays Brand Potato Chips. As an afterthought, I noticed some bags of pretzel bites on the opposite side of the aisle. I actually stopped to consider which flavor I preferred, forgetting that I was not going to be allowed to taste either.

At the end of the aisle I stopped to consider another product. I don’t remember what it was, because in the middle of my examination I looked up and noticed a video camera pointed down the aisle I’d just navigated. There was no camera on me now. My actions were meaningless.

And yet I STILL PRETENDED TO SHOP THROUGH THE REST OF THE FAKE STORE. I made sure to buy soup and toothpaste, because these were two types of products I had claimed to enjoy.

The young woman met me at the exit, as promised, and lead me back to one of the interrogation rooms. On the way I passed what appeared to be a replica convenience store. The woman sat down at a computer and asked me to recall my experience of the salty snack food aisle.

It was at this point that I realized how much information I was actually giving them. I remembered almost nothing about the salty snack food aisle, other than the wall of Lays Brand Potato Chips and the pretzel bites I had stumbled across accidentally. I had been completely blind to any other food. She showed me pictures of a series of products and asked if I had seen them in the aisle. I answered Yes, No, No, No, No, Yes, No, No… I had seen less than a third of the products she showed me. I asked her whether all of those products had even been in the aisle, and she assured me that yes, they had. She showed me a video of myself in the snack food aisle. In the video I walked confidently to the wall of Lays Brand Potato Chips and jauntily tossed a bag into my cart.

“Why didn’t you hesitate?” she asked.
“Because …” I had no fucking clue.

I told her I liked salt and vinegar potato chips, but she didn’t seem to believe me. I wasn’t sure I believed myself. She asked me a battery of other questions, about how I thought the products in the aisle were organized (by brand), whether I thought the aisle contained a wide variety of products (I assumed so, but I had only seen the Lays Potato Chips), and whether I agreed with the statement “The products in this aisle taste delicious.” (I wanted to explain that I had eaten maybe three of the fifty or so products in the aisle, but somehow I don’t think that was the point of the question.) She asked me if I chose things based on where they were on the shelves, and whether I thought the shelf positions of various items made sense. She showed me different sectors of the aisle, and asked me to rate how logically they were organized. They all seemed more or less the same, and yet I found myself intuitively assigning different number values to each of them. Then she asked me the same battery of questions AGAIN, in a different order, presumably in order to catch me in one of my numerous lies. Luckily, I had all but stopped lying at that point. My will was mud. I didn’t know who I was anymore. Why had I decided to lie before, I wondered? Why some lies and not others? How had I managed to make a series of real decisions in a fake grocery store?

As the interrogation progressed, it became clear that the purpose of this study was to figure out how to effectively market Baked Lays. More and more of the questions began to focus on Baked Chips and why I didn’t seem to like them. I was helpless to answer these questions. It had simply never occurred to me to purchased Baked Lays Potato Chips. Yeah, I’m cynical about their supposed health advantages, but really I just don’t want to buy them and I have no idea why. I would rather eat a bag of snakes. And to me this says that whoever paid these marketing chumps to do this survey are on the right track.

We’ve all heard that food giants fight tooth and nail over their position on grocery store shelves. But until now, I had no concrete proof that they were doing this. THEY ARE FUCKING DOING THIS. This study contained no blind taste test. No electrodes were strapped to my head. They just put me in a people-sized rat maze and STARED.

Today I went grocery shopping. It was harrowing. The food in the aisles was gerrymandered beyond mortal comprehension. Cheese was located in two different sections on opposite ends of the store. All of the tomato puree was grouped together, except for one brand of tomato puree, which was elsewhere. Every time I selected a product, I frantically scoured the aisle to make sure I hadn’t missed a competing brand. I could not bring myself to even enter the salty snack food aisle. As I entered the checkout line, I noticed that I had put a carton of Swanson’s chicken broth in my cart, despite having plenty of chicken broth at home.

I feel as if I will never be able to shop normally again. Then again, they told me I was qualified to participate in another study in ninety days. Maybe that’s how long it takes for the effects to wear off. That’s why I’m writing this. I need to preserve this revelation. We are all rats in mazes, my friends, playthings to trillion-dollar gods who reach out with snaking tendrils to rearrange the products on our grocery store shelves. There is nothing we can do about this. We are stupid in their hands.

Is it like this in other countries? Please tell me it’s not.

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31 thoughts on “This is Not a Myth. This is Some Real-Ass Shit.

  1. Not only do the company’s selling the products jockey for position on the shelves, the stores periodically rearrange everything to keep you searching for the thing you want so you will see more products and hopefully buy more stuff.

    • I just hate it when the stores rearrange the shelves and you can’t find what you want. I know they are wanting us to see other products but I go in, knowing what I want and don’t want to be tempted by other carp.

  2. When I worked in New York, my boss had a friend whose job was to recruit for focus groups. Rather than stand around with a clipboard accosting people, she used a rolodex of friends of friends, etc. I liked the extra money (often $100-$200, sometimes you got to keep products you tried out), so I was a regular–once every 90 days, just as you say. I got to debate the name of a new car model once, a Toyota, and got an early look at the New York Times’ test of color pages.

    I loved it. You’re probably going in her book of regulars now, so be prepared to screw with American marketing some more. And nope, they’ll never check your previous answers or even remotely try to ascertain if you’re telling the truth, so lie all the way, baby!

  3. OMG. My supermarket recently remodeled, and it took me weeks to discover that the breadcrumbs were no longer in the bread aisle, but in the baking aisle. I must have gone to the store 3 weeks in a row and walked out without the damn breadcrumbs b/c by the time I got to the bread aisle (at the end of the store), I just couldn’t bear to go back and look for the stupid breadcrumbs.

  4. Oh my goodness, that was amazing.

    I remember one time when I was seven, I answered the phone to a sales call, asking for my mother. I was feeling mischievous, and she wasn’t home, so I decided to go along with it and replied that yes, I was indeed my mom. The guy asked if I was willing to participate in a fifteen minute survey and I complied, and he began asking me all sorts of different questions about my vacation experiences, where I typically go, where I like to stay, etc etc. I’m not entirely sure what the questions were, and I don’t remember it all that well, just that I bulled each and every one thrown at me. Of course, at the end of the survey the guy asked for our credit card number or some such, so I hung up the phone without so much as a word.

    I doubt the guy included the results in his survey book of magic, but I’d like to think that he’ll always remember the woman that sounded like a seven year old that said she enjoyed retreats in Tahiti in the cold winter months and weeks relaxing in Scandinavia and Transylvania in the spring.

  5. … For science I must now hunt down a marketing survey in Canada. Haven’t seen one before so at least they’re a little less aggressive… Don’t worry about fighting the power good sir, worry about what makes you happy. Fighting the power is what fills all those little bags of suspicious jerky

  6. This was fascinating. Feel free to do more regular blog-type things in between the myths. (I’m now tempted to wander the streets of my city until a frumpy woman snatches me up.) And I loved this line: “We are all rats in mazes, my friends, playthings to trillion-dollar gods who reach out with snaking tendrils to rearrange the products on our grocery store shelves.”

  7. I have some friends who are market researchers, and actually work on how the products taste/smell/feel, going around in different countries to learn what smells ‘clean’ in India, France and Japan for exemple. But early on, those friends and my parent explained to me how supermarket tried to make people buy things: the slope of the floor often lead carts toward specific aisle of the supermarket, the shelves are regularly rearranged to make people aware of new products, etc. Interesting stuff, sure, but the most impressive thing is that we don’t even realize it ^^.

      • It’s something different in every country, or even different regions. Turns out, it’s a very cultural thing.
        That’s why, when laundry brands try to fin the best smell for their products, they have to research every marketed countries. A friend of mine had to travel all around the world with a huge trunk of soap-like stuff, and ask people in the streets. I don’t have the results though, sorry.

  8. A couple of years back my brother and I got invited into a taste-testing for that most middle-class spreadable – pâté. We sat in a room, ate about 20 different kinds of meat smush, pretended to be able to tell the difference and got paid £20 for our time. Britain is apparently a lot more gentle with its market research.

  9. That’s some crazy shit! I’ve heard of studies like that, but I’ve never heard an account of someone who actually participated! I’m a little creeped out now thinking about Lays…

  10. everything you need for proper healthy meal preparation is located on the perimeter aisle of a supermarket. everything in the inside aisles is extraneous. except for potato chips.

  11. Fascinating!
    Is it weird that I don’t find this particularly scary? It’s kind of like the fact that only about 10% of the cells in our bodies are human – the rest are bacteria. It’s a pretty big part of our everyday lives, whether we know about it or not, but it doesn’t hurt us. Some may find it terrifying – I just find it fascinating.

  12. Gosh, now I want to find this lady in Chicago and walk around their creepy rat maze grocery store. I also know companies like this watch internet blogs for responses.

    I know someone who blogged angrily about Comcast once and a representative from the company contacted her about the post, which is in a way kind of interesting but mostly horrifying.

    Beware of the baked lays shadow government!

  13. They work with all the tricks. Here in Germany, I notice stores are using different colors of light, depending on whether they light meat or vegies. Meat Lions extra der meat lights, and then, when you take it outside and put it into your car, it suddenly looks mich grayer in daylight.

  14. Crazy, isn’t it? I work in the consumer products industry (fortunately, not in marketing)–CPG companies pay insane amounts of money for the shelf space they use, so they try very hard to justify it with market surveys that “prove” certain locations get more hits. Meanwhile, the art departments are trying to “prove” that it’s the packaging, with competing research; another department is “proving” that it’s the TV and radio ads; the print department hires a firm to “prove” that magazine ads in Sassy and Southern Living drive market share; and the product development people have firms to “prove” that a certain combo of oil, salt, and sugar is all that matters.

    The big winners are the research agencies that are vacuuming up all that money for really shoddy studies that wouldn’t make it through a freshman statistics class with a passing grade.

    All of the above, plus the inherent awfulness of supermarkets, is why I can barely step inside one of them. Co-Ops have kept me from starving to death on a diet of my own hangnails.

  15. I would also rather eat a bag of snakes than taste a Baked Lays chip ever again. They’re filthy cardboard crisps that office dwellers order with their deli sandwiches in order to feel more virtuous in front of their co-workers.

  16. This reminds me of this one time I went grocery shopping at about 2:00 in the afternoon. For some reason, they were playing WWII-era propaganda and big band music in there, and I was bewildered. I thought, what a bizarre choice, usually they just pipe in soft rock or Top 40s, why are they playing Chattanooga Choo Choo? Then I started examining the other shoppers around me and realized the average age of people at the grocery store at 2:00 on a Tuesday is about 73. The store knows this, and they’ve tried to construct the “best” shopping environment….

  17. Lol! I worked in a grocery store for 4 years back in high school and everything mentioned above is so absolutely true, you just don’t realize it unless you’ve been on the inside. I remember one time a fight involving all the managers over the stupidest thing ever: stacking a godamn pallet. They argued for half an hour about whether to split the two types of soup length-wise or width-wise so the customers would notice them better, and be able to reach around to grab the other kind. The place it was going had a magazine rack right there, so the main argument was if both kinds should be easy to reach, or if they should force you to walk past the magazines to get the most popular kind. I ended up restacking that damn thing 3 times…

  18. Pingback: Changes | Myths RETOLD

  19. so yeah, it is the same in germany, the netherlands, everywhere in europe, and as far as i can tell, southamerica. In germany, most educated people know all about that stuff and noone really cares. Great entry, Ovid, you da best!

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