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Until now, nearly all consumer spending has faced a final barrier that is underrated in its ability to stop the most egregious and unnecessary purchases. That barrier has been targeted by retailers for a long time, and just cracked.

Amazon has had the "Go" project in the works for quite a while. I saw it coming years ago - in successive drafts of the book, the topic went from a paragraph of "could-be" to a page of "coming soon." It sounded as loopy and absurd as many of the other things I wrote about early, like consumer tracking, food engineering for addiction and the dangers of big data. But then I saw ads for staffing Amazon's Go division last month... and here's the big reveal.

There's way too much to say about this to even try to make this a complete analysis or even informative essay, so I won't try in this pass. But this change, the elimination of the checkout, may have more effect on consumer spending resistance than many of the data- and behaviorally-driven changes in retailing before it. Oh... I don't mean it will improve consumer resistance. Quite the opposite. When everything is "free," when there's no universal and formal moment of reckoning store choices with the reality of cost... we're looking at pure hindbrain to wallet spending, free of (enough) conscious, rational consideration.

Which, of course, is nirvana for retailers. That pesky resistance of consumers, their stubbornness at not making SeeWantBuy their operating principle, has vexed marketers and sellers for generations. Now, as I noted in the developing book, we're even closer to the marketing ideal of SeeBuy, with "Want" just automatic and assumed.

This is too depressing, so let's close out with an old joke I eventually worked into the book draft and will now probably relegate to a footnote.

An old Scotsman came to America and eventually found himself in a modern grocery store. Overwhelmed at the vast range of goods, he quickly began to fill his shopping cart with glee. When there was no more room, he headed for the exit, only to find his way blocked by the checkout line. "Dom!" he cried. "Ah knew there'd be a catch!"

And to some degree, we all depend on that "catch" a little. It's not uncommon to see shoppers at Target (mostly younger, some not-so, all  naive) reach the cashier with full basket, balk at the total, and slowly remove items from their order until it meets some pre-defined limit. A limit they could not seem to consider as they shopped. We can all smirk and roll our eyes at such lack of arithmetic and logic skills, but will we still be smirking when barrierless checkout becomes as common as the irritating self-checkout kiosks?

I don't know. I do know that removing the last "catch" in consumer spending represents a terrible offensive in this war, and one consumers are utterly unprepared to resist.

James Gifford (sig)


Scott Adams has spent over thirty years making fun of the way business runs in circles chasing profits at any cost... mostly costs to employee sanity, but shaking down customers for useless products and services has been integral to the humor.

In a recent week, though, Adams penned a series that ripped the façade off of marketing as thoroughly as anything I've done, and I admiringly concede he has a somewhat larger audience. The series ran from Monday, February 2 through (so far) Saturday the 7th... here's a link to the starting strip. Go read; I'll wait.

Nasty, nasty stuff and a major tip of the hat to Scott for his insight and razor wit, and for using his enormous pulpit to bully the right targets. (Yeah, I know, that's not what "bully pulpit" means. Originally, anyway.)

It does continue to bother me that this is representative of the very sharpest insight and challenge to the marketing-industrial complex... buried, lost even, in the funny pages. I appreciate the sentiments; I appreciate the serial and editorial cartoonists who focus their rage (and ours) on the manipulative system with which marketing has managed to engulf our economic and individual lives. But the days of the cartoon as weapon have pretty much passed; other than occasionally enraging an unbalanced mind - Nous Avons Charlie - searing cartoons tend to make the reader laugh, agree, feel good that they're not alone... and turn the page. The days of Thomas Nast bringing down Boss Tweed with his cartoons - which he did; Tweed was arrested in Europe because he was recognized from Nast's portrayals - are long, long gone.

Humor can be a wonderful weapon, and I try to use it intelligently and not too excessively in my efforts. But at a certain point, making fun of things defuses focus and anger more than it sharpens it; the laugh becomes a dismissal. It leads to co-option by the target and by the audience, burying the need to focus rage under a soothing blanket of "laugh and move on, nothing to see here." There is something deeply disturbing that the comics so frequently score bull's-eyes on this topic, and serious journalism and essays do not. There is no fault in using marketing and fostered consumption as a basis for humor; there is a problem when our informational media pays it so little attention. There is greater fault when, as it is, the topic is left entirely to the funnymen.

Co-option is the death of all social, economic and political movements, and the system - systems - have gotten better and better at turning aside even the most ferocious and well-aimed effort by co-opting, blunting and burying it. Along with all the other targets needing our full renegade focus and attention, the ingrained, possibly even fostered, tendency of the media to minimize consumption issues and marketing's role in them needs to be kept in our sights.

We need to laugh, or we'll go as crazy as Dilbert. But we must not let the chuckles spoil our aim.


Here's one of the most telling jokes I know about marketing:

A major food conglomerate developed a new brand of dog food, and in the course of preparing to release it they hired one of the most prestigious marketing firms in the country. The marketing team worked for months building a careful brand and image for the product, and a lavish, all-points campaign that would hit every market from every conceivable direction - TV, radio, print, billboards, POS, social media, and more.

Launch day came, and within days the company knew they had a major hit on their hands. Warehouses ran dry and more production lines had to be switched over and run on three shifts to keep up with demand. Champagne flowed all around, not least at the marketing company.

The next month's sales were flat. Emergency millions were pumped into the campaign.

The next month, sales had fallen by fifty percent. The next, they were barely ten percent of peak. The furious board of directors called the marketing team to the boardroom, demanding an explanation.

"We don't understand," the product manager wailed. "We've tripled the ad placement, sent out generous coupons, milked every guerrilla strategy and had a famous rock star write our new jingle. But sales just keep dropping!"

"Well," thundered the CEO, "what seems to be the problem?"

"We've tried everything," the manager explained. "But we just can't get dogs to eat the stuff!"

Makes me laugh every time.

What I don't find funny is the universal thread in books by supposed marketing gurus, who amid their egotistical preening, corporate name-dropping and arm-around-your-shoulders faux confidentiality manage to exhibit absolutely perfect vision: 20/20/20°. That's 20/20 sharpness... but with a twenty degree field of view. I'm being generous; some don't manage a scope that wide.

It's not surprising that anyone who's a big name in the field (or thinks they are, or wants to be) is unable to say anything negative about marketing. Just once, I'd like to read a paragraph in one of these tedious tomes about how they really — really — know what a crappy disservice most of their high-paid efforts are doing for us. About fifty percent of the books have a glance that direction: that they were once asked to do something underhanded, or that as a young sprog at BBDOY&R they helped perpetrate a marketing fraudlet, or that they once had an associate who did something naughty. But I can't recall a single one who admitted that their million-dollar fee to help guide crap off the shelves was a less than honorable thing.

But as I said, it's unsurprising. These are superstars writing to the adoring throngs (95% of them business executives reading an airport book on their next flight) and there's just no call to crap in the party room. I get it.

marionette-1What does dismay me — flat out turns my stomach, to be honest — is the universal and permanent blind spot towards all forms of inedible dog food. These blow-dried, pumped-up poseurs, writing in between boardroom meetings and keynote speeches, often give cases of marketing efforts that failed, with all due sober nodding and wise head-shaking. They tried. The manufacturer tried. Innovative strategies were implemented and millions were spent... but not enough. Maybe the manufacturer chickened out, or it was just that darned fickle public, or the brilliant flash of marketing insight that made the next contender a superstar product wasn't thought of in time to save this one. Even that's a bit rare, because it's never — never — marketing's fault. (Unless it was that formerly famous fool they once worked for, who didn't recognize our hero author's brilliance and thus got what was coming to him.)

And the one thing it never is, the one consideration never made, the option never on the table and the question never asked... is the fundamental quality of the product. It can be something so useless, unnecessary, tasteless, taste-free and idiotic that it had no chance of succeeding in any market anywhere on Earth... but that's never the cause of a product or marketing failure.

Marketing sees itself as an enabler; its function is to enable sales, and with vanishingly rare exceptions it doesn't care what sales or to whom or of what. Forget snowballs to Inuit or coals to Newcastle or hams to Hollywood: they can and will sell any damned thing they're asked to to any market they're pointed at, and there are no limits on what they will do, say, invent, fabricate, fictionalize, anthropomorphize or animate in pursuit of selling that thing to those buyers. Quality, usefulness, need... utterly irrelevant except as keywords with no connection to reality. It doesn't matter that the product is crap; it's their job to sell it anyway, and sell it they do. Without a backward glance or a moment's afterthought. It's not their job.

These pinnacle predators see their field as win or blame the fickle buying public; they uphold the stained ideal of the field that all products must be good salable products, and the only failure is a failure of the public to buy them, for any reason. None of this will be much surprise to a seasoned renegade; we already know that the marketing-industrial complex, the hustlers, exist only to foster sales — yet more consumption — at any cost. Which doesn't make it any less depressing to read one more book of BS about how they masterminded efforts to ram crap down a market's throat... when the market had never heard of, wanted or needed the crap a month earlier, and didn't get a fraction of the supposed benefit once purchased.

Nor does it make it any less amusing to envision making these predatory puffballs eat some of that disgusting dog food... or having to live on it because no one will pay for their nonsensical expertise any longer.

Bon appétit, bozos.