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Creating informed consumers

This article appears in the issue November/December 2005 [Volume 14, Issue 10]


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  Juicy Fruit gum has a blog. At long last, those who need their daily dose of news ‘n' views about indigestible food products have a place to go.

 Unfortunately, Juicy Fruit's blog is nothing but a horribly unentertaining, so-hip-it's-embarrassing, self-involved marketing pitch. Going from the absurd to the nonsensical, on the right is a "game": How long can you hold down your mouse button. Yes, that is the entirety of the game. The winners have topped out the odometer at 99 days, 99 hours, 99 minutes and 99 seconds, undoubtedly as part of research into the effect of heavy objects resting on a mouse button.

 My favorite fun fact about the holding-down game: I held my mouse down for one second and was told "You held it 30% longer than everybody." Say wha'??

 Encouraged by these exciting developments in using the Web to create informed customers, I visited some other sites to see the state of consumer-side knowledge management. (My friend and co-author Doc Searls will snap at me for using the word "consumer." I agree with him that it is a demeaning way to think about your customers. But, in this case, I'm making an exception.)

 First stop: Tic Tac, a candy more expensive by weight than Godiva chocolates. The Tic Tac site begins with a screen that says: "Help Tic Tac Support The Fight Against Breast Cancer." There's no way to click through it. You just have to wait. (Tick tock tick tock.) In fact, there's not even a way to click on it to get to more information about the fight against breast cancer. (Nor is there a way to correct Tic Tac's misunderstanding of how to capitalize.) On the home page itself there is a link that explains that Tic Tac is donating an unexpressed portion of proceeds from specially marked packages.

 In addition, on the home page are links for History, What's New, What's in Season, What's Shakin' and Tic Tac Silvers. The History reveals one tick on the Tic Tac time line for each decade. For example, did you know that in the 2000s Tic Tacs introduced varietals for Christmas, Valentine's Day and Easter? It remains a mystery why Tic Tac thinks even its most devoted fans give a minty-fresh rat's tuchus about that.

 Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil, on the other hand, has some information that is actually occasionally interesting. For example, its FAQ addresses issues such as: "Which side of Reynolds Wrap Aluminum Foil should I use, the shiny or the dull side?" A: It makes no difference. "Which is better for freezing, aluminum foil or plastic?" A: "Aluminum foil has the lowest moisture vapor transfer rate of all wrapping materials … ." And "Why is aluminum foil sometimes called tin foil?" A: History is sometimes cruel).

 Reynolds Wrap also gives its customers a genuine Best Practice: To line a pan with aluminum foil, invert the pan and wrap the outside of the pan with foil. Remove the foil, un-invert (unvert?) the pan and place the shaped foil into the pan. Voila!

 Charmin toilet paper fortunately dropped the deeply disturbed Mr. Whipple years ago. Instead, its home page features adorable pastel bears. Why they think associating ferocious, clawed beasts with a rectal care product is good marketing beats me. Also, why they think their customers deserve to be treated like particularly insipid five-year-olds beats me. As long as their bears don't beat insipid five-year-olds, I guess I'm OK with it.

 The Charmin FAQ is primarily about pushing the Charmin line of extension products: "How are Charmin Fresh Mates different from Charmin Plus?" A: "Charmin Plus contains a soothing lotion. Charmin Fresh Mates, on the other hand, are premoistened wipes in a tub."

 But there's also some serious eco-information: "Is Charmin safe for sewers and septic systems?" A: "For more than 70 years, Charmin has been a reliable bath tissue, trusted in millions of Americans' homes. Extensive tests show that when Charmin is used as intended in a properly functioning plumbing system, it shouldn't cause plumbing problems."

 When used as intended? How can we read the mind of Mr. Whipple to know how he intends us to use it? Where are the instructions? And can we be far from a notice that flushing indicates we have agreed to the end user license agreement?

 Finally in this highly scientific sampling of consumer sites comes Joy dishwashing detergent. We are given five topics to pursue: Cleans to a Brilliant Shine, Product Lineup, Share Your Thoughts (today's topic: "What's your favorite Joy scent?"), a FAQ and Contact Us.

 The FAQ turns out to be a page that lets you search the knowledgebase. The search engine needs some work, though. If you type in the phase "Joy in eye," you are given 47 possible answers, starting with "Remove from mailing list." Well, yes, if I squirted Joy in my eye, I probably do want to be removed from the mailing list, but first I'd like to get some instructions on how to avoid rolling on the floor in agony for 45 minutes. The natural language query "Joy killed my cat" does get five Joy-specific responses before "Remove from mailing list." The responses seem to skirt the issue, since they start with "Dish liquid kill mosquitoes" and "washing my pets."

 "Cleans to a Brilliant Shine" leads to what turns out to be Joy's actual home page. Once you get there, the world turns lemony, and joyful woodland creatures emerge to nuzzle you. More exactly, an intensely annoying product character named "Droppy" (Clippy's hip cousin, although they don't come out and admit it) appears and raises his sunglasses every 1.5 seconds. He is "your new dishwashing guru," your "latest partner in shine." ("Latest"? Did previous product characters get the axe to make way for the hyper-aggressive Droppy?)

 The "Meet Droppy" button drops you into an unintentionally surreal world where dishwashing is In and you are a child. For example, "Picture yourself with Droppy" explains that he's a "party animal with an uncanny knack for turning everyday chores into a more enjoyable experience."

 Then come three bullets of instructions explaining how to "demonstrate your joy for Droppy." Bullet 1 is straightforward: Download and print out a picture of Droppy. Bullet 2 heads toward the condescending: "Have your kids color the picture—or take a stab at it yourself!" Bullet 3 heads straight into corporate psychosis: "Take Droppy along on your most enjoyable activities." Yes, my teammates will coo with delight when I take Droppy out on bowling night. Can you imagine the marketing meeting where they decided that this was a good idea? Can we begin to fathom the depths of their contempt for their customers? Keep it up Corporate America! Your commitment to creating an informed marketplace is the pride of the free world!


David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" (hyperorg.com), e-mail self@evident.com.


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