What's In a Label? July 2013
That guy’s a thick-headed, hardcore conservative. Don’t believe anything he says. He’s just parroting FOX news. That other guy over there is a bleeding-heart liberal. Never met a tax he didn’t like. Listening to him is like listening to those idiots on MSNBC.
Go ahead and choose a side if you haven’t done so already. Hey, it’s the American way. And it doesn’t really matter which side because you get to stick labels on other people no matter which way you go. Labels are a part of our lives. We meet for the first time and right away begin probing each other to see where we stand. We look for lapel pins and bumper stickers, haircuts and types of vehicles. We listen for telltale signs in everyday conversation. Did that guy just say global warming? Does he believe in that crap? Or did he say climate change? Is that the same thing as global warming? It was chilly last spring. How can they say there’s global warming? And that Hurricane Sandy that hit the East Coast last year? How can they blame that on people? Hurricanes have been happening for as long as the world has existed.
Or go argue on the other side and tell folks they have their heads buried in the sand and most of the world’s scientists disagree with them.
Pick a side and have at it. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind but have at it. It’s what we do. Pick a team and root for them. Hang out only with folks who agree with you. Get all your news from a source that’s going to tell you exactly what you want to hear. Get angry at the other side and refuse to budge. It’s the American way.
We label just about everyone these days and that can sure make doing business interesting. I once had a conversation with a heating contractor who insisted on plastering his work truck with political bumper stickers. I mentioned that this could be costing him business because America is basically divided between conservatives and liberals right now. I asked him why he would go out of his way to probably lose half of his potential customers by tipping his hand politically.
“Some people are not going to like you right from the start when they see your truck moving around town,” I said. “They’ll never hire you if they see you as an extremist. They won’t want to listen to you when you show up at their house to fix their heating system.”
“I don’t care about those people,” he said. “I gotta be me.”
“So you’re only going to work for people who agree with you?”
“No,” he said. “I’ll work for those idiots, but I’m not changing my truck. I gotta be me. If they don’t like it, tough.”
He worked from his house, which was okay as long as he didn’t keep his truck in his driveway. Zoning laws didn’t allow that, but he didn’t want to pay for a garage so he parked in his driveway. This is working-class neighborhood and lots of tradespeople do that. Most of the time, the neighbors don’t complain because they’re, well, good neighbors. Most people just want to get along.
But this contractor decided to go beyond the signs on his truck. He covered his lawn with cardboard political signs, most of which called anyone who disagreed with his positions idiots. And in today’s American, that would be about half of his neighborhood.
So some of his neighbors called the town to complain about his truck in the driveway and an inspector showed up. That was the end of that. He now had to pay to park his truck somewhere and that’s because if you poke someone with a stick, there’s a good chance they’re going to poke back.
Then the Great Recession hit and he promptly went right out of business.
“What happened?” I asked.
“People are cheap,” he said.
He had to be him.
Isn’t it amazing what can happen once you make up your mind, declare anyone who disagrees with you to be the enemy, and then refuse to budge?
Earlier this year, three researchers from the Wharton School, the University of Pennsylvania, and Duke University published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was about how labeling products can affect that product’s sales. I found this fascinating.
In the first study, they interviewed 657 people, divided more or less in half by gender. They asked the people to fill out a questionnaire that they had designed to reveal both the person's political leanings and their energy-saving-product purchasing habits. They learned that the more conservative a person was, the less likely they were to buy a product that the manufacturer touted as being friendly to the environment. But if the manufacturer labeled the product as one that saved money, the conservatives went for it.
How about that? Oh, and just the opposite applied to the liberals, who were all about saving the planet.
Then the researchers did a second study. This time, they interviewed 210 people. They gave each person $2 to purchase a light bulb. The choice was between an incandescent bulb and a more-expensive, energy-saving bulb. Both bulbs looked the same, but the researches advertised the higher-priced bulb two ways. First, they claimed that the more-expensive bulb would save the user money because it used less electricity. Then, they alternated the ad, claiming that the more-expensive bulb was good for the planet.
The liberals were willing to buy the more-expensive bulb regardless of how it was advertised. The conservatives would buy the bulb that would save money, but not the bulb advertised to be good for the environment. Even though it was the same bulb.
Finally, the researchers made the price of both bulbs the same and found that all of the folks surveyed went for the special bulb, regardless of how it was advertised.
The researchers’ conclusion was that folks who see themselves as conservatives weren’t really against buying green products. They were, however, conditioned to link green products to liberals, and that’s why they instinctively shy away from products advertised that way. It’s good to save money, they say, but it’s bad to agree with liberals.
And that brings us to Energy Star products, as designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Right up front on those Energy Star labels you will see how much greenhouse gas that product will save, and how using that product protects our climate. But now that you know about that survey, do you think it’s possible that the Energy Star label might be turning off a good portion of the buying public? Yeah, I do too.
And how about advertisements in magazines? If a manufacturer focuses on how good his energy-saving boiler, circulator, furnace, air-conditioner, heat-pump, or you name it, is for the planet, does that cause a kneejerk reaction in conservative-minded readers. Maybe they’ll just flip the page, but not before muttering something nasty about Al Gore.
Everything seems to be getting greener these days and manufacturers are stretching the limits to explain how and why their product are greener than the other guy’s products. But when we all stress the good of our planet instead of the potential for saving money on fuel and electricity, are we losing half our potential customers right from the start. I wonder.
I keep thinking about that contractor who went out of business because he didn’t care what people thought about his views. They could either agree with him or take a hike. Half of them took that hike and that was enough to put that guy out of business when the economy tightened up.
Now that we’re seeing things turn around, it seems to me that we should be holding our cards a little closer to the vest when it comes to labeling things, especially ourselves. And it also seems to me that we should take into consideration that survey, and what it’s telling us about why some people won’t buy. They all, regardless of their politics, buy the product if it saves them money.
Keep that in mind and I’ll label you very smart.