Rutabaga 101

The Choice Isn't Yours, But It Could Be.

By Emil Franzi

BACK IN THE days before the U.S. military contracted out KP to private firms and the grunts still pulled chow duty, I learned a big lesson about marketing and choice.

A buddy of mine was posted on the chow line with a big tray of rutabagas. He asked every trooper who came by, "Wanna rutabaga?" At the end of the first mess call, he still had almost all of them.

Then he noticed that the guy pulling the same duty on the other chow line had gotten rid of most of his rutabagas. So he watched him.

Currents The other guy asked, "You want one rutabaga or two?"

That, folks, is the secret of modern marketing. Today's corporate giants claim to be giving you the products and services you want. But what they're really doing is eliminating a lot of choices and then pointing to the limited menu you've selected from to validate their false thesis. This technique is used in every industry, from publishing to electronic news, from car-makers to HMOs, to try to convince you that you're happy, happy, happy--because you only have to eat one rutabaga.

My personal experience with this logic occurred about 10 years ago when I tried to buy a telephone system for a small business. That's when U S West had all those hokey "phone stores" all over the place. They couldn't come up with a system for under 1,500 bucks--which seemed a bit much for four lines. All their systems were jammed with tons of features I didn't want nor would I really use. And I sure as hell wasn't interested in paying for it all.

When I voiced my misgivings to the nice lady trying to peddle me all this over-priced crap, she said they--the phone store--had determined these features were what we consumers really wanted.

Well I certainly didn't--and most consumers never did. Hey, check the phone system where you work and tell me how badly you need all the bells and whistles they're charging you for every month. You're stuck with that rutabaga because the only other choice they gave you was two rutabagas.

I rebelled and found a guy who restored old phone systems and got what I wanted for $300. It worked fine.

And since then those phone stores have all closed. Another stupid marketing concept fell on its ass.

MAYBE THE CORPORATE fools at the time were all reading that era's crop of best-selling management books about how wonderfully the Japanese did business. Whatever happened to the turkeys who wrote that bilge?

Of course, those books were part of the problem: We got enamored of the "Japanese Method." We believed them when then crowed about how much prosperity they had.

By then most of our top business guys had forgotten how badly we'd kicked their butts in the Pacific. They just couldn't see that the Japanese economy is built on bullshit.

If their banks and insurance companies ever listed their real assets, that nation would implode. Their consumers are regularly screwed by paying $15 a pound for hamburger, living in 300-square-foot cubicles, and commuting for hours by train to get to work in huge anthill offices that would make those Dilbert characters seem like robust individuals.

The principle that it's OK to lose your ass as long as you build market share is part of why Japan is screwed today. And during the previous decade, too many American companies bought into it.

As we continue to centralize big business under the phony guise of efficiency and the false belief that genuine market economics breed monopoly, our situation will get worse, not better.

Try publishing. The big houses knock out about 50,000 new books a year, and about 49,000 of them end up in the cut-out section. So what's their answer? Publish fewer books and cut writers' advances. The possibility that their judgment might really suck, that their products too often resemble rutabagas, has never occurred to them.

Likewise daily newspapers. Their market penetration consistently diminishes. Their answer? Employ fewer reporters and cut coverage of everything from politics to the arts. The attitude of the folks in charge in some central office somewhere is analogous to the mess hall cook deciding that if nobody wants the damn rutabagas, he'll try serving them raw.

We can keep going:

• Is local TV news coverage inadequate, and are fewer people tuning for their information? Three rutabagas to pick from by my count, one at least partially cooked.

• How about housing? Which type of poorly built tract home do you want?

• Banking? The last big local bank just sold out to another megabank. Now watch them decide you don't need tellers anymore and charge you for talking to one.

• HMOs? They all more or less suck and resemble that whole tray of rutabagas.

• And ask any computer geek about all the great options you get from Microsoft.

IS THERE HOPE? You bet. Unlike the conscripts standing in the chow line with the rutabagas, we still have options--at least those not precluded by statute and a tax code and a regulatory system designed to prop up loser corporations that don't produce real products any more.

There is still a relatively free market, and a number of folks who actually make things worth buying. Ultimately, those folks will survive and many of the losers will go under or clean up their acts. I cheer every time I hear about another big corporate bankruptcy--we need more of them. And we need less government protection for the jerks who run these big corporations.

We need more consumers to realize they don't have to take even one rutabaga. That there are still alternatives that might require a little shopping around--like that restored phone system, or banking at a credit union, or buying an older home constructed before we had today's permissive building codes.

So the next time somebody offers you the equivalent of one or two rutabagas, tell them to stuff it and take your business somewhere else.

Listen to Emil Franzi's radio rage every Monday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KTKT, 990-AM. TW

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