I write about the things that matter to me. All opinions are my own.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Brainwashed by the Coffee

“The first time a man looks at an advertisement, he does not see it….The twentieth time he sees the ad, he buys what it is offering.” – Thomas Smith, 1885 (Source: BrandingStrategyInsider.com, http://bit.ly/cZ4mlP)

Remember the Archie Bunker show? (Whatever it was really called, it’s still the Archie Bunker show to me.) Where Archie the old-fashioned lived with his son-in-law Mike, the “sixties radical,” and they were constantly arguing in the living room? That program nailed it on so many levels and one in particular: No matter how much Archie couldn’t stand Mike, eventually he got used to having him around, to the point where he grieved when Mike and Gloria (his daughter) moved out. If you would have asked Archie whether he’d prefer a different son-in-law, 99% he’d tell you “no.”

By default, the known is perceived as better than the unknown. As crazy as it sounds, it’s a psychological and a sociological axiom: Knowing a person or a thing somehow leads you to prefer being around them (or buying that product) than an unknown other. That is why advertisers spend so many millions of dollars on “in-your-face” campaigns. They know that no matter how much you hate to see the ads, the more they get into your head the more likely you are to buy the product. The more you buy the product, the more effective the ad and the more marketable the vendor who created it.

I hadn’t given this law of life much thought until recently when I visited Boston. The city has been taken over by Dunkin’ Donuts! I didn’t get it at first, but within a couple of hours it was clear. There were Dunkin’ Donuts storefronts everywhere—in the airport, in the subway (in total contrast to DC, where it’s illegal to eat or drink in the train station), and on the street, sometimes two and three stores to a city block. Literally, the first thing I saw when I emerged from the airport was a huge Dunkin Donuts cup, standing there, like a sculpture.

Coffee is a subjective taste, I know. In DC, Starbucks is king, even though there are lots of other coffee chains with delicious brews – Panera Bread in particular comes to mind. But it was just striking to me that Dunkin’ (which, quite honestly, usually tastes burnt to me) was so visible all over town, and not only that, but that the people seem to have been “brainwashed” into drinking it! “Carpet-bombing” the town with a single brand is a cheap marketing trick, but in Boston it appears to have worked! Everywhere you look, people are walking around clutching big Dunkin Donuts iced coffee cups, ice sloshing around, messily, sweatily, even long after the cup is empty they don’t seem to let it go.

(Actually there is a HUGE Dunkin’ vs. Starbucks debate going on in the city – see for example Boston Online at http://www.boston-online.com/coffee.html).

All of this has made me question myself. I’ve been a Starbucks fan for as long as I know. But lately I have to admit it – I’m getting sick of their coffee, the sameness of the taste. It’s hard not to tout it when I’ve been doing so for so long. And I still like the brand, the stores and the other things they sell. But seeing Dunkin’s impact on Boston made me see that Starbucks, by being so present in my life, has kind of brainwashed me too. I don’t feel comfortable admitting that it just doesn’t taste all that great to me anymore, and I don’t like the inconvenience of having to even think about buying another brand when they’re located so close by all the time.

The coffee analogy explains to me why people, organizations and societies have such a hard time changing when they need to. It’s a combination of the marketing law that presence = preference with the law of physics that says “an object at rest tends to stay at rest.”

What I would like to better understand is how the inherent preference of human beings for stability jives with the visible instability that we see around us. It’s happening at every level - personal, social, economic, and more: The prevalence of unemployment, personal bankruptcy and systemic financial and real estate market crashes, childhood developmental disorders, teenage pregnancies, drug use and gangs in the school system, divorce, crime and imprisonment, depression and suicide, the prison population, homelessness, and so on paint a picture of a society that has become deeply unbalanced. While it’s true that social problems have existed forever, doesn’t it seem like something has gone off the rails in recent years? Like so many people are falling off the track, to the point where perhaps there is no track anymore?

My hypothesis on this is that the difficulty we see stems for a conflict between the need for stability with the equally human need to solve problems, overcome limitations, and grow over time into our best and most productive selves. The same stability that feels comforting can lead us to deny the problems that necessitate change. When we deny reality it of course does not go away but rather snaps back to hit us, sometimes when we least expect it, right in the face. Leading to unplanned and unexpected consequences that are loud, painful, and force everyone to stop and pay attention.

The Jewish New Year will soon be upon us. For me this is therefore a time of special reflection on what has happened over the past year and of thinking about what I want to do and be in the future. I am thinking about this concept of change versus stability, and how to confront and incorporate the need for growth without necessarily having it be experienced either by myself, or others, as disruptive and painful. As I think about it I have identified some things that seem to be effective in promoting a balanced approach toward independent thinking and change:

1. A commitment to seeing the “big picture.” We are all small entities in a very large universe; I believe the world is powered by something much larger than ourselves (I call it G-d, you can call it whatever you want or nothing at all.) When you get stuck in your own brain and its tendency toward extremes – e.g. stubbornly wanting to change, or resisting this – you lose your ability to be effective with other people because you are relating to yourself more than them or the larger world.

2. A commitment to process. Rather than just making things up as you go along, it’s good to look for frameworks and methodologies that address the issue of change. In particular I like the frameworks that come from the world of information technology, because the entire field of technology is about making the case for change and balancing the possible with the needed.

4. A commitment to speaking the simple truth as you see it. So often in this world we are de-legitimized by all the facts and figures out there and all the fancy talk. My mother though taught me differently. She taught me that if you can’t say it straight, then someone is covering something up and is trying to hide. I have found that she is usually right and that saying things straight serves me well.

3. A commitment to dealing with people in a human way, at their pace. Just because change feels fast and the need might seem urgent doesn’t mean you should rush it through. It’s important to take the time to sit with people and talk with them, hear their concerns, and discuss in an “old fashioned” way what’s going on.

5. A commitment to taking emotions and group dynamics seriously. I am constantly amazed that in a society with so many psychological and social problems and so much workplace conflict, that we don’t have counselors and facilitators “installed” as prominently in our social structures as Dunkin’ Donuts are in Boston subway stations. If we don’t talk about the issues there is no way in heck that we are going to fix them.

We can do a better job of coping with reality; we don’t need to live with bad situations forever or jump to change those that can be fixed. Here’s wishing everyone a good New Year, one where we learn to treat each other more decently than we have in the past and work together to cope with our changing world productively, rather than just taking advantage of our neural programming to sell each other burnt coffee.

Like my grandmother Muriel Garfinkel of blessed memory used to say, “Life is short. Be kind to each other along the way.”