There’s been a change in the way some businesses work that doesn’t sit right with me. I first noticed it when Disney’s Epcot Center opened in 1982. We drove to the park where we were required to pay for parking. There was no alternative – public transportation didn’t go to the park, and it was located on private property far from any public parking facility, so you couldn’t walk in. In other words, they made you pay for a “convenience” that was not optional. This makes me grumble, because it’s such a transparent mechanism for profiteering, and hiding the true cost of a day at the park.
Once we got inside the park, I soon discovered its true purpose. It wasn’t an amusement park, it was a shopping mall. This was in 1982, and there were only a small handful of rides. Every “exhibit” was nothing more than a showcase for merchandising. We had paid a significant admission price, which granted us very little more than the privilege of spending more money. Since 1982, a number of rides have been added, but sparingly. The idea is, if you’re a captive audience, and you’re bored, you’ll shop.
The same is true of cruise ships. I’ve never been on a cruise, but from what I’ve been told, it’s like a big resort hotel where meals, music and dancing girls are included in the ticket price. The difference is that you can’t leave. They charge whatever they like for items offered in the shops on board, and most significantly, for alcohol. You don’t really have a choice, because you can’t leave; you’re a member of the captive audience, and you paid to be there.
Some tortured Marketing genius concocted the idea that you can lure people into captive audience situations and then exploit them. If you do it with charm and grace and a some smoke and mirrors, they won’t actually notice how badly they’ve been raped, and may even come back for more. Some companies do it well, others do it less well, but it has become an accepted, even respected business practice. If I sound bitter, it’s because I feel that this kind of treatment is disrespectful to the customer, and I wish more customers expressed their outrage, instead of allowing themselves to be manipulated so easily by people who feel superior to them.
But cruises and theme parks are optional amusements, and I’m under no obligation to pay for them, so I don’t. That’s actually not what I wanted to talk about.
The whole concept of the willing captive audience was developed dramatically by a guy named Werner Erhard in the late 70’s and early 80’s with his EST seminars. People paid $250 to attend, and were then forbidden to leave for up to 12 hours, even to use the bathroom. It’s not surprising to me that Erhard had such a huge ego or such severe control issues, but I am shocked that people showed up. And they did, in droves. This sort of thing only serves to remind me that human beings live on a bell curve. At one end are those who would pay for Erhard to abuse them, and at the other end are those who would shove his head in the toilet and give him a swirly.
Every three months, my company has a 2 – 3 hour quarterly meeting. We’re all obligated to attend. The actual language on the e-mailed notice of the meeting date says, “Your attendance is expected and appreciated.” I’ve seen this ludicrous contradiction every three months for 9 years, but I still laugh every time I see it. They usually have some bagels, fruit, juice and coffee available to sweeten the deal, but we all know that we’re a captive audience.
Several management drones get up to read Powerpoint slides to us, while I fidget and wonder how they can justify the drop in productivity when they could just e-mail us the Powerpoint slides and we could read them ourselves. I’ve come to the realization that these presentations are performances, and the suits standing up in front of us imagine that we’re all enthralled, despite the fact that we’ve been ordered to attend.
While the meetings are informational, the presentations are actually intended to be motivational. The managers all want to be Tony Robbins. So there’s a lot of “teamwork” language, with the occasional self-deprecating “we couldn’t do it without you.” But occasionally, the news is not good. This is where management struggles to conceal their panic, but it’s obvious. They defend their strategies and change the tone of the presentation to include statements like “belt-tightening” and “managing to conditions.” And they belabor obvious topics and repeat themselves a lot. Today, I heard the president of our division say, “…because it’s important to the customer. Important to the customer. That’s why we’re here, to do what’s IMPORTANT. For the CUSTOMER.”
What they don’t realize is that we would all come willingly to sit through the meetings if they would charge us for parking, booze and dancing girls. I’m sure it would do wonders for the bottom line, and everybody would have much greater appreciation for our management team.