Thursday, July 26, 2007

Captivity

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.

7 comments:

John Sands said...

"they won’t actually notice how badly they’ve been raped"

Whut???

Roxy said...

Speaking about the optional amusements, I feel the same way about the direct marketing home parties that many women love to host. It's very rare that I come home feeling like I bought something that I could not have gotten from a store or that I bought something because the host was a friend or neighbour. I just feel obligated to buy something. My latest is a piece of overpriced junk jewelry. I am proud to say that I turned down an invitation to another party because I am in the midst of decluttering and see no sense in bringing home more stuff.

'they could just e-mail us the Powerpoint slides and we could read them ourselves'
In the last place I worked, under the guidance of IBM, Information Systems was in a major overhaul so that they could reach their goal of attaining a CMMI level of 5. There are many milestones for each level. And these milestones had to be completed by a certain date, because someone had made it a goal for that quarter. Some of these milestones were eg.
1. Setup Procedures for doing X.
2. Present Procedures to minions.
So we were forced to attend many powerpoint presentations of procedures that had not been finalized. But, as long as they had set up SOME procedures and PRESENTED the procedures, their goals were met and we could all advance to the next CMMI level!

Roxy said...

'It's very rare that I come home feeling like I bought something that I could not have gotten from a store or that I bought something because the host was a friend or neighbour.'
Oops, I meant to say 'It's very rare that I come home feeling like I bought something that I could not have gotten from a store. Most times I feel that I bought something just because the host was a friend or neighbour.'

GuruTruth said...

Werner Erhard's brother Harry Rosenberg is CEO of Landmark Education. His sister Joan Rosenberg is a member of the Board of Directors of Landmark Eduacation. His attorney Art Schreiber is General Counsel and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Landmark Education. His former employee from 1967, who went door-to-door with Werner Erhard when he worked as a door-to-door salesman, Laurel Scheaf, was an executive in EST and is now a "Landmark Forum Leader" in the Landmark Forum.

Tim Clark said...

What a strange post from GuruTruth. How is it relevant to my blog entry?

GuruTruth said...

You wrote: "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." I too to this day am shocked, shocked at those who would attend and pay for this.. stuff, shocked at those who would voluntarily commit these acts, and shocked further still that companies have mandatory trainings in these controversial groups.

burton said...

Tim - I like this post - but I consider it timeless. From the start : "There's been a change in the way..." How long has Disney World been open? How long have people been "trapping themselves" on ships going to ports to simply shop? It is so significantly long ago that we should not be shocked - unless we've been in a closet with a bag over our heads.

By the way, I cruise in January on the Rock Boat. I'll be "trapped" on a boat with some of my favorite bands performing and mingling while drinking overpriced alcohol - also while drifting to the Bahamas to pay money to experience something different called an excursion. I don't feel "raped". I know exactly what is coming out of me before I go out on this date! However, I see the point of your post and respect your point of view. Masterful if you ask me - much like the latest movie which is a terrible comedy with Queen Latifah that you THINK nobody would want to watch. Well, that is the world we live in. These ventures would not be so successful if people did not willingly drink it up - at an alarmingly constant rate.