I Scream, You Scream

21 10 2011

We all scream for ice cream. Sis-boom-bah! (Everybody, sing along!)

And sometimes we scream at ice cream. Like when it’s the controversial new flavor Schweddy Balls from Ben & Jerry’s. Based on the 1998 SNL skit starring Alec Baldwin, Schweddy Balls has become an instant supermarket hit.

But the group One Million Moms has unleashed a campaign against Ben & Jerry’s as well as supermarkets carrying the product. Locker room humor has no place in your grocer’s freezer, they argue. Or yours, apparently.

Talk about getting your undies in a bunch.

Some stores have actually stopped carrying it. I was not able to find any in our bucolic little village, but up the road in that bastion of liberalness, Amarillo, I found it at the Coulter Road WalMart. I bought the last pair (ouch).

Ah, nothing like a good controversy to get the PR train rolling. Ben & Jerry’s is not a new passenger, having pushed the envelope on many a prior occasion (e.g., ClusterFluff, Hubby Hubby and Karamel Sutra are three other recent ones). They seem to thrive on controversy.

Here’s the scoop: Controversy begets attention, and attention begets sales. The product doesn’t even necessarily have to be good. With a name like Schweddy Balls, how could anyone not do a double-take? Two scoops, please!

And so we had a little ice cream social in my departmental suite today. We just had to taste the controversy. We invited any professors we could find. Truth be known, the name has more selling power than the product. It was so-so. I dunno, maybe it just needed more rum.

Or cough syrup. But I digress. Cough, cough.

While Ben & Jerry’s says it is the best-selling limited edition flavor yet, let us put this in perspective. It is just that: a limited-time-only product. Which is another way of saying it is no different from seasonal menu items at Applebee’s, pumpkin beer from Blue Moon, and egg nog. The big difference is that it has marketing sizzle, intrigue, and a boycott.

This stuff is priceless, and folks in the board room know it. It’s what made Heart Attack Grill famous. The Big Texan world-renown. Sweet frozen dreams are made of this.

As for the folks at Ben & Jerry’s, I wonder if it truly is to their long term advantage to be known more for their cheeky product names than the actual ice cream. Or if they are just here for our pleasure.

Dr “No One Can Resist” Gerlich

This Is Your Brain On Facebook

20 10 2011

I wish we had Facebook when I was getting my PhD. There would have been no shortage of interesting topics to explore for the dissertation. There is probably no single force in global society these days that has had a greater impact than has our beloved Facebook. With over 800 million users (and still growing), it is now two-thirds the size of China. Or 2 1/2 times the size of the US.

Facebook loves to tout its user statistics, and rightfully so. But if I were a doctoral student these days, I would be almost giddy at the prospect of doing my research on the FB phenomenon.

Of course, that shouldn’t and won’t stop my research partners and me from exploring it. I am utterly fascinated at how one website has so radically changed our lives. Just yesterday I reconnected with two people I have not seen since 1971, when my family moved 12 miles away across Chicago suburbia. I never could have made those connections were it not for the shared platform that FB has become.

Of course, cynics can say that had I really wanted to stay in touch with them (or they with me), we would have done it the old-fashioned way. But that’s beside the point. People have been losing touch with one another for decades. Witness the many high school reunions still taking place, reuniting long-lost friends and lovers, without benefit of Facebook. Guilt may transcend technology, but technology enables us in ways we never before could have imagined possible.

Today, though, I read this article about how researchers have started using fMRIs to map the brain of FB users, and found there to be a strong correlation between a person’s FB network (i.e., number of friends) and the size of their amygdala. Basically, the more friends you have, the thicker your amygdala is.

And if I have lost you here, the amygdala is where we process emotions like fear and pleasure. The lead researcher, Ryota Kanai, was surprised to find the correlation. “Kanai is quick to point out that they don’t yet know if using Facebook changes our brain structure. While that’s one explanation for his findings, it’s also possible that people who have more Facebook friends have brains that came equipped with better friend-making tools,” the report concluded.

As you may recall from your basic stats class, correlations do not imply causation. Just because two things are related does not mean that one causes the other (or vice-versa). Still, the relationship means that this area alone is ripe for further research.

And, should a cause-and-effect relationship be found (e.g., that a bigger amygdala predicts Facebook network size), it would then open the door for countless research projects into what else it might predict. Does this bigger amygdala and resulting larger social network then lead to measurable shopping behaviors and predilections, for example? Does this mean a person is more gregarious, and by virtue of this, more willing to try new products? Can we draw other marketing conclusions based on this nugget of information? And for that matter, could a person’s Facebook network serve as a proxy for amygdala size, and then be used to predict consumer behavioral outcomes?

If that’s the course, I can see all kinds of targeted advertising to heavily-networked FB users/ The more friends you have, the more the marketing. But not necessarily merrier.

As for me, I would love to have one of those fMRI machines at my disposal. I could have a lot of fun peaking behind the curtain while folks fiddled with their Facebook. Until then, though, my partners and I will have to settle for survey research and focus groups.

You’ve been forewarned.

Dr “Research Is Its Own Reward” Gerlich

Yurt So Vain

19 10 2011

It’s that time of year again. Cue the drumroll. Dim the house lights. Fire up the band.

Yes, it’s the Neiman Marcus 2011 Christmas Catalog. For a mere $75,000, you can have the best dang yurt ever manufactured.

While you’re at it, be sure to pick up a copy for the folks staging the Occupy Wall Street protests. I’m sure they’d like to read about this kind of largesse.

Like years before, the NM Christmas Catalog is filled with stuff only the pampered elite could ever crave. Or know about, for that matter. Items range from dirt-poor $95 to $1 million. Grab your credit card and get shopping, because these unique gift items are sure to sell fast.

And like years before, the catalog puts NM and its clients under the magnifying glass, but this year the focus is probably much sharper. OWS protests are occurring all over the world. Stocks have been up and down. There is increasing scrutiny of high-paid executives. Now why would you want to go and draw even more attention to all this negativity by publishing a book of priceless yet pragmatically useless products?

I do not begrudge the world’s wealthy their ability to consume such extravagances. But sometimes I feel like NM is rubbing this in our faces. The company plays the publicity card quite deftly every October, knowing full well that the vast majority of shoppers (in OWS terms, that would be 99%) could never ever hope to make a purchase. Even the relatively cheap $95 earrings.

And $75,000 for a yurt? Heck, where I come from, we call that a tent. And any camping equipment that costs this much had better have an engine and six wheels.

To be honest, I am not with the OWS protesters, but NM’s annual display of ostentatiousness is a little too far over the top. Who in their right mind is going to pay this much for a fancy tent? And who would do so in order to give it as a gift for someone else?

While it may be entertaining to peruse the pages of this annual paean to procurement, this is probably a good year to keep it on the down low. The world is still reeling from the recession, which some analysts say may be returning for a second swing. Nine percent unemployment may indeed be the new normal. Foreclosure is already the new black.

Although I remain a fiscal conservative and not at all opposed to the creation and accumulation of wealth, I think that these tenets of my faith bring with them enormous responsibilities. In 1977, Ron Sider published Rich Christians In An Age Of Hunger. It is one of several books that changed my life and caused me to see things through a different lens. While Sider was writing for the Church, it is a message that can be consumed by all everyone. It’s about recognizing that some of us are incredibly fortunate, but that many are not.

While it may be NM’s right to promote such luxury, and the wealthy elite’s privilege to buy such, it is probably something that should not be shoved down the throats of everyone else. Sure, the media play along with this by giving NM the publicity it so insanely desires, but NM is no less guilty of feeding the hungry beast.

Because stuff like this just gives marketing a bad name. Now who wants to go camping with me next weekend? No fancy yurts allowed.

Dr “Leave The Catalog At Home” Gerlich

Message In A Bottle

18 10 2011

When it comes to beverages, Gender is not a two-way street. Marketers need to make sure their GPS software has been updated, lest they try to buck traffic and wind up in a head-on collision.

With a bunch of men.

Earlier this month I wrote about the release of Dr. Pepper 10 (DP10), the new “diet” soft drink for men with a token 10 calories (as if those 10 calories were somehow laced with enough testosterone to justify consumption). Many of my students howled. Heck, I howled. Why do guys need their own food products? If a guy is secure enough in his masculinity, he would fearlessly drink a Diet Dr. Pepper and not worry a second about it.

To create an entirely new product, wrap it in a manly label, and infuse it with a few patronizing calories is just demeaning. Right, guys? Can I get an amen?

But when marketers create food and beverage products for women, it’s an entirely different story, as evidenced by Jim Beam marketing a variety of spirits aimed at women, including low-calorie Skinnygirl cocktails.

Wow. That’s a lot to swallow. Spirits aimed at women. Fruity tastes. Low in calories. Cultural ideal points. I’m not sure if this is clever marketing or sexist pandering. Could you ever begin to imagine a beverage aimed at men with the word “skinny” in it?

If anything, it points to several key gender differences (some of which are biological, others cultural). Women consume 58% of the wine in this country (no surprise there). Men consume 75% of the spirits. Whiskey is a tough shot to swallow, which is why it is so manly (he says with a gruff voice). Wine coolers were immensely popular some 20 years ago, but men could not drink them without fear of being made to wear a dress.

Evidence of gender-bending is also prevalent in beer, with numerous flavored brews that would make the hair on a man’s chest fall out…but quite possibly cause women to saunter up to the bar and ask for another round for her and the girls. Back in the 1950s, the Storz Brewing Company of Omaha repackaged its flagship brew in a cute 8oz. can, and rebranded it Storzette. Never mind that it was the same beer with a pretty pink flower on the can. That would be like selling Leggs pantyhose with a zippered fly.

As a sidebar, please note that, while I consider myself a beer snob, I would never be seen in public consuming or purchasing any of the brewer’s art containing fruits, spices or vegetables like pumpkins. Combining food with beer is not a manly thing (beats chest several times). I might try this at home (especially if someone else were to gift me with it), but behind closed doors, curtains drawn. And with the scruff of three day without shaving. Grrr.

Basically, it all boils down to this: when it comes to beverages, it might be OK for a guy to drink something diminutive, but you had better not market to him. And you better let him consume it quietly lest it draw attention to him. I pity the poor guy who orders up a Skinnygirl cocktail at the pool hall, though. He had better be figuring out his dress size.

Or making sure his life insurance is paid up.

Since I am not a woman, I really cannot comment on how these diminutive products are perceived. Is this good marketing? Is this what women want? Or is it demeaning to be reminded (once again) that only skinny girls are accepted? Or that your world is one of sweet flavors, and ours bitters?

Furthermore, does it mean that the accepted norm is to target the mainstream to men, and then develop subsidiary products for women who won’t consume said mainstream product?

I’m not sure I like the message that Jim Beam is sending our women (heck, my daughters, for crying out loud) when it resorts to cultural ideal points. Is it “Drink this and you’ll lose weight?” Is it “Sorry we overlooked you when we formulated the original product?” Or is it “Shut up and drink this. We went to a lot of effort to appease you?”

As for me, I want beverages that are strong enough for a man. But if for some reason I want to consume otherwise, I will do so without any assistance, thank you very much. Try not to watch.

Dr “Just Remember That Jim, Jack and Jose Are All Guys” Gerlich

Publish Or Perish

17 10 2011

When Amazon.com debuted in August 1995, hardly anyone paid it a second glance. After all, it wasn’t first to the party (Powells.com was), and e-commerce was still an unproven concept.

My, how a few years can change people’s minds.

Amazon has grown from just books to music, movies and just about anything that can be packed and shipped. More recently, it has expanded into streaming movies (watch out, Netflix). It has become as big as the river for which it is named.

But while shoppers and analysis alike warmed to the idea of buying things online (and subsequently making life difficult for small mom-and-pop stores in Anytown USA), no one anticipated the day in which Amazon would start disintermediating the very publishers supplying the books it sells.

Which is a fancy way of saying that Amazon is now in the publishing business.

And it only makes sense. Amazon has already been playing a big role in the self-publishing market. For that matter, many authors have found that Kindle publishing (e-books only) are a great way to get one’s works on the market at virtually no expense. But now Amazon is raising the ante and signing writers just like the big publishing houses do, as well as performing tasks performed by agents. It is, for all intents and purposes, a perfectly integrated system. Add in the line of Kindle readers, and it’s the perfect storm.

But what happens if you do sign with Amazon to publish a book? Does it mean that your book will only be available at Amazon, or will Amazon sell to the Barnes and Nobles of the world? For that matter, would B&N even think of carrying a book with an Amazon imprint? Is it self-limiting, or a pot of gold?

If the new Amazon venture takes off, it will completely rewrite the book on publishing (ouch). Middleman margins will disappear, leaving them all for Amazon, or, in a best-case scenario, lower prices for readers. At the moment, Amazon stock is selling for $241 per share, which means the company is flush with cash. In recent years it bought out competitors Zappos.com and Diapers.com (if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em!), and has low overhead since it owns precisely zero retail storefronts. It is also using its power to try to stymie state efforts to tax e-commerce sales. Mess with Amazon, and they just might move their distribution center to a neighboring state.

But aspiring authors have go to love the way Amazon has evolved. It is the answer to all their prayers. Had Amazon’s self-publishing division been available six years ago, my mother-in-law would not have had to purchase 1000 copies of her book. She could have made them available in e-book only, or via Amazon’s print on demand system. Why fill your garage with books when they can be printed as needed, or simply downloaded?

Critics, of course, will howl that Amazon makes it too easy for anyone with a computer to become an author (hey, wait a minute…that sounds like me!). But by becoming publisher and agent as well, it will be in their best interests to seek out not just people who string together a few words, but those who can do so in a way that will sell volumes (ouch again).

And if publishers don’t like it, they can get in line behind travel agents and all the other businesses disintermediated or toppled in the last 15 years. Maybe someone will write a book about it.

I think I might know a publisher.

Dr “You Better Book It” Gerlich

Diners, Dives and Dinosaurs

16 10 2011

One thing can be said for getting older. My list of restaurants no longer in existence is becoming rather impressive. And judging by this article, the degradation from diner to dive to dinosaur is not letting up.

Many restaurant chains, all of which can be more or less categorized as “fast casual,” have either bitten the dust during my life, or are well on their way down the slippery slope into the tar pit of demise.

I remember with a chuckle the Sambo’s chain in the 1960s. Never mind that the name and its logo were deemed blatantly offensive in a racial kind of way. It was basically a Denny’s but it was accused of implicit literary racism (recall Little Black Sambo). No kidding. The name was changed to Sam’s, but the damage was done. The original Sambo’s is still open in southern California, and their website explains how the “Sambo” name was derived. Their food was nothing to write home about, but apparently the racism was. Oh, and it was not intentional, but during that turbulent decade, it became entangled in the Civil Rights movement almost by default.

More recently, though, Perkins filed for bankruptcy. And other chains are either dead or darn close: Shoney’s, Po’ Folks, Blackeyed Pea. Walgreen’s had a chain called Wag’s. And others like Marie Calender’s and Ruby Tuesday have ebbed and flowed, vamped and revamped, in an effort to stay alive.

So what is it that separates the stayers from the leavers? Simple. Relevance.

Which is another way of saying that you had better not just keep the food fresh, but the concept as well.

Take a look around you. Which fast casual chains have you patronized for more than ten years? What have these chains done to maintain their place on your radar? They have kept everything current, from the food to the flair. Ruby Tuesday learned the hard way that anyone under 40 has no idea that it refers to a Rolling Stones song. They were a rather ho-hum chain until they retooled and relaunched as an upscale gourmet burger-and-salad-bar destination. (As a side bar, I will never forget eating Christmas 1995 dinner at a Ruby Tuesday in Hong Kong, overlooking the harbor. That was nothing short of incredible.)

But then there are places like Po’ Folks, which sought to cash in on our fascination (what the hell were we thinking?) with all things hillbilly. I’m talking Dukes of Hazzard. I tell you, beware any restaurant that lops off consonants (or vowels) in its name, signage or menu, for their cookin’ is not worth the credit card in your wallet. It may have been hip to be hillbilly for a while, but let me tell you. There’s no future in low brow. And that coming from a person who is one-half hillbilly by birth (although proudly raised in Chicago, he counters).

It’s all about being able to turn on a dime, update menus, freshen up decor, and fine-tune image. Turns out that consumers like variety, even if they happen to haunt the same places over and over. They crave new things, new tastes, new surroundings. Because there is a plethora of alternatives. If you want to keep customers, one thing is for sure: You cannot rest on your laurels. Or leftovers.

So how do places like Hard Rock Cafe keep folks coming back for more? It’s not easy being a rock-n-roll museum with food, but that’s basically what they are. They continually update their playlists to include music not just from the year in which they were launched (1971 in London…and yes, I have been to the original), but music from today. Artifacts from Lady Gaga would be just as welcome there as a jacket worn by John Lennon. They have had their own brand of beer from time to time, and they swap out the showcase items just like a real museum would do. In other words, there’s a good reason to come back.

Maybe this means that Americans are a fickle lot. Or maybe it just reflects a broader human desire for change. The Applebee’s and Chili’s of today had better read the writing on the wall, or else they face the same sticky ending as the Perkins and Wag’s of this world. It has to be good. It has to be different. And the paint can never really dry.

Because the plate of our desire wants more than just the same meat and taters. Can you get me a to go box?

Dr “Check, Please” Gerlich

Get Smart

15 10 2011

Yesterday the iPhone 4s hit the market. As usual, folks were camped out waiting to fork over $200 and up for a new phone. Steve Jobs is smiling down from heaven. Apple stock is once again soaring. And, according to some estimates, this may be what it takes to bring worldwide smartphone ownership above 50%.

What? You mean it has taken us this long to get there?

With 128 million iPhones in use, it just seems like everyone is using a smartphone. Truth be known, there is still a rather significant contingent clinging to their old “feature phones” (an euphemism for “basic old cell phone).

Having been on the smartphone train for over three years now, I simply cannot imagine life without one. I pretty much run my office from my phone. I know. It’s also another way of saying that my phone pretty much runs my life. But how else could I be able to get away on business and leisure travel, and still keep up with things?

A recent story in the Amarillo Globe-News about the iPhone 4s release : “A lot of people are just wasting their money buying these new shiny devices when a regular phone would do them just as well.” “iPhones and Apple are a joke, and the people who keep up and use their products are sheep.” “Just because some of us are fully content with our cheap phones that do things like text and make calls but sadly don’t have [filtered word] apps doesn’t make us old fogies who are whining about the good ole days it just makes us practical and honestly since some of us have to work 2 jobs to help pay for the entitlement Gen’s iPhones guess it’s good we are happy without.” (grammatical errors attributed to original authors)

Yikes. You’d think we were trying to take over the world or something.

The fact of the matter is, I never realized smartphones had yet to reach 50% market penetration. I had assumed that “feature phones” were the lasting legacy of senior citizens, who, once deceased, would help reduce the number of non-smartphone users. One at a time.

Apparently, though, there’s a significant number of people who do not own, nor ever want to own, a smartphone. Sure, the snarky side of me says that it’s easy to naysay that which you do not know. And it is hard to miss something you’ve never had.

But heck, why this legion of Luddites in an era when it is so patently clear that our lives are better with all this technology?

If anything, the smartphone gap is really just the digital divide of the 20-teens. It takes money to purchase the phone, and at about $80 a month for full service, it can be expensive to use. That’s almost $1000 a year for the privilege of being able to tweet or update your status from anywhere, check your stock portfolio, send email, find restaurants, and buy movie tickets. Although I cannot fathom living without smartphones, I will say that my family phone bill is equivalent to a car payment. Thank God I don’t have any car payments. I might not be able to afford all of our phones.

But then again, my life would be nowhere near as efficiently run as it is now. I can respond to vitally important emails regardless of my location. I can tell the world of my infinitely good taste in food, drink and activity. I can inventory my cycling miles, check in at Southwest Airlines, Shazam a song I don’t know, post a pic with Camera+, send postcards via Postagram, update my status at GetGlue.com, find an Ethel M’s Chocolate store, take a few dozen pics, find and call a restaurant for their hours, and translate a phrase to Spanish.

All of which I did the last week while in Las Vegas.

Yeah, I kind of like having a smartphone, and I truly wonder how the other 50% manages to make it through the day. What’s it going to take to get the other half to join us?

Dr “Still Room At The Party” Gerlich

Death By Food

14 10 2011

That the US has an obesity problem is not to be disputed. We love our food, and no matter how much we say we want to eat more healthily, we are more inclined to let our taste buds do the decision making for us. Besides, we only live once, right?

And we only die once, too.

Which is the perfect marketing formula for the Heart Attack Grill. If ever there were a restaurant at which one could throw caution to the wind, HAG is it. Its trademarked tagline, “Taste Worth Dying For,” may be for the prepositionally challenged, but it also works for those with a penchant for heart-unhealthy food. Or is that a death wish?

Food is served by hotties in skimpy nurse uniforms. An ambulance sits nearby. Patrons successfully finishing the Quadruple Bypass burger (yep, four patties) get rolled out in a wheelchair. Signs brag about lard, butter fat, cigarettes and 24oz cans of beer. This is no place for the faint of stomach. Or vegetarians.

The HAG is stridently defensive about its intellectual property. It refuses to franchise, and to date have only three locations (Chandler AZ, Dallas and Las Vegas). Furthermore, it has successfully defended its intellectual property rights in courts against companies seeking to copy the “medical” theme to their own chains. In other words, if the food doesn’t kill you, the company will if you ever try to steal their theme.

While I would never be caught dead there (in more ways than one), I have to give a high five to the HAG for latching onto a viable concept. HAG is wrong on so many levels, yet it has milked the cow of public relations more effectively than most. In a restaurant landscape crowded to the point of gridlock, HAG has found a way to makes its voice stand out. It has been featured in many print and broadcast features, and is following in the footsteps of The Big Texan in leveraging publicity. Bobby and Danny Lee are in the eatertainment business, and have turned an enormous steak into their calling card.

And Heart Attack Grill has done likewise with its massive monuments to masticating mistakes.

I doubt I’ll ever cross the threshold of this carnivorous shrine. I really doubt they would ever offer quadruple veggie burgers. That would be the antithesis of all things bad.

Which means I probably won’t ever find a salad bar either. Unless they can find a way to fry it in lard.

Dr “Heart Healthy” Gerlich

Serial Killer

14 10 2011

I must confess. I have always liked breakfast cereals. While I have learned to temper these cravings with age, it still like to sit down to a nice bowl of Cap’n Crunch or Frosted Flakes every once in a while.

All in the name of nostalgia, of course.

But there have been rumblings for several years now that the government might intervene and try to take the excitement out of breakfast cereals by forcing manufacturers to…well, quit appealing so much to kids.

You know. Cartoon characters that really have nothing to do with the product inside. Toucan Sam. Tony the Tiger. The venerable Cap’n.

But it looks like, at least for a while, cereal makers are getting a reprieve.

I, for one, am happy.

You see, as much as I know these products are really nothing more than sugar-fortified nuggets of processed grains, it is my responsibility as an adult (and as a parent) to regulate what comes into my house. Sure, kids can and do levy a lot of influence on family purchasing decisions, but who, my friend, is actually making the purchase?

It scares me to think that we should protect our children in product categories that minors are highly unlikely to be making the purchases. I have no problem with tobacco and alcohol, but please let the marketers be able to run freely. After all, branding a box of nondescript sugar-coated flakes of corn is going to be pretty difficult without a little excitement.

And while I am often found to be highly critical of my own kind when it comes to marketing, I have no problem whatsoever with marketing to children. It is not only every parent’s responsibility to regulate what comes into his or her home, but it is also imperative for children to learn how to deal with these marketing messages. If we protect them from an early age, they will likely not know how to deal with such appeals when they come of age. If they cannot learn to see through the shiny facade of cereal marketing, they will be gullible adults.

I agree that the cereal aisle is mesmerizing and geared toward people less than three feet tall, but this freedom is a hallmark of our society that I cherish mightily. To take away this freedom to learn, to prosper, to make dumb choices, is treading on dangerously thin ice.

While the mighty hand of government has intervened in many food and non-products, this is one they should not add to the series.

Now somebody pass me the milk.

Dr “Not Just For Kids” Gerlich

Hi Lips Are Sealed

14 10 2011

I am a little over one-half through a rather long trip to Las Vegas. It’s all work-related. Really. Trust me. Yeah, I have had several people offer to assume my job duties (sensing that I must be growing weary, but probably just wishing they were here). Upon further consideration, though, I think I’ll keep this job. I rather like it.

With three academic paper presentations under my belt, I can now focus all of my efforts on working with four WTAMU students who flew out yesterday. Together we are conducting Phase I of a long-term marketing research effort with The Terry Fator Show at the Mirage Casino.

Yep, it’s all very tough work, but someone’s gotta do it.

The project involves the students doing Man-on-the-street (MOS) intercepts with passersby, and then longer post-show surveys as people exit the theatre. In both cases, students are learning a lot about how market research is conducted, human interaction skills (you have no idea how hard it is getting people to give you a few seconds out on the street), and the use of technology in this research.

But first a little backstory. Terry is a Texan who won America”s Got Talent in 2007. His prize was $1 million and a Vegas showcase featuring him. He was a huge success and was hired by Mirage to a 5-year gig. He has played a huge role in the resurgence of ventriloquism as an entertainment form. He packs out his 1200-seat theatre five nights a week most of the year. He and his ten friends make people laugh for 90 minutes. Terry can sing. Act. Joke. Impersonate. And do it all without moving his lips.

So why the research? Simple. In a town like Las Vegas, you have to stay on top of your game all the time. It’s not like there aren’t other entertainment options out there. Heck, Mirage alone has the Beatles Love show as well as three night clubs. Walk a few hundred feet in any direction and you’ll see that the choice set explodes exponentially.

So our job is to take the pulse of the typical Vegas tourist, intercepting them out on the street to gauge awareness of Terry. It’s an uphill battle trying to constantly break through the ad clutter, rise about the hundreds of other voices in this town. But it’s something Terry must do. It’s been four years since he won AGT, and the folks who remember him from there won’t be around forever. The fact that Terry scored a cameo toward the end of AGT’s season this summer (in front of 20 million viewers) was a huge coup, but you cannot go to sleep in this business.

Vegas showgoers know that tickets are not cheap (Terry’s are typically in the $115 range, but run higher for seats near the stage). With so much money at stake for patrons, the show had better be good. Or else word will get out on the street, and the game will be over.

It is in working with Terry that I have come to notice the many places his ads appear (the most prominent of which is the inside back cover of Spirit Magazine on Southwest Airlines flights). But he also has 5 taxi wraps, along with lots of taxi tops and and taxi backs. Oh, and those awesome 70-foot electronic marquees on either side of the Mirage. Yet people we interview on the street will say they’ve never heard of the man.


But for the folks we interview exiting the show, it is no longer about awareness. Now we’re going after content and demographics. Gender. Age. And, most importantly, what did you like and dislike about the show and specific characters.

While Terry can read an audience like a book most of the time (you don’t need a laugh meter to know when something resonates), sometimes folks just need to be given the opportunity to provide more in-depth information. And so we stand outside the turnstiles, giving autographed picture cards to those willing to give us a few minutes of their time.

As for the technology, we are using iPads with wifi as our survey tool, and Qualtrics online surveys as our data collection method. In fact, our sidewalk intercepts are powered by a portable wifi hotspot in my front pocket. I am able to come in the through the backdoor via my iPad and watch the results coming in.

It really is tough work. We did this several days and nights last August, and we’re doing it for four days this trip. Why? Because a great show is a terrible thing to waste, and we want to see Terry prosper long on the Strip. “Hey, free water if you take our survey! Here, I’ll walk with you.”

Yeah, I’ll keep this job.

Dr “Lip Service” Gerlich