IF YOU WANT TO sell a product on TV, try to get Bugs Bunny or Abraham Lincoln to do the commercial. Better still, come up with a combination of the two - say, an Albraham Bunny. In him you would have the perfect spokesman, and total credibility.
Also, if you are a Democrat running for President of the United States and you participate in a televised debate, be sure to bring up the name of Herbert Hoover to embarrass your Republican opponent.
None of this is idle speculation or even a smartaleck's audacious advice. It's scientific. It's data. The man who came up with it, and who can come up with much, much more, is Tom Westbrook, a former college professor turned maverick media resear cher. Westbrook founded and runs a market research system called Tell-back, which differs from other such systems in that, Westbrook insists, it is more portable and more humane. Westbrook is head-quartered in Spokane, Wash., but he recently visited Washington to demonstrate his apparatus to advertising agencies here.
Gerald R. Ford hired Westbrook to rate the Ford-Carter debates during the 1976 election camfpaign. FIfty people were gathered in a room to watch the debates on television, and each had one hand on a dial that, could be turned up or down, depending on that person's reaction, positive or negative, to what a candidate was saying. A computer kept a constant tally of the ups and downs and tabulated the final results to see not so much who "won" the show as what sort of responses most impressed the sample audience.
Within two days of a debate, Ford was able to watch a taped replay that showed his undulating rating in a number figure on the right hand side of the screen. He was able to see, for instance, that when he claimed there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe," his rating fell 10 points, with Carter's thus going up. When Ford spoke of his "experience" in office, his rating dropped slightly, but when he mentioned that America was "strong" and "at peace," be shot back up again.
On the other side of the fence, Carter scored positive reactions with pledges of "openness in government" and people having "enough to eat," but he made a more substantial gain when he not so subtly compared the campaign promises of Ford to those of Herbert Hoover. "It was the old Democratic rhetoric working again," notes Westbrook, a white-whiskered, pipe-smoking researcher type. "All you have to do is hit a Republican with that old shot about Herbert Hoover."
Now, where exactly do Bugs Bunny and Abraham Lincoln come in? That is another test, a sampling of 10 award-winning commercials set up with Tell-Back by Advertising Age magazine to flex the system. In separate sessions, a total of 139 more people were seated at the dials and shown the 10 ads." The computerized results were broken down into their actions to the commercials and their reactions to the "star celebrities" who made the spiels.
Westbrook emphasizes that this was "not a definitive piece of research," but the results are mildly amusing if not entirely persuasive. A commercial for Lincoln National Life Insurance Company didn't score very high itself, but the star celebrity of this spot, the highly regarded President Abraham Lincoln, seen in a fast-edited collection of still photographs, struck a hugely responsive chord. Lincoln scored first with an 88 rating, and though this was the highest logged, the Great Emancipator was only six points ahead of a more contemporary culture hero, Bugs Bunny. The nationally known hare starred in a commercial for Johnson & Johnson Dental Floss. In the ad, his were called "the two most famous teeth in the world."
Paul Lynde came in third with his spot for the Manufacturer's Hanover Bank in New York, followed closely by Gene Kelly for Air France and Candice Bergen for Polaroid. Among the least popular spokespersons: Catherine Deneuve for Lincoln Mercury, Petula Clarke for Burlington Fabrics, Speedy Alka-Seltzer - the animated sprite who has a tablet for a hat - and, at the bottom of the heap, the punkish and monosyllabic Robert "Baretta" Blake for STP, although women respondents seemed to like him better than men did.
Advertisers can use such information to make their appeals to public vulnerabilities even more sinister. Politicians can use them to find ripe avenues for exploitation. Is there something creepy about this? Well, yes. Market research for television has become an industry itself, but considering the dollars and power at stake, it was more or less inevitable. The idea of pretesting ideas on guinea pig crowds is not new, however, the Marx Brother pretested many of the routines in their classic films by first touring the country, performing them on stage, and waiting for the laughs. If the laughs didn't come, the routines were dropped and didn't show up in the movies.
In the computer age, the research can become fairly insidious. A San Francisco firm came under fire in 1976 for its process of hooking test audiences up to receptors that gauged how much perspiration their palms expended when certain newscasters popped up on a TV screen. Later, some of the newscasters and personalities who scored low were fired, although the station involved denied that the "galvanic skin response" tests were the deciding factor.
Westbrook says he is comtemtpuous of such "grotesque" methods. He's trying to run an essentially nasty business in an honorable way, and in this pursuit he is probably in the minority. "I'm fascinated with the idea of human response and being able to catch it," he says, sounding very enthusiastic and not very sinister. Westbrook says he tries to treat his respondents with tact and without invading the privacy of their innermost minds. He can set up his system almost anywhere, which makes it different from such establishments as the Hollywood Preview Theater in Los Angeles, where TV pilots, series, personalities and such current movies as "Valentino" are shown to audiences who manipulate dials that range from "very dull" to "very good."
In the case of "Valentino," the pretesting helping United Artists decide which scenes to cut before the film went into release (thus prompting predictable screams of studio interference from director Ken Russell). Obviously, though, they didn't cut enough, since the picture is a whopping flop anyway. That's one of the redeeming features of all these pretest audience response devices. None of them is foolproof and there is always the distinct possibility they will be wrong. In the history of NBC daytime TV, no show ever pretested lower than "The Gong Show," but it went on the air anyway and became a considerable hit. So there.
"Everybody's looking for instant everything," Westbrook complains. "They all say, 'Save me the trouble of reading, or thinking, or going over data.' Well we're getting very valuable data here, with an essential limitation. We're looking a mirror up to 50 people, and we get an extraordinarily accurate reflection of how they are thinking. But that doesn't mean those 50 people are right, or that they know what's going to happen."
yet undoubtedly some of Westbrook's clients will regard his data as gospel. We are living in data-as-gospel times.
Where is it all leading? A two-way cable TV system is already being test-marketed in Columbus, Ohio. It enables people to respond instantantly to what they see on their TV screens by talking back to a central computer. In time, pretesting will be done in the home, and so it might not even be considered pretesting any more. We'll all be guinea pigs together and television shows may be able to get instant ratings that could see them canceled even before the first episode is over.
The gloomy view of these possibilities is that they will make the television business more ruthless and majority-ruled than ever. The rosy view is that cable TV and market research together could make a true consumerist democracy something of a reality. I prefer the gloomy view, but that's just to be on the safe side. Nothing is so risky as a Utopian prediction, nor quite so safe as a premonition of doom.
In the meantime, watch for a commercial that begins, "Ehhh, what's up doc? Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor, that's what . . ."