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Oliver Stone, Coppertop & the Bunny

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

If moviemaker Oliver Stone's conspiracy theories can be indulged as he alters history in order to make riveting films, then perhaps mine can be indulged on a much lesser plane, supported as I am by facts.

A few months ago as I was buying double-A batteries for my cameras, I was puzzled to see the racks chock full of batteries, but curiously out of the ones I really prefer: Duracell's double-A Ultra alkalines with the "Power Check" feature.

[This feature, as I am sure you know, allows the consumer to get a pretty good idea of how much juice is left in each cell simply by simultaneously pushing two points on the battery, completing a circuit. A gauge on the side of the battery then acts like a sideways thermometer: the longer the yellow line becomes, the better the battery life will be. This feature, I wrote years ago, was a godsend to people like us, for making sure the batteries powering our cameras and flashes were good for additional use.]

Duracell introduced this feature with great fanfare, declaring at the time that "consumer acceptance of new power-hungry devices is growing dramatically....All Duracell Ultra alkaline batteries come with Power Check, Duracell's patented battery tester, which lets you know when it's time to buy more Duracell batteries..."

I happily jumped on Coppertop's bandwagon and over the years have spent hundreds on Ultra batteries with the handy-dandy tester. Since their introduction I have never gone to a job concerned that my batteries would die on me – which is a heck of a good feeling to a working pro. [I should add that I never have been comfortable with rechargeable double-A's, at least for my cameras, since I tend to be a battery's worst nightmare when I am working, especially at a wedding – fast and with flash, hundreds of shots an hour. I simply prefer fresh batteries.]

And it's not that Duracell's batteries are better than anyone else's–who am I to denigrate the Energizer Bunny? – it's just that Duracell's battery tester was the most user-friendly. By contrast, Eveready's gauge on its Energizer batteries really was no gauge at all. It was just a little box that lit up with the word "Good" when you pressed the battery's two contact points. Not a lot of help in determining how much power was left, but better than nothing. In fact I always thought of this feature in the same way as I did an idiot light on a dashboard.

So I stuck with Duracells. And there I was a few months ago in a big stationery store megaplex (don't get me started on these) trying to find more of the batteries I had been happily using for years.

No luck.

A few days later, at a drugstore, I did manage to find one lonely eight-pack of the Power Check batteries hidden among a ton of regular Duracells.

Something wasn't right

Still later, when I tried a big hardware store megaplex I found one or two eight-packs of double-A's with the Power Check feature. But then I noticed something.

The Power Check packages had an expiration date of 2007. All the other, non-Power Check, Duracells had expiration dates of 2009. Obviously, this inventory was much newer. I asked a salesman about the Power Checks.

"Oh, they've discontinued those," the fellow told me. "Once these are gone, that's it."

How come? I asked.

"Got me."

A series of e-mails to Duracell's headquarters finally got a response from Ann Davin, director of communications for the Gillette Company in Bethel Connecticut (which owns Duracell.)

"Duracell has removed the Power Check feature from Duracell Ultra alkaline batteries in North America because market research demonstrates that consumers do not place high value on the feature."

"Consumers," Ms. Davin went on, "value performance more than value-added features such as Power Check."

This was news to me, given my own delight with never worrying about having suddenly to change expired batteries on a job, and given the approval of the feature I had heard, at least from my fellow photographers.

Ms. Davin wasn't through, though.

"Also," she said, "I want to point out that many contemporary cameras and portable electronic devices have low battery indicators to inform customers when their batteries are low."

She certainly was right about that. Those battery life indicators – once the province of point n' shoots and now featured on most high end cameras as well – do provide some degree of reassurance about battery life.

But not much.

In fact, I might have e-mailed Ms. Davin that just the previous weekend, while shooting a wedding with non-Power Check Duracells, I had experienced my first "power failure" in years when my motordrive started to act sluggish and I knew I had better change batteries pronto lest I be out of business as the bride came down the aisle.

Didn't I check my batteries before the job? Of course I did. But with no Power Check gauge on each cell, I was limited to sticking them into a small battery checker at home – and of course relying on that low battery indicator on my camera. Both of these had blithely informed me that I was good to go.

The simple fact is that, without a more sophisticated power gauge than most folks have at home – or care to use every time they take out the camera – the best indicator of battery life on the market had been Duracell's patented Power Check.

And now it's gone.

So for that matter is the lesser battery tester on Energizers. They were quietly discontinued "about 2-3 years ago," according to a company spokesman, save for the company's new high end, pricey E2 Titanium cells.


Well, here I am going to ask you to indulge my own conspiracy theory. Mind you, it is only a theory – but one that I posited both to Ms. Davin and to a consumer rep at Eveready, and which both chose to ignore in several e-mails. Thus they knew my view and had their chance to respond on behalf of their companies.

I believe Duracell and Energizer ditched the battery check, not because customers "do not place high value on the feature," as Duracell's Davin maintained, but because the feature worked too well and was costing both companies sales. In fairness, perhaps some of the other reasons cited by Davin applied as well, but I'm willing to bet the bottom line spoke loudest.

How many times have we been told to "always make sure your batteries are fresh" before undertaking a big photo job? Hell, I've written that myself any number of times in this space.

In the P-PC days (pre-Power Check), I routinely would dump all the double-A's in my camera before a job, just to be sure I was fully juiced before an assignment. But once Power Check proved itself to be a good gauge of battery life (which it did) I was happy to rely on it to tell me when to change.

Result: I changed batteries less often, to absolutely no ill effect.

Now can't you just imagine some bean-counter at Duracell or Eveready telling the techs in the white coats that, by offering Power Check, they were shooting the company in the foot?

Or that the battery makers' bottom line was enhanced by its general-use consumers having no idea how much life was left in their batteries, so that the more prudent among these consumers would go dutifully to the store and buy more?

As I said, both companies declined a chance to comment on this.

So I'm doing it for them.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Frank Van Riper
Once upon a time Duracell's great Ultra alkaline batteries boasted a Power Check feature (below) that enabled consumers to get maximum use out of them. Not now, though. The current incarnation (top) has no easy way to gauge what power is left inside. A way for Duracell to increase sales? Makes you wonder – and they are not saying.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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