Monday, February 26, 2007

What do you think of IGOR?

IGOR is a sympathetic mascot, a small gentle gorilla, created by the Vachon Company to sell new Gorilla shaped muffins, obviously intended for children. IGOR even has his own Web site, whose evocative name is « Igor and me ».

To sell its product, Vachon setup a promotional campaign, well described on the Infopresse portal: « The promotional campaign sets Igor the gorilla in the limelight. Over 1000 Early Years Centres in Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes are targeted. Those day care centres will receive a CD of Igor’s dance, posters illustrating the mascot’s dance, bags from children containing a booklet relating to the history of Igor and his jungle friends, advocating good nutrition and physical activity, stickers and two Igor muffins from Vachon, as well as rebate coupons.

Also, 20 participating day care centres will win a group daytrip of their choice, a $3000 value, including animation with the gorilla spokesperson. » Promotional bags in question are also distributed to selected households; I got one at home. Perhaps you did too? This is nothing new; this method is often used to launch new products.

The campaign shocked the « l’Union des consommateurs » (Union of consumers) and the « Coalition québécoise sur la problématique du poids » (Quebec coalition about problems of the weight). In a press release, founding their claim on article 248 of the Consumer Protection Act, these two organizations ask the « Office de la protection du consommateur » (Consumer Protection Agency) to order the withdrawal of the promotional material from day care centres.

Now, at first glance, Vachon’s commercial practices do not seem to contravene article 248 of the Consumer Protection Act, which has historically been applied to advertising in traditional media, mainly television. A stated in article 90 of the Regulation respecting the application of the Consumer Protection Act, the use of advertisement directed at children is allowed on a container, a wrapping or a label. As far as the mascot is concerned, its use is clearly authorized by paragraph « l » of article 91 of said regulation, which states that « a character created expressly to advertise goods or services is not considered a character known to children if it is used for advertising alone ». Companies have been using mascots for ages to sell foodstuff to children. For instance, Tony the Tiger, Snap, Crackle and Pop, and Toucan Sam, mascots which are still used today as depicted in Kellogg’s Canada’s Web site.

On the other hand, one can question the conformity of the booklet relating to IGOR’s history. Indeed, to me, this promotional material seems to be an « advertising insert », under the terms of article 88 of the application regulation; it is stated that advertisement may be exempt from the application of article 248 of the Act if it appears « in a magazine or insert directed at children » (paragraph « a ») AND if this insert is « FOR SALE or inserted in a publication which is FOR SALE » (paragraph « b »), which does not seem to e the case here. However, being neither jurist nor lawyer, I cannot pass judgment with certainty on these questions. We shall see; the « Office de la protection du consommateur » inquires into the matter.

In any case, lets look into the « health » content of the message instead, a must, given the population’s preoccupations in this respect for many years; presenting sweets as healthy food and especially affixing the « Health Check » logo, of the Hearth and Stroke Foundation of Canada, to the packaging and promotional material, amounts to shameless cynicism. One must question the product certification criteria that must be met to display this logo; would our toddlers be threatened of cardiopathy? Perhaps this foundation should be a little more selective with respect to the products on which it authorizes the display of its logo or revise its certification criteria. But again, Vachon is not the only producer of foodstuffs to promote the nutritional aspect of a product, for instance the fact that it contains whole grains, while avoiding granting too much importance to undesirable nutrients, such as sugar, salt and fats. Why then suddenly condemn the IGOR campaign so harshly?

What one should rather question is the opportunism of day care centres participating to the IGOR campaign. There is something shocking about a government sponsored organization accepting advantages, financial or other, in exchange for its help to market a product. This is particularly true when the product is sweets and the organization devoted to the well-being of children. In addition to this moral responsibility of the organization, let us not forget its legal responsibility, since article 5 of the Educational Childcare Act states an obligation to enforce an educational program « providing an environment conducive to the development of a healthy lifestyle, healthy eating habits and behaviour that have a positive effect on the children's health and well-being. »

I am not opposed to the fact that a child may, occasionally, eat sweets; we all did as a child, and most of us still indulge now and then. Besides, I may be wrong; IGOR muffins may be healthy food? But, if such is the case, why is the « Coalition québécoise sur la problématique du poids » opposed to their promotion in day care centres? Are the group daytrips and animation from which children will benefit sufficient reasons to tolerate the IGOR promotion in day care centres? Does the IGOR campaign shock you? If so, what is it that shocks you, Vachon's promotional actions or the complicity of day care centres? Talk to me! I'm eager to read your comments!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Do you really need it?

We consume too much and we consume badly. « Consumption has become the main activity of our society. Other eras left us cathedrals or other monuments indicating the importance of certain values, religious or not; the temples of the current era are these immense shopping centres that allow people to regularly pay homage to the god of consumption (S. Mongeau, La simplicité volontaire, plus que jamais…, Montréal, Écosociété, 1998, p. 45). »

This excerpt from Consommation et image de soi’s introduction depicts my position on the consumer society admirably well; indeed, it was cited in a television interview at I conclude the book with a question to ask oneself before buying: « Do I really need it? ».

In a general way, and more specifically within industrialized societies, people must consume products daily to satisfy the necessities of life. Both consumers and marketing theoreticians call these necessities needs. For consumers, needs are an evidence. Don’t we often say « I need it » to justify a purchase? For the manufacturer, producer or entrepreneur, who conceives products with the aim of selling them, identifying consumer needs appears essential. Marketing taught him that he must first discover unsatisfied needs in potential customers and then develop products with suitable characteristics to fulfill those needs.

Thus, the consumer experiences needs and makes every effort to satisfy them. For manufacturers, needs are operational realities: identifying market needs allows them to sell products to millions of people. Nevertheless, marketing theoreticians could not be satisfied with this observation: they conceptualized needs. They have used Maslow’s theory of motivation to define the motives behind purchasing decisions (A. H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality, New York, Harper & Row, 1954).

A review of marketing literature from the 1970s onward reveals six principles underlying the concept of needs:

  1. needs are inborn to the consumer;
  2. marketing efforts cannot create a need;
  3. marketing efforts may create a desire (or want);
  4. advertising only associates a product with an existing consumer need;
  5. needs may be functional or symbolic;
  6. consumers seek to satisfy symbolic needs more than functional needs.

The most important weakness of this theory resides in considering needs to be inherent to the consumer. Let’s consider the purchase of a car for instance. Some may justify it by an inborn need for transportation; others may see in it the satisfaction of an inborn need for prestige, in the case of a luxury model from a reputable manufacturer. In both cases, the inborn nature of the need may appear obvious. Yet, neither of these needs existed at birth; nor did they appear without reason or influence. What has given rise to them? The needs concept recognizes the existence a symbolic dimension; moreover, it admits the primacy of symbolic needs over functional needs. Consequently, it implicitly acknowledges the existence of a social influence on needs, which contradicts the inborn nature of consumer needs.

This incoherence is resolved by establishing a radical distinction between needs and desires (or wants). Some may say that needs are human requirements, while desires (or wants) result from cultural and marketing influences. For instance, an American may need a means of transportation, which translates into a desire and demand for a North-American make. On the other hand, a Frenchman may feel the same need, but satisfy it with a European make. Yet, in his theory of motivation, on which the needs marketing theory is based, Maslow makes no such difference. He uses the terms needs, drives and desires as though they were interchangeable.

Thus, if marketing can influence wants, it can promote the emergence of needs. Moreover, this task is largely simplified by the fact that, according to Maslow, the satisfaction of needs can only be transitory.

Maslow’s theory of the motivation is, seemingly, attractive to support the needs concept presented in marketing theory. Understandably, it appealed to specialists seeking letters of nobility at the time of the original theoretical development of this science. Yet, I do not share their interpretation of Maslow’s theory. On the contrary, far from presenting needs as inborn, I believe that his work shows needs’ social nature and the ease with which they may be created, given the transitory contentment drawn from their satisfaction, especially by the consumption of a product or service.

In a forthcoming chronicle, I will present the theory of « expects » I have developed; based on my business experience, and on recent writings in sociology and psychology, it provides a better understanding of consumer motivations and requirements.