January 13, 2002

Consuming Rituals of the Suburban Tribe


Angela Macri crouches beneath the shower nozzle and blinks into the blazing lights of a one-person film crew. The shower curtain has been drawn back so that her movements are exposed to the camera; Macri seems a little nervous as she adjusts the faucets.

''Look up a moment,'' says Terri Marlowe, the camerawoman, as she checks the light reading.

Macri has just reached down and picked up a dispenser of Oil of Olay body wash and is squirting the cream onto a squishy pink sponge. She blinks, looking a little out of place in her own shower stall, dressed as she is in a modest black bikini. ''I always like putting Oil of Olay on my little pink scrungie,''

she cries as water crashes over her face. ''It makes me feel special.''

''Your little what?'' asks Janet Allen, a research psychologist who also happens to be standing inside this small suburban bathroom.

''My scrungie,'' Macri says. ''I call it my little scrungie.''

Allen scribbles the word ''scrungie'' on her note pad.

''Life's a rat race,'' Macri continues, now frisking her armpit with the sudsy scrungie. ''You gotta treat yourself sometimes, don't you?''

Macri is a teacher who works with autistic children in Scarsdale, N.Y., and her life, she says, is often stressful. She tells Allen and the other eager researchers who have crowded into her bathroom that taking a shower is a form of retreat, a treasured respite from the pressures she faces each day.

''Are you treating yourself now?'' Allen calls into the shower.

''Oh, yes.''

''Would you say that the shower has 'necessity status' for you?''

Allen's research subject muses for a moment over this bit of jargon. The left side of her body is now slick with unctuous Olay bubbles.

''Absolutely,'' Macri hollers. ''It's an escape.''

Macri reaches down and picks up a different bottle, one bearing the Softsoap label. Having lathered her left side with Oil of Olay, she is now being asked to lather the right side with a pilot Softsoap product being test-marketed by Colgate-Palmolive. Her in situ reactions are being captured on videotape for the benefit of the company's advertising executives.

''My ex-husband showed up last Friday,'' Macri is saying as she refills the scrungie with the new product and sniffs it tentatively. ''I got so stressed out that I had to take a shower immediately. It's almost like therapy for me.''

Allen scrawls more notes. ''How does the Softsoap compare with the Oil of Olay?''

''Well,'' Macri responds thoughtfully, ''the Softsoap foams up better. I like the pump on it. I definitely like pumping better than squirting. I like the control of the pump. But I don't care so much for the smell. It's perfumy.''

''So,'' Allen asks with scholarly flatness, ''you think that the pump is a kind of control mechanism?''

''Oh, definitely.''

Macri tries some other products before exiting her stall. Allen and her crew document every detail of Macri's bathing ritual, from her rinsing techniques to the way she hangs up her beloved scrungie. After all, observation is what they are trained to do. The researchers work for a Manhattan market-research firm named Housecalls, which borrows the techniques of academic ethnography and anthropology to study the intimate (and sometimes secretive) behaviors of those strange, exotic tribal units known as consumers. Housecalls is a pioneer of ''observational research,'' as the field is known, which spurns the use of stodgy marketing techniques like written questionnaires and focus groups in favor of watching how consumers use products in their native habitats -- that is, their own homes. Unlike actual scholars, however, Housecalls pays its research subjects for their time; in this case, Macri has been given $125 for allowing strangers to study her bathing habits.

After Macri towels off and dresses, she heads downstairs for some follow-up questions in her comfortable suburban living room. Bill Abrams, the founder of Housecalls, sits quietly in a corner of the room with a sagelike smile while Allen probes Macri's attitudes about showering. Does she do it in the morning or the evening? How is showering in summer different from showering in winter?

Abrams rarely interferes in his staff's work, but he does ask the occasional question. He reminds Macri that, in addition to trying out the Softsoap and Oil of Olay products, she sampled a Suave body wash. ''You say you couldn't abide the Suave experience,'' he says. ''Why?''

''Oh, it left a horrible coating on my leg.''

''Did Suave relieve your stress the way Oil of Olay does?''

''No, it totally stressed me out!''

''I see,'' Abrams says firmly. ''For you, soap and stress are connected in some way.''

A few minutes later, I'm walking outside on leafy Woodruff Avenue with Abrams. Wiry and fit-looking despite his gray hair and 71 years, he chats amiably about his latest suburban expedition. Abrams knows that the Housecalls approach seems invasive -- but aren't anthropologists who camp out with remote tribes pretty pushy, too? ''There are things that you just can't learn from questionnaires,'' he says. ''You have to see people with the product at the very moment they're using it.'' Abrams looks back at Macri's house and smiles. ''What consumers say and remember and what they actually do are often two totally different things.''

Housecalls does not describe what it does as anthropology; it prefers to say that its researchers generate ''reality-based product differentiation.'' But the language of Margaret Mead and her followers constantly creeps into the company's official literature. One company brochure talks about consumers as if they were aborigines, lauding the benefits of ''seeing and hearing them in their everyday environments.'' Housecalls researchers often approach American consumers as an exotic species. Body language and gestures are rigorously documented. In one food study, for example, the company's cameras captured the spontaneous reaction of a woman who ''disgustedly picked off the pasta sticking to her serving fork.'' Through extended in-house contact, the company's field researchers also get their subjects to reveal the personal motives behind their use of various products; in one recent case, a young woman feverishly scrubbing her bathroom confessed that she did so to win her grudging husband's approval.

Housecalls camera crews follow subjects in and out of their homes, into the deepest crevices of their day-to-day lives. They have shadowed teenagers as they wander into stores to buy disposable cameras; followed an executive in his car on his way to work as he takes a swig of mouthwash and then spits it out at the first traffic light; spied on mothers changing their babies' diapers; followed middle-aged men into their bathrooms to see how they apply antiperspirant; and videotaped the interactions of young couples as they run their hands through hair doused with various brands of mousse. In the process, Abrams and his team have created a curious, singular library of videotapes showing ordinary Americans going about their normally unrecorded business.

Although the advertising business overall has struggled since Sept. 11, Housecalls has continued to prosper. Recent clients include Kraft Foods, Duracell and Playtex. More and more companies, Abrams says, have recognized that traditional focus groups -- in which groups of randomly selected citizens discuss their uses of Kleenex and Mars bars while researchers hidden behind a one-way mirror scribble down their utterances -- do not always paint an accurate picture. Consumers' memories are notoriously unreliable, for one thing. Even worse, focus-group subjects often sugarcoat their experiences out of a desire to please. In recent years, advertising companies began noting that participants were parroting back their very own slogans. In addition, focus groups were often being dominated by one or two overbearing personalities, many of whom had made odd careers out of the experience, going from study to study like professional alcoholics at A.A. meetings. The method had gone stale.

The fly-on-the-wall immediacy of the Housecalls approach isn't cheap, of course. Where a traditional focus-group study costs a client around $10,000, a Housecalls study sets a client back $33,000 for a study of around 20 people. ''We've done just about everything,'' Abrams says, ''from adolescent cereal consumption to diet-pill use by obese women. We really are ethnographers -- we're out there in the field.'' And the increasing demographic diversity of America means that there are more and more consuming tribes requiring intimate, independent study. ''Old methods of market research are just not cutting it,'' Abrams explains. ''Manufacturers cannot keep pace with the evolving lifestyles of so many different groups and subgroups.''

Take Maalox, the over-the-counter antacid. The makers of Maalox recently came to Abrams because they had little idea how people with chronic heartburn became loyal to its product rather than Rolaids or Pepto-Bismol. Accordingly, Abrams's company has designed a close-up study involving a group of Westchester County women.

Housecalls often clusters its studies in a single geographical area, like the sprawling New York garden suburbs. This is a key consumer heartland but one that sometimes seems as impenetrable to advertisers as the Amazon. For the antacid study, the Housecalls team has been patiently plotting its way from house to house, visiting one woman after another who suffers from persistent dyspepsia. For Janet Allen, the assignment is almost as sensitive as the study Housecalls did for Playtex examining the use of padded bras. But Allen, a former academic researcher who did graduate work in psychology at Columbia, knows which buttons to push and which to leave delicately untouched. ''You have to be very careful,'' she says as we talk about the social mechanics of discussing heartburn with middle-aged women. ''The subject mustn't ever feel judged or intimidated.'' (Indeed, Housecalls only uses women ethnographers; Abrams calls male researchers ''latently threatening.'')

The subjects of the Maalox study are each provided with the ingredients -- salsa, spicy tomato sauce and the like -- for a fatty, burn-inducing feast. After the woman eats, team and subject sit around for half an hour chatting, waiting for burning sensations to rise in their subject's chest. At one Westchester home, a woman chomps on a witches' brew of barbecue sauce and chips for 20 minutes.

''It's burning,'' says the woman.

''Do you ever consider not eating barbecue sauce and chips?'' asks Allen.

''I know it makes me burn, but it's so yummy!'' The woman looks forlorn. ''No, I wouldn't stop eating it. I'd just take my Maalox instead.''

The woman points ominously to her solar plexus. ''It's beginning to burn much more,'' she groans. ''It's like a tingling. I'm starting to burp.''

The team hands her a dose of Maalox and then films her facial expressions. The woman is now fanning her face. ''Ooow, it's so inflamed!'' Then she adds, her eyes popping, ''I'm experiencing some belching in the throat area.''

As the Maalox begins to kick in, the team follows their subject around the kitchen, quietly asking questions. Is she happy now? they ask. Does she feel ''normal'' again? Would she ever take Rolaids at a restaurant table in full view of the company? (''Never. I always go to the ladies' room.'') After seven minutes, it is noted, the Maalox is taking effect; she is feeling a little better.

''I'm beginning to feel like a human being again,'' the woman sighs. After 22 minutes, she announces that she's back to normal.

Later, with Abrams by my side, I watch the presentation video that Housecalls has fashioned from all this raw footage. One segment shows a largish woman rolling her eyes and fanning her mouth, then gulping down her Maalox. A banner appears on-screen: ''Reinforce Normalcy and Youthfulness,'' it reads.

''These women want to think of themselves as normal,'' Abrams explains to me, ''not as victims who are getting older.'' As the woman suppresses a burp and smiles with embarrassment, Abrams adds that none of the women studied are ''preventers.'' Seeing my puzzled look, he explains further. ''What we've found is that they don't take their antacids before eating.''

The Housecalls research also suggests that it might not be possible to make converts of Pepcid or Rolaids users. ''I never change brands,'' one woman announces defiantly. ''I can't tell you why. But if I get heartburn and someone offers me Zantac instead of my Pepcid AC, I'll refuse. It's just one of those things.''

''You see?'' Abrams says to me. ''Brand loyalty is an intricate thing. It has all kinds of meanings and associations. But how would you ever know that without filming someone actually taking it? For many of these women, Maalox is like a magic pill. And there's one other thing that we learned.'' He pauses and assumes a little more gravity, like a professor poised above his lectern. ''They love their food,'' he intones, ''more than they hate their heartburn.''

The field research of a company like Housecalls is just one example of the increasing adoption of anthropological techniques by advertisers. In recent years, for example, carmakers like Honda and Toyota have begun to send researchers to live with families to observe their car-using habits up close. Pioneer Stereo has sent its staff into the field to drive around Austin, Tex., to get a better profile of its potential sound-system buyers. (Pioneer calls it ''natural environment research.'') A more absurd variant of this trend is ''ambush research,'' in which a researcher befriends a total stranger in a bar and, by means of a complicated trick arranged beforehand with the waitress, contrives to present him with a brand of beer he didn't order -- the client's brand, of course.

Some academic anthropologists have lamented that their discipline -- one predicated on an appreciation of individual cultures -- has been appropriated by advertisers intent on creating global markets. That said, many besides Janet Allen have crossed over to the corporate side. In the early 1990's, for example, Nissan hired a team of anthropologists to help redesign its Infiniti line of cars. The researchers helped Nissan understand that Japanese notions of luxury were radically different from those of Americans: the Japanese crave simplicity, Americans visible opulence. Nissan's method was promptly imitated by Volkswagen and others.

These days, many ethnographers float freely between academia and business, holding down academic posts while consulting for commercial agencies. One such specialist is Thomas C. O'Guinn, who is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois. In his spare time, he consults for a wide variety of corporate clients, from Philip Morris to Anheuser-Busch to Hoffmann-La Roche.

''Quantitative marketing research, where you basically feed people static questionnaires, is increasingly regarded as stupid,'' O'Guinn says. ''For example, you can't really investigate something like cosmetics products using those methods. You have to actually watch people using makeup or mouthwash. The sensory cues are everything.''

Bill Abrams himself was once part of the advertising mainstream, a creative director for the Colgate-Palmolive account at Kenyon & Eckhardt Advertising, now Bozell World Wide. But he soon became disenchanted with focus groups, as he explains in his book, ''The Observational Research Handbook.'' Focus groups, he observed, were simply not working. ''My writers and art directors were experiencing these focus groups as a kind of nonreality, as something artificial,'' he writes.

Abrams says the inspiration for Housecalls was ''An American Family,'' a PBS documentary from the 1970's in which a film crew lived with the Loud family for several months, catching every nuance of their quotidian lives. Many cultural critics now think of it as the first reality-television show. ''Body language,'' he writes, ''facial expressions, entrances and exits, tone of voice and word choice gave viewers an in-depth, living portrait of the family.'' Why couldn't the same be done for the relationship between consumers and products?

Abrams claims that ethnographic techniques translate smoothly from the jungles of Papua New Guinea to the modern American family. By studying how an American flosses his teeth in his own bathroom, he argues, one can arrive at the same understanding that an anthropologist might have when observing a Fore tribesman flossing his teeth with a reed. ''I was the first,'' Abrams says, ''to film Americans flossing their teeth, as it were. Oh, there was Margaret Mead, sure -- but I reinvented the wheel!''

And as today's splintering American tribes go their separate consuming ways, so the corporate anthropologists are hot on their trail. So-called retail anthropology now regularly maps the most arcane patterns of consumer behavior: which aisle number in a store seems the most alluring; what kind of overhead lighting and piped-in music is conducive to purchasing; what gimmicks lure shoppers into the most lucrative parts of the store, a fabled area known to

marketers as Zone 4. Before long, the ways of the American shopper will be as codified and demystified as those of a Yanomami tribesman.

''So you feel that grilling outdoors fosters family togetherness?''


''Is there anyone in your family who doesn't enjoy grilling?''

''My father.''

''But,'' Allen persists, ''you feel it's a bonding ritual all the same?''

''Yeah, kinda,'' responds Eric, a prosperous professional enjoying a Saturday afternoon off with his family.

''How does grilling work in the text of your life? Would charcoal have interfered with the process of social bonding?''

''I'm not sure, really. We just prefer gas.''

Eric flips his hamburger patties and steps back from a gust of smoke. The Housecalls team keep their nerve as smoke billows everywhere and Eric pauses to catch his breath. We are on a back lawn in a Glen Rock, N.J., subdivision, standing among the paraphernalia of midsize suburban homes: bird perches, navy deck chairs, bags of pine-bark mulch, hanging flowers.

Eric and his wife, Kathryn, are standing around a Ducane grill, a gas-powered barbecue featuring many impressive high-tech-looking knobs. The conversation turns around the relative pros and cons of gas and charcoal for cooking things like chicken and sausage; Housecalls has been asked by a large advertising agency to investigate the tortuous relationship between humans and their grills.

''I had a flame-up earlier,'' Eric says grimly of the Ducane. ''It's the chicken fat, see.''

''We like lean buffalo burgers best,'' his wife puts in. They are both scanning the Ducane nervously for signs of a new flame-up.

Allen pauses while the grill crackles. ''So,'' she continues, ''what other issues do you have? Smoke? Carcinogens in overcharred food?''

Allen's questions cover the entire sociology of outdoor grilling. There are the questions of gender roles, social status, diet and cultural memory -- not to mention the even more thorny issues of brand loyalty and flame-up fears.

Once again, Abrams is lurking in the background. ''Outdoor grilling is a complex social rite, when you really look at it,'' he whispers.

''What about ignitability?'' Allen asks the couple. ''Do you feel that gas is more ignitable than charcoal?''

''It's more convenient,'' Eric nods serenely. ''Briquettes take longer to warm.''

''And you think men should make the fire?''

The couple look at each other a little guiltily.

''Well,'' Kathryn begins, ''it's kind of a primordial thing, isn't it? Men make the fire.''

''Yeah,'' Eric nods. ''Men make the fire.''

Like in primitive tribes? I want to ask.

We look up for a moment and survey the towering trees surrounding the family's yard. A bemused neighbor glides by with a stroller and peers at the cameras and lights. ''Hi, Bob!'' Eric calls out to him. ''We're just doing an ethnographic interview!''

''You know,'' Abrams says as we stroll toward the wide and silent street, ''maybe the term ethnography is a bit of verbal hype. But it more or less fits what we do. Whatever you want to call it, it's a real window into real lives -- flame-ups and all.''

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company