There is no perfect pasta sauce: there are only perfect pasta sauces!
June 24, 2011 12:29 AM   Subscribe

"The mind knows not what the tongue wants." We all take variability and niche markets for granted these days, but back in the 70's and 80's, the American food industry was obsessed with the so-called platonic dish - a perfect and universal way to serve a food. Howard Moskowitz, of prego fame, helped explode the idea in the food industry and beyond. In this TED talk, Malcom Gladwell, tells you all about it and why variability matters a lot.

Gladwell focuses on Moskowitz quest to find meaning in the mountains of noisy data about Americans' preferences in pasta sauce, among other products.
In a 2004 essay (here previously) on the same topic, Gladwell states: "Happiness, in one sense, is a function of how closely our world conforms to the infinite variety of human preference."
posted by fantodstic (48 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I took a frickin' forty minutes to write this post and now I cringe at my poor use of commas - among other things. Sorry Metafilter :(
I'll make sure to cook my posts better next time! ;)
posted by fantodstic at 12:34 AM on June 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

posted by ShutterBun at 12:42 AM on June 24, 2011

posted by pracowity at 12:46 AM on June 24, 2011

posted by fantodstic at 12:49 AM on June 24, 2011

This may be my worst-prepared post to date, which is a shame because I was really excited to share it. Well, at least it links to the right place.
posted by fantodstic at 12:50 AM on June 24, 2011

Yeah, I read "of prego fame" and expected the link to be a picture of some pregnant guy or some guy cooking for big fat pregos. Now I am mildly surprised and very hungry for pasta.
posted by Mooseli at 12:54 AM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Now I am mildly surprised and very hungry for pasta.

So do you like spicy, plain, or chunky pasta sauce? I myself go for the spicy-chunky variety. I like visible solids in my sauce, you see. I wish there was a way to Me-Mail you some of the awesome pasta sauce I made the yesterday that's still in the fridge.
posted by fantodstic at 1:01 AM on June 24, 2011

"the yesterday" ?!

Ok, I'm going to sleep guys.
posted by fantodstic at 1:02 AM on June 24, 2011

Don't worry about the typos. Thanks for the pointer, I'm checking it out; seems interesting
posted by the mad poster! at 1:04 AM on June 24, 2011

Well, it could have been just A yesterday. But no. It was THE yesterday.
posted by KathrynT at 1:04 AM on June 24, 2011

Hey, this TED talk actually has a transcript! Have they started doing that for all their talks now? I've generally been ignoring them because of that lack...

I am reproducing the transcript from this Malcolm Gladwell TED talk under this Creative Commons licence.
I think I was supposed to talk about my new book, which is called "Blink," and it's about snap judgments and first impressions. And it comes out in January, and I hope you all buy it in triplicate. But I was thinking about this, and I realized that although my new book makes me happy, and I think would make my mother happy, it's not really about happiness. So I decided instead, I would talk about someone who I think has done as much to make Americans happy as perhaps anyone over the last 20 years. A man who is a great personal hero of mine. Someone by the name of Howard Moskowitz, who is most famous for reinventing spaghetti sauce.

Howard's about this high, and he's round, and he's in his sixties, and he has big huge glasses and thinning grey hair, and he has a kind of wonderful exuberance and vitality, and he has a parrot, and he loves the opera, and he's a great aficionado of medieval history. And by profession, he's a psychophysicist. Now, I should tell you that I have no idea what psychophysics is, although at some point in my life, I dated a girl for two years who was getting her doctorate in psychophysics. Which should tell you something about that relationship. (Laughter)

As far as I know, psychophysics is about measuring things. And Howard is very interested in measuring things. And he graduated with his doctorate from Harvard, and he set up a little consulting shop in White Plains, New York. And one of his first clients was -- this is many years ago, back in the early '70s -- one of his first clients was Pepsi. And Pepsi came to Howard and they said, "You know, there's this new thing called aspartame, and we would like to make Diet Pepsi. We'd like you to figure out how much aspartame we should put in each can of Diet Pepsi, in order to have the perfect drink." Right? Now that sounds like an incredibly straightforward question to answer, and that's what Howard thought. Because Pepsi told him, "Look, we're working with a band between eight and 12 percent. Anything below eight percent sweetness is not sweet enough, anything above 12 percent sweetness is too sweet. We want to know, what's the sweet spot between eight and 12?" Now, if I gave you this problem to do, you would all say, it's very simple. What we do, is you make up a big experimental batch of Pepsi, at every degree of sweetness -- eight percent, 8.1, 8.2, 8.3, all the way up to 12 -- and we try this out with thousands of people, and we plot the results on a curve, and we take the most popular concentration. Right? Really simple.

Howard does the experiment, and he gets the data back, and he plots it on a curve, and all of a sudden he realizes it's not a nice bell curve. In fact, the data doesn't make any sense. It's a mess. It's all over the place. Now, most people in that business, in the world of testing food and such, are not dismayed when the data comes back a mess. They think, well, you know, figuring out what people think about cola's not that easy. You know, maybe we made an error somewhere along the way. You know, let's just make an educated guess, and they simply point and they go for 10 percent, right in the middle. Howard is not so easily placated. Howard is a man of a certain degree of intellectual standards. And this was not good enough for him, and this question bedeviled him for years. And he would think it through and say, what was wrong? Why could we not make sense of this experiment with Diet Pepsi?

And one day, he was sitting in a diner in White Plains, about to go trying to dream up some work for NescafE. And suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, the answer came to him. And that is, that when they analyzed the Diet Pepsi data, they were asking the wrong question. They were looking for the perfect Pepsi, and they should have been looking for the perfect Pepsis. Trust me. This was an enormous revelation. This was one of the most brilliant breakthroughs in all of food science. And Howard immediately went on the road, and he would go to conferences around the country, would stand up and he would say, "You had been looking for the perfect Pepsi. You're wrong. You should be looking for the perfect Pepsis." And people would look at him with a blank look, and they would say, "What are you talking about? This is craziness." And they would say, you know, "Move! Next!" Tried to get business, nobody would hire him -- he was obsessed, though, and he talked about it and talked about it and talked about it. Howard loves the Yiddish expression "to a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish." This was his horseradish. (Laughter) He was obsessed with it!

And finally, he had a breakthrough. Vlasic Pickles came to him, and they said, "Mr. Moskowitz -- Doctor Moskowitz -- we want to make the perfect pickle." And he said, "There is no perfect pickle, there are only perfect pickles." And he came back to them and he said, "You don't just need to improve your regular, you need to create zesty." And that's where we got zesty pickles. Then the next person came to him, and that was Campbell's Soup. And this was even more important. In fact, Campbell's Soup is where Howard made his reputation. Campbell's made Prego, and Prego, in the early '80s, was struggling next to Ragu, which was the dominant spaghetti sauce of the '70s and '80s. Now in the industry -- I don't know whether you care about this, or how much time I have to go into this. But it was, technically speaking -- this is an aside -- Prego is a better tomato sauce than Ragu. The quality of the tomato paste is much better, the spice mix is far superior, it adheres to the pasta in a much more pleasing way. In fact, they would do the famous bowl test back in the '70s with Ragu and Prego. You'd have a plate of spaghetti, and you would pour it on, right? And the Ragu would all go to the bottom, and the Prego would sit on top. That's called "adherence." And, anyway, despite the fact that they were far superior in adherence, and the quality of their tomato paste, Prego was struggling.

So they came to Howard, and they said, fix us. And Howard looked at their product line, and he said, what you have is a dead tomato society. So he said, this is what I want to do. And he got together with the Campbell's soup kitchen, and he made 45 varieties of spaghetti sauce. And he varied them according to every conceivable way that you can vary tomato sauce. By sweetness, by level of garlic, by tartness, by sourness, by tomatoey-ness, by visible solids -- my favorite term in the spaghetti sauce business. (Laughter) Every conceivable way you can vary spaghetti sauce, he varied spaghetti sauce. And then he took this whole raft of 45 spaghetti sauces, and he went on the road. He went to New York, he went to Chicago, he went to Jacksonville, he went to Los Angeles. And he brought in people by the truckload. Into big halls. And he sat them down for two hours, and he gave them, over the course of that two hours, ten bowls. Ten small bowls of pasta, with a different spaghetti sauce on each one. And after they ate each bowl, they had to rate, from 0 to 100, how good they thought the spaghetti sauce was.

At the end of that process, after doing it for months and months, he had a mountain of data about how the American people feel about spaghetti sauce. And then he analyzed the data. Now, did he look for the most popular brand variety of spaghetti sauce? No! Howard doesn't believe that there is such a thing. Instead, he looked at the data, and he said, let's see if we can group all these different data points into clusters. Let's see if they congregate around certain ideas. And sure enough, if you sit down, and you analyze all this data on spaghetti sauce, you realize that all Americans fall into one of three groups. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain, there are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy and there are people who like it extra chunky.

And of those three facts, the third one was the most significant. Because at the time, in the early 1980s, if you went to a supermarket, you would not find extra-chunky spaghetti sauce. And Prego turned to Howard, and they said, "You telling me that one third of Americans crave extra-chunky spaghetti sauce and yet no one is servicing their needs?" And he said yes! (Laughter) And Prego then went back, and completely reformulated their spaghetti sauce, and came out with a line of extra chunky that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti sauce business in this country. And over the next 10 years, they made 600 million dollars off their line of extra-chunky sauces.

And everyone else in the industry looked at what Howard had done, and they said, "Oh my god! We've been thinking all wrong!" And that's when you started getting seven different kinds of vinegar, and 14 different kinds of mustard, and 71 different kinds of olive oil -- and then eventually even Ragu hired Howard, and Howard did the exact same thing for Ragu that he did for Prego. And today, if you go to the supermarket, a really good one, and you look at how many Ragus there are -- Do you know how many they are? 36! In six varieties: Cheese, Light, Robusto, Rich & Hearty, Old World Traditional, Extra-Chunky Garden. (Laughter) That's Howard's doing. That is Howard's gift to the American people.

Now why is that important? It is, in fact, enormously important. I'll explain to you why. What Howard did is he fundamentally changed the way the food industry thinks about making you happy. Assumption number one in the food industry used to be that the way to find out what people want to eat -- what will make people happy -- is to ask them. And for years and years and years and years, Ragu and Prego would have focus groups, and they would sit all you people down, and they would say, "What do you want in a spaghetti sauce? Tell us what you want in a spaghetti sauce." And for all those years -- 20, 30 years -- through all those focus group sessions, no one ever said they wanted extra-chunky. Even though at least a third of them, deep in their hearts, actually did. (Laughter)

People don't know what they want! Right? As Howard loves to say, "The mind knows not what the tongue wants." It's a mystery! And a critically important step in understanding our own desires and tastes is to realize that we cannot always explain what we want deep down. If I asked all of you, for example, in this room, what you want in a coffee, you know what you'd say? Every one of you would say "I want a dark, rich, hearty roast." It's what people always say when you ask them what they want in a coffee. What do you like? Dark, rich, hearty roast! What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? According to Howard, somewhere between 25 and 27 percent of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee. But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want -- that "I want a milky, weak coffee." (Laughter)

So that's number one thing that Howard did. Number two thing that Howard did is he made us realize -- it's another very critical point -- he made us realize in the importance of what he likes to call horizontal segmentation. Why is this critical? It's critical because this is the way the food industry thought before Howard. Right? What were they obsessed with in the early '80s? They were obsessed with mustard. In particular, they were obsessed with the story of Grey Poupon. Right? Used to be, there were two mustards. French's and Gulden's. What were they? Yellow mustard. What's in yellow mustard? Yellow mustard seeds, turmeric, and paprika. That was mustard. Grey Poupon came along, with a Dijon. Right? Much more volatile brown mustard seed, some white wine, a nose hit, much more delicate aromatics. And what do they do? They put it in a little tiny glass jar, with a wonderful enameled label on it, made it look French, even though it's made in Oxnard, California. And instead of charging a dollar-fifty for the eight-ounce bottle, the way the French's and Gulden's did, they decided to charge four dollars. And then they had those ads, right? With the guy in the Rolls Royce, and he's eating the Grey Poupon, the other Rolls Royce pulls up, and he says, do you have any Grey Poupon? And the whole thing, after they did that, Grey Poupon takes off! Takes over the mustard business!

And everyone's take-home lesson from that was that the way to get to make people happy is to give them something that is more expensive, something to aspire to. Right? It's to make them turn their back on what they think they like now, and reach out for something higher up the mustard hierarchy. A better mustard! A more expensive mustard! A mustard of more sophistication and culture and meaning. And Howard looked to that and said, that's wrong! Mustard does not exist on a hierarchy. Mustard exists, just like tomato sauce, on a horizontal plane. There is no good mustard, or bad mustard. There is no perfect mustard, or imperfect mustard. There are only different kinds of mustards that suit different kinds of people. He fundamentally democratized the way we think about taste. And for that, as well, we owe Howard Moskowitz a huge vote of thanks.

Third thing that Howard did, and perhaps the most important, is Howard confronted the notion of the Platonic dish. (Laughter) What do I mean by that? For the longest time in the food industry, there was a sense that there was one way, a perfect way, to make a dish. You go to Chez Panisse, they give you the red-tail sashimi with roasted pumpkin seeds in a something something reduction. They don't give you five options on the reduction, right? They don't say, do you want the extra-chunky reduction, or do you want the -- no! You just get the reduction. Why? Because the chef at Chez Panisse has a Platonic notion about red-tail sashimi. This is the way it ought to be. And she serves it that way time and time again, and if you quarrel with her, she will say, "You know what? You're wrong! This is the best way it ought to be in this restaurant."

Now that same idea fueled the commercial food industry as well. They had a notion, a Platonic notion, of what tomato sauce was. And where did that come from? It came from Italy. Italian tomato sauce is what? It's blended, it's thin. The culture of tomato sauce was thin. When we talked about authentic tomato sauce in the 1970s, we talked about Italian tomato sauce. We talked about the earliest ragus. Which had no visible solids, right? Which were thin, and you just put a little bit over it and it sunk down to the bottom of the pasta. That's what it was. And why were we attached to that? Because we thought that what it took to make people happy was to provide them with the most culturally authentic tomato sauce, A, and B, we thought that if we gave them the culturally authentic tomato sauce, then they would embrace it. And that's what would please the maximum number of people.

And the reason we thought that -- in other words, people in the cooking world were looking for cooking universals. They were looking for one way to treat all of us. And it's good reason for them to be obsessed with the idea of universals, because all of science, through the 19th century and much of the 20th, was obsessed with universals. Psychologists, medical scientists, economists were all interested in finding out the rules that govern the way all of us behave. But that changed, right? What is the great revolution in science of the last 10, 15 years? It is the movement from the search for universals to the understanding of variability. Now in medical science, we don't want to know how necessarily -- just how cancer works, we want to know how your cancer is different from my cancer. I guess my cancer different from your cancer. Genetics has opened the door to the study of human variability. What Howard Moskowitz was doing was saying this same revolution needs to happen in the world of tomato sauce. And for that, we owe him a great vote of thanks.

I'll give you one last illustration of variability, and that is -- oh, I'm sorry. Howard not only believed that, but he took it a second step, which was to say that when we pursue universal principles in food, we aren't just making an error, we are actually doing ourselves a massive disservice. And the example he used was coffee. And coffee is something he did a lot of work with, with Nescafe. If I were to ask all of you to try and come up with a brand of coffee -- a type of coffee, a brew -- that made all of you happy, and then I asked you to rate that coffee, the average score in this room for coffee would be about 60 on a scale of 0 to 100. If, however, you allowed me to break you into coffee clusters, maybe three or four coffee clusters, and I could make coffee just for each of those individual clusters, your scores would go from 60 to 75 or 78. The difference between coffee at 60 and coffee at 78 is a difference between coffee that makes you wince, and coffee that makes you deliriously happy.

That is the final, and I think most beautiful lesson, of Howard Moskowitz. That in embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness. Thank you.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:23 AM on June 24, 2011 [34 favorites]

I wonder if industries outside of food have the above to be true.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:11 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Doesn't this ignore all of the recent psychological research demonstrating that having to choose between six tomato sauces actually makes people much unhappier? Market segmentation is a great way for manufacturers to sell more product, but I think you'd have a hard time arguing that it actually increases human contentment.
posted by Acheman at 4:30 AM on June 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

The perfect and universal way to serve a platonic dish is on a dinner plato.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:43 AM on June 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

I wonder if industries outside of food have the above to be true.

I cannot speak intelligently outside of the web technology or beer industries, but judging by the variety and popularity of alternative brews in the later, one can surmise that factors such as the desire for variety, along with the lowering of barriers to entry, have helped spur yet another revolution in the industry. These days, a beer drinker does not need to confine themselves to the house variety of 'Gansett, but can also opt for Light, Summer, Porter and the delicious Bock; all at the same low price.

In the web technology industry, if you're dreaming of reaching out beyond internals and a small core set of believers, you'd better have and API, because people really don't care about your particular brand of platform or design. They just want it to work and be consistently available.
posted by jsavimbi at 4:43 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the mind knows very well what the tongue wants...
posted by nathy007 at 4:54 AM on June 24, 2011

TheophileEscargot - thanks! I'd never have watched the video, but I read the transcript and it was really interesting.
posted by piato at 5:02 AM on June 24, 2011

I'm not sure "of Prego fame" works as a recommendation. Shit's nasty.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:50 AM on June 24, 2011

Doesn't this ignore all of the recent psychological research demonstrating that having to choose between six tomato sauces actually makes people much unhappier?

There may be other strategies at work. For example, Colgate toothpaste in these parts comes in something like 108 different varieties: extra calcium, baking soda, calcium with baking soda, baking soda stripe with calcium gel [almost ad infinitum].

The point is that they want to crowd out the shelves, so that competitors' products are pushed aside. Obviously, shelf space is paid for, as we all know, but you can't fill all that room with the same package over & over. So, invent hundreds of spurious products.

Sure, the consumer may be paralysed by choice, but in the end they'll choose Colgate regardless.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:53 AM on June 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

It used to annoy me as a kid why they couldn't just make one toothpaste with all those characteristics. Whitening, Extra-Maximum Tartar Control, Calcium & Vitamin-D fortified, baking-soda enhanced et cetera et cetera. I used to think maybe there just wasn't enough room in the tube to fit all those things.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:06 AM on June 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

I hope all the TED talks have transcripts from now on, and get linked in the gazillion FPPs about TED talks. I'm never, ever going to willingly watch forty minutes of video of some person talking at me, but I'll happily read a few pages of text.

An industry where you can see some different approaches to choice and variety is with automobiles. Some car companies, like Honda, give you an extremely limited set of choices. Do you want your Fit regular or sport? Manual or automatic transmission? Other companies, like Ford, let you spec out a pickup truck with endless layers of choices about engines, axle ratios, drivetrains, cab and bed sizes, and on and on and on. Both seem to work as business models, but provide very different buying experiences.
posted by Forktine at 6:07 AM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's an interesting find, thanks for posting it. I've thought about this idea of variety from the perspective of The Long Tail by Chris Anderson (the premise in brief is that you can be more profitable by making use of emerging technology to offer more variety. The "long tail" refers to the trailing end of a popularity curve and the observation that it takes a LONGGG way to go to absolute zero, so there's a lot of "area" under that skinny end of the curve.)

I personally believe that this guy's discovery is just the same idea from a different perspective. "Hey, people want variety!" wasn't the breakthrough. "Hey, people don't know what they want and/or will not truthfully answer, so surveys about preferences are crap" seems to be one takeaway for me - I think this was the lesson learned in the "New Coke" debacle.

"People want variety" was framed as being a discovery, and I appreciate that philosophical underpinning of "there's one best way to have something," but I wonder if it wasn't a sort of blinder that people in manufacturing put on in the earlier days of mass production, when it was too expensive and/or impossible to make changes on a production line often enough to have that variety. I used to work in industrial sales, and I can readily visualize how difficult it would have been in 1960, vs. 1980 or 90, to market multiple kinds of spaghetti sauce. And if you could make 30+ kinds, how many stores would let you have the shelf space? A 20,000 sq. foot little A&P won't stock it; a Wal-Mart supercenter might. CF Henry Ford's famous "you can have any color as long as it's black" statement. Did Ford really philosophically think black was the one true color for cars, or did he find it impossible to profitably make cars in a bunch of colors? I suspect the latter.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:11 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

and you look at how many Ragus there are -- Do you know how many they are? 36! In six varieties: Cheese, Light, Robusto, Rich & Hearty, Old World Traditional, Extra-Chunky Garden. (Laughter) That's Howard's doing.

Unfortunately they all taste the same. Oh some of them might have chunks which give you something to chew on but they all taste rather bland and sweet and not very garlicky.

Because we thought that what it took to make people happy was to provide them with the most culturally authentic tomato sauce, A, and B, we thought that if we gave them the culturally authentic tomato sauce, then they would embrace it. And that's what would please the maximum number of people.

What they eventually discovered is if you give them enough corn syrup and artificial flavors, the American people will lap it up. Only very small, boutique labels have authentic taste anymore. The big national and international labels all have the same flavor. Put on a blind fold and see if you can taste the difference between Campbell's Chicken and Rice or Progresso's Italian Wedding soup. Aside from mouth feel there is little to distinguish them.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:12 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

CF Henry Ford's famous "you can have any color as long as it's black" statement. Did Ford really philosophically think black was the one true color for cars, or did he find it impossible to profitably make cars in a bunch of colors? I suspect the latter.

According to Wikipedia:
Until the development of the assembly line, which mandated black because of its quicker drying time, Model T's were available in other colors, including red.

I wonder if this "customers demand variety" thing has been subverted at all by having multiple varieties which are actually basically the same except the label. For example I bet give 10 different types of pasta sauce (traditional tomato, roasted garlic, roasted pepper, extra chunky, garlic & chilli, etc) I couldn't tell the difference between half of them. Kind of like that part in The Simpsons where the Duff brewery is filling all the Duff, Duff Lite, and Duff Export bottles with the same beer - you could put the same tomato sauce (ingredients: tomatoes, garlic, roast peppers) into three jars and call them Tomato, Tomato & Garlic, and Tomato & Roast Pepper. Technically the names would all be correct, but I wonder if that falls foul of any marketing laws...
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:23 AM on June 24, 2011

Ha, didn't see The Secret Life Of Gravy's comment there, which basically says the same thing...
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:23 AM on June 24, 2011

For more about Moskowitz and variety, see Gladwell's What the Dog saw in the piece The Ketchup Conundrum.
posted by MtDewd at 7:09 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

but I wonder if that falls foul of any marketing laws

I seriously doubt there's a law against that. In a lot of cases, the same factory churns out the exact same product for the no-name brand, the 'sounds plausibly alright but never heard of it' brand, and the one you know from all the ads.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:11 AM on June 24, 2011

I for one can't wait to see Mr. Moskowitz turn his keen analytical skills to legumes.

It used to annoy me as a kid why they couldn't just make one toothpaste with all those characteristics.

I started using Colgate Total on the assumption that it fit your description, more or less. But now that I am looking at the corporate website, it appears there are six varieties of Total alone. So my quest for some sort of meta-Total continues. There is always Crest Complete, but it comes in even more varieties, including liquids, gels, and pastes, so I guess it isn't complete either.
posted by TedW at 7:13 AM on June 24, 2011

AskMefi does have a lot of foodie related questions, that reflect a desire for variety, true. But it also regularly gets asked about how to obtain "Bachelor-chow", the existence of a balanced kibble for people who just want to eat the same thing every day rather than bother with regular food.

I'd think there's market demand for perfect non-variety.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:17 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ha, TedW, I have a solution to too many choices: I only buy paste-style on sale with a coupon. That really limits things AND saves money.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:24 AM on June 24, 2011

I started using Colgate Total on the assumption that it fit your description

Total is just the go-to branding for when you can't decide whether you really want Maximum Fluoride Protection or Tartar Control. It gives the consumer an easy-out from the paralysis of choice.

No matter, they're all the same anyway, give or take a billionth of a percent in ingredients either way.

Vitamin Water uses a similar strategy. If you examine the detailed listing, they're all the same mix of vitamins (except for the awesome lemony flavour, which has more vitamin stuff than the others) but because of tiny trace elements of ginkgo biloba or ginseng etc, which are not enough to have any real effect, they end up being branded as "choose me! I'm good for when you want to concentrate!" or "pick me! if you need a lift, then i'm your drink!"

The main thing these approaches achieve is to allow the consumer to think that they are making a special snowflake personal choice for their own needs, when in fact they're buying effectively the exact same thing in different packaging.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:30 AM on June 24, 2011

There is a clear connection between lots of variety and over-eating. As someone who is always watching her weight I figured out early on that making limited choices for meals ahead of time plus not having a lot of different things in the larder means I eat less. For example, I have the same thing for lunch every day, a tossed green salad with some grilled chicken. Once in awhile I do eat something else (last Friday the Mister and I had bacon cheeseburgers and fries) and it is like a party in my mouth-- I go a little bit overboard and eat past feeling full because it tastes so good. So for me a daily kibble ration would be an excellent thing.

I really believe this explosion in variety has helped the explosion in obesity. Try our New Buffalo Chicken "N Blue Cheese Potato Chips (Now with more Cheesy goodness!)
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:31 AM on June 24, 2011

Massive thanks for the transcript. 18 minutes of video vs 1 minute of reading is why I HATE VIDEO LINKS SO MUCH.
posted by Aquaman at 8:36 AM on June 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

From the "of prego fame" link:

The process involved the development of systematic variations of specific ingredients in the formula which then were tried by voluntary subjects. After placing numeric values to each tester's perception on each of the variants, a mathematical model was created to develop the final recipe, which maximized the perceived taste while minimizing the cost of the ingredients needed to produce it.[1]

Whereas in my pasta sauce, I just try to use fresh ingredients.
posted by philip-random at 8:41 AM on June 24, 2011

Doesn't this ignore all of the recent psychological research demonstrating that having to choose between six tomato sauces actually makes people much unhappier?

It seems like there's a difference between what Moskowitz's work suggests and this result. In his experiments, the consumer got to try all 10 or whatever varieties. So when they bought the sauce, they could be assured that this was their very favourite. If you're faced with a dozen choices, and no ability to test among them for what you like best without buying each one, then you get cranky. Like I can guess that I'd like either chunky or spicy best of the three original choices but do I want to risk a 60% happiness level? Eh, I'd rather just buy a can of tomatoes and make my own (that recipe with an onion and a stick of butter sauted for like an hour - mmmmm).
posted by hydrobatidae at 8:47 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

This whole thing reads like marketing copy. Like we are supposed to cheer that Gladwell's friend has helped these large corporations make more money and sell bland, crappy products. We all know the best tomato sauce is still the one you make at home.

I also like how buying Ragu Extra Cheezy Super Chunky or whatever now makes you some sort of culinary adventurer. The logical extension of everything Moskowitz is saying is actually that you should go out and try new things. Forget Ragu. Forget canned supermarket crap. Go experiment with flavors, travel around and try homemade sauces from friends, small restaurants. Thats the way to discover something you didn't even know you would love.
But I don't think that conclusion would have gone over well with his employers.
posted by vacapinta at 9:04 AM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

We all know the best tomato sauce is still the one you make at home.

I absolutely agree. Usually, I make my own pasta sauce at home. When it comes to food I know how to make, I don't usually trust anything packaged and labeled to taste better or fresher than something I can cook. There are things I just buy because I don't want to bother making them at home (lasagna, for example, I usually buy from those frozen boxes and I think it's pretty good, nowhere near as good as my father in law makes but enjoyable nonetheless).
There is something fun and rewarding about making one's own food from scratch and experimenting. I used to love bland, tomato heavy and not too garlicky pasta sauce until the time my girlfriend helped me make it and we both put pepper and hot sauce in it and it turned out very spicy. I loved it and ever since I've thought of spicy as the superior variety (and I've also become more of a carnivore so now I like big chunks of meat in it).

There is probably another pasta sauce that I would like even more that I don't know about because I haven't tried it. Maybe no meat and lots of garlic and veggies plus wine tastes even better than the way I've been making it all these years. The important point about the video, in my view, isn't how Moskowitz helped Prego beat Ragu make pasta sauces that in the end are, by comparison, mediocre against what you could make if you know what to do. It's that in taste there are many different (sometimes wildly different) preferences that are crucial in defining how people will enjoy what they consume. That to ignore the variability of people's taste is going to leave a large chunk of people dissatisfied with a certain product.

This whole thing reads like marketing copy. Like we are supposed to cheer that Gladwell's friend has helped these large corporations make more money and sell bland, crappy products.

What interests me about this angle of conversation is where the fine line is between companies' using variability in people's taste to make products they enjoy versus just exploiting people's fears and insecurities to make them buy shitty things they don't really need.
There are many examples of companies using psychological insights to sell things more effectively to people in pretty disturbing ways (e.g. the beauty industry), but I don't think variety in what one can find out there is necessarily a bad thing, or something companies are using to shove something down my throat.
I've had a good number of surprising experiences from buying a product I enjoyed more than I'd thought before opening it's packaging. I'd even go so far as to say that there are certain products that helped make me happier.
posted by fantodstic at 10:51 AM on June 24, 2011

*a product I enjoyed more than I thought I would before opening it's packaging.*
posted by fantodstic at 10:55 AM on June 24, 2011

I recall several years ago, I was asked by my wife to pick-up some dental floss on my way home. So, I dropped-into one of the local big-boxes to get it. I was literally frozen by what I found...Not a dozen varieties to choose from. Not two dozen. I was staring at a wall with over forty frakkin' selections of dental floss! WTF? I can't begin to imagine the mind that thinks having over forty selections of floss is somehow a positive development.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:17 AM on June 24, 2011

Forty selections? Holy sh...what store were you in so I never ever step inside it?
posted by fantodstic at 12:00 PM on June 24, 2011

I love variety which is precisely why I never buy it.
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:38 PM on June 24, 2011

UbuRoivas has got it pegged. I had this exact experience yesterday looking for Tom's deodorant. Lots of shelf space for deodorants, but no Tom's. Why? Well, 10 varieties of Right Guard, for which Right Guard no doubt pays plenty.

I shouldn't have been surprised, but here's another case, like TV or Web sites, where it turns out I'm not the consumer, but I'm the product.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:16 PM on June 24, 2011

Metafilter: a paralyzing number of choices.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:10 PM on June 24, 2011

Doesn't this ignore all of the recent psychological research demonstrating that having to choose between six tomato sauces actually makes people much unhappier?

I was going to comment on this, but Secret Life of Gravy pretty much said it all:
Unfortunately they all taste the same. And THAT'S what makes me unhappy. Spending the extra money thinking I'm getting something that won't taste like tinned tomatoes and sugar because it's some big brand name, then finding out it still tastes like crap makes me pissed. I'll just make my own from scratch, or semi-scratch. At least you can find decent canned tomatoes in the winter.

hmmm, Secret Life of Gravy...
Surely there's something eponywhatever you posting in this thread?

Mr., fantodstic, good, post typos, forgiven
posted by BlueHorse at 8:02 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Personally, I feel annoyed by the false sense of freedom implied by hyper-optionalization in grocery mart miles of aisles, but most people seem to buy it, so whatever. Unless they don't have what I want.
posted by ovvl at 8:04 PM on June 24, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell is beginning to piss me off.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:45 PM on June 24, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell is beginning to piss me off.

I'm mildly jealous of how well he writes.
posted by Wolof at 7:50 AM on June 25, 2011

Forty selections? Holy sh...what store were you in so I never ever step inside it?
My local Meijer.
I think they've gotten better since then.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:43 AM on June 26, 2011

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