Stay Tuned/20 July 1997

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

20 July 1997
(Sunday Papers)

A slow advertising week, plus a really harsh weekend, leaves us with a column where we examine a few odds and ends outside our normal regime. Whatever that is.

The Continuing Cereal

I'm not sure if this is a milestone or not, but today I purchased a box of Chex cereal with a CD-ROM in it. It contains the game Chex Quest, which from here looks like a DOOM clone with non-violent, cartoonish graphics. (The RSAC, the box assures us, says it's suitable for all ages).

I have not actually loaded the game to assess its quality, but I think it's safe to assume that this is not envelope-pushing stuff. "Flemoids" would be a great name for the inevitable deadly alien race you must destroy, if only they had left the "g" in. Judging from the pictures, these are obviously snot creatures, so why not call them as you see them?

Who is paying for this wretched excess? Cereal profit margins are huge, but even so, this is a particularly pricey premium to package so profusely. (Sorry. Once in a while I have to do that. Just ignore it.)

Here's a clue: the CD also contains the inevitable AOL startup kit. "50 Free Hours!" These AOL people are shameless, absolutely shameless. I fully expect them to find a way to imbed a startup kit in bar napkins soon (maybe they can design a waterproof diskette and give them out as coasters).

But, silliness aside, this promotion is very important. It implies that Chex thinks enough of their customers have personal computers (Wintel boxes, yet) that they can get away with packaging a premium that requires a certain level of pre-purchased technology in order to be meaningful to the buyer. In short, Chex is betting that their users are computer-equipped enough to make the premium worthwhile. As far as I know, this is the lowest level of consumer product that has leaped this gap to date.

On the other hand, maybe they just liked the game idea, and know that their particular audience (Chex is generally marketed on sensibility, not flash, and not usually pitched to kids) will buy the cereal regardless of whether a CD is in the box or not - which is certainly what I did.

But that "let's-toss-it-in-anyway" attitude would require a certain amount of whimsy on their part ... and I'm not sure they have any.

Makin' Groceries

Consumer Reports has done a piece in their latest (August) issue on supermarkets - which I, being from the South, call "grocery stores" (that phrase has three syllables, by the by, not four).

Given the tone of these columns, you can probably guess that I think Consumer Reports should be required reading for everyone in the country - but even if you don't normally buy it, the grocery article is worth the price of the issue for two reasons.

One of them is the commentary (with photos) showing how grocery stores arrange their shelves to coerce you into buying junk you neither need nor really want. Those who have long suspected some sort of retailer conspiracy can now take comfort in the fact that Consumer Reports agrees with you. The flour is on the bottom shelf for a reason.

The other reason is for the ratings of grocery chains. I noticed a trend in the ratings (which were compiled by reader survey). Of the four categories - Cleanliness, Courtesy, Checkouts (speed of), and Prices - a high score in the first three generally meant a low one in the fourth, and vice versa.

Now, you might argue that this would stand to reason - higher prices, better pay for the employees, they're more motivated; all that store maintenance is expensive; et cetera - but I have personally shopped in fifteen of these chains (not all of them recently) and I'm not sure I agree with the idea of having price ratings at all.

It's been my experience that store prices for staple items rarely vary much more than a few pennies between chains in the same region, and vary not more than a dollar or so, nationwide. I think that saying "this chain is expensive" or "this chain is cheap" is largely meaningless on that scale. It's like comparing prices at gas stations.

For example, I've shopped many times at Giant stores in Maryland and Virginia, which were rated above average in the first three categories and poor in price - the only chain in the top five to get a poor rating in any category. Frankly, I've never noticed that Giant's prices were that bad, or very different from our local Star Market chain (which wasn't rated). I'd love to have a Giant here.

On the other hand, aside from that minor quibble, the ratings are very interesting. They contain few surprises (for me at least) - Publix, Giant, HEB, and Albertsons, my four favorite chains, are near the top - and the predictable chain - always the worst grocery stores in any town I've ever visited them in - is at the very bottom.

No, I'm not going to tell you what it is. Go buy the magazine.

Identity Crisis

Mercedes is proud to announce that they are rolling out their new M-class cars - by their own admission a sport utility vehicle, complete with 4-wheel drive and all the trimmings.

The copy from this booklet I have reads, in part (in very small part - it's a ninety-page promotional magazine with Road and Track magazine's imprint throughout - one wonders who paid for what):

We heard the questions from our own staff. And from the public when we parked it at restaurants, filled it up at gas stations and spoke with inquiring motorists at stoplights. Everyone was very aware of what the ML320 was, and a few wanted to know all the basics: "What'll she do?" and "What's it cost?" But almost everybody asked, "Why did Mercedes do this?"

Indeed. Unfortunately the booklet fails to adequately answer that crucial question.

I don't like SUVs to begin with, because I think they pander to a weird personality crisis among the yuppie boys - they all secretly want to wear overalls and drive a monster truck and fantasize about being offroaders, but very few actually do it. SUVs are designed to play along - a car that looks like an offroader but is secretly designed to be somewhat usable for carrying kids and groceries, as if functionality in a car is a shameful secret to be camouflaged.

I don't dislike genuine vehicles designed for people who have genuine needs to take vehicles into places where vehicles aren't meant to go - if you're Jane Goodall, you need a Jeep or Land Rover - and I am personally considering buying a RAV4 because I 1) love Toyotas more than any other car 2) need more cargo space than a normal coupe-style car has, and 3) think it looks as cute as all get-out.

But I don't approve of "recreational offroading" (tears up the land and wastes gas), and I certainly don't approve of taking this personality schism a step further. With the Mercedes SUV, you can not only be a frustrated offroader, you can be a pampered, frustrated offroader. And all for just under $40,000.

Baby Doll

Now that we have ordered an item from them, we will never escape from Ashton-Drake's mailing list, and I'm not sure I'd want to. Entertainment like this cannot be bought. Friends, you never saw such kitsch. Nestled among the Jesus figurines (he's Aryan-looking, of course) and kewpie dolls and McMemories is this rather startling item:


These are life-sized infant dolls, meant to look like a three-month-old baby. The ad hails loudly the fact that "These dolls are designed to proudly display your treasured baby outfits!" Yes, they can wear real baby clothes. You can get a boy or girl model, and you can select from a limited number of hair/eye color combinations.

Compare this to the My Twinn weirdness for maximum contrast. This particular doll catches your child at a somewhat more tender age, and less realistically too. My Twinn at least had a certain surreal Stepford Wives-like thoroughness to it.

Is there really this big a market for this kind of thing? Whatever happened to just bronzing the baby shoes, or keeping a baby book?

Next week, with any luck, the advertisers will get their act together and send me lots of goodies, and we'll have a return to form. If not, I may end up having to write that article on weird British candy bars that I keep avoiding.

Hindsight: 26 February 2007

Since you're unlikely to go dig out that issue of Consumer Reports at this late date, I'll just tell you that the horrid grocery store chain is Super-Fresh (which I still refer to as "the A&P," because Southerners tend to hang onto the old names). I have never seen a Super-Fresh I wanted to shop in.

Another regional phrase which may require an explanation is the heading, "makin' groceries," which is what people in New Orleans do when they go to the grocery store.

Grocery stores consolidate just like every other big company, and our local Star Markets became Shaw's, and though they retain that name, I believe they are now owned by Albertsons. However, by the time I wrote this Albertsons was already in the middle of a long slow decline, so I can't claim there was much of an improvement.

I've ranted about SUVs in many other places in the intervening years, and gotten some backtalk, and while I will admit that they have legitimate uses I didn't cover here, I still feel that many people who buy them are overcompensating for or overprotecting one thing or another. In recent years the tide has shown signs of beginning to turn against them, but it's not turning fast enough to suit me. SUVs should be a specialty vehicle for specialized needs. The end.

A few weeks after writing this, I saw the crack-baby doll. Have you seen these? They're an educational tool for inner-city kids; they cry all night like crack babies do, and apparently they're intended to show kids how miserable this all is. No comment here on the dolls themselves, but I note that they're at a younger age than the Ashton-Drake dolls (no hair on these), considerably more realistic-looking ... and their faces are perpetually in a miserable expression, eyes scrunched closed, like they're squalling.

Since I consider crying to be the natural state for most babies, it's probably no surprise that the crack-baby dolls interest me a lot more than the cute ones.

Both the crack-baby dolls and the customizable Ashton-Drake ones showed up in a few magazine and newspaper articles after I wrote this column, as did My Twinn. I am sorry to report that, while McMemories may have vanished from the Ashton-Drake line (see Hindsight in the previous week's column), these dollbabies are apparently still a mainstay of their line; they're what comes up first and foremost on the website as of this writing. And, sadly, My Twinn also have customizable infant dolls now. So apparently - to answer my rhetorical question - yes, the market really is this big. It mystifies me. Are these being bought by parents who want to remember when their children were infants? Or are they being bought as some kind of less messy child-surrogate by people without children?

and now back to our program

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