[Books & Culture, September-October 1997]
I was an easy mark. As a comfy-dressed middle-aged lady in tennis shoes, ambling through the mall a little after noon, I clearly was not a lawyer in clickety heels on a tight lunchhour, not a harried mom with a chocolate-smeared toddler. As I rounded the bend by the fountain I walked right into a swarm of Clipboard Ladies, and was snared.
"Would you have a moment to answer a few questions?" asked one, zooming up to me with a perma-prest smile.
She looked hopeful and imploring in her little blue smock, and I felt sorry for her. I think these must be awfully hard jobs, harassing strangers. I’m kind to telephone solicitors too, though I understand that this is a bad idea, like feeding a stray kitten. My husband would not feed a stray telephone solicitor, even if she were mewing piteously on our back porch. But I think, "What a miserable job; I bet most people are rude to them," and so make time to talk.
She was delighted. We went through a series of demographic questions, a few more than I had bargained for, so I was ready to go by the time she reached the end of the page. "Good! You qualify!" she said with a slight uptick in smileforce. "If you’ll walk back with me to the office and answer a few more questions, we can pay you $7.00."
I checked my watch; yes, I could spare a few more minutes, and my curiosity was piqued. It’s hard not to feel absurdly flattered: my opinion is being courted, is worth paying for; my two cents is worth seven dollars. I followed her proudly down a side hall to a glass-fronted office under the sign, "Opinion Center." There we wound past desks into a cubicle where she popped a cassette into a VCR. "This is it— Baby’" she said, almost to herself. I wondered what I had to do with babies; surely I look a little past that. She turned back to me. "Just watch these commercials," she said, "then I’ll ask you some questions about them."
I sat up straight and focused all my powers of concentration; I wanted to get a good grade in commercial aptitude. A series of vivid ads sped by: People having a great time at the Holiday Inn; people having a great time eating Dannon yogurt; a sleepless pregnant woman eating Mott’s applesauce out of a jar and having a truly terrific time; a baby drinking a bottle of milk, then crying, followed by a message that Exxon has "clean enough" baby changing stations for "the driver human" (what?); a man taking Advil instead of other things and probably having a great time after that; a dad failing to open the right computer file to show his kid dinosaurs, so that the kid leaves for a friend’s house where "they have a Mac" and he can have a better time.
Okay. Ready to go. I smiled back at the woman, who asked me which commercials I remembered. I named six out of eight, and so felt proud. I was bursting with wise opinions. I was eager to say that the Dannon commercial—people living black and white lives that suddenly went daisy-boingy color when they swallowed a spoon of goop—was just silly. That the pregnant woman should not be eating applesauce directly out of the jar with a spoon—the whole contents will begin liquifying due to enzymes in her saliva. She’ll find that out, as I did, when she tries to feed her baby from the babyfood jar, then store the remainder. And the guy claiming that two Advil supply more pain relief than two Excedrin—I was raring to go on that one. It had been bugging me a long time. Yes, of course, it’s true. That’s because the recommended dose is only one Advil. It’s the same as saying four Excedrin offer more medication than two.
Then there was that Exxon commercial. That was just weird.
"I want you to look at that Exxon commercial again, and then I’ll ask you just a few questions," said the smiling lady. Ah, so that was the trick; the other commercials were just interlarded to distract me. I turned again to the screen.
Nice black and white, hand-held photography showed a baby in a car seat, wearing a jumper with rickrack on the shoulder straps. The baby is working hard at a bottle, and various simple thoughts appear near her head: "Yum, milk" and "Good milk." Then suddenly, in mid-slug, the baby stops drinking and starts crying fretfully. This puzzled me as much the second time as the first. What happened? Stomach ache? Gas pain? A sour patch? My theory: a pinch administered by someone just off-camera.
A message appeared, phrase by phrase: "Baby changing stations…CLEAN ENOUGH…for the driver human." Now, what the hell is that?
My hostess turned to her computer keyboard and read off a question. "What was the message of this commercial, other than that Exxon sells high quality gasoline?"
"The message was that they have baby-changing stations," I said, "but it didn’t say anything about gasoline. There were two things wrong with the commercial. First, I was confused about why the baby started crying."
"Oh!" she said, beaming. "He was crying because he wet himself!"
"But babies don’t do that," I said. "Babies don’t cry when they’re wet."
"Really? Mine does," she said brightly, reasoning with an idiot.
"Well, I had three, and none of them did," I said. "Maybe some do, after awhile, after it gets cold. But not suddenly like that."
"Oh, I think most people know that babies cry when they’re wet," she went on encouragingly. "He’s drinking the bottle—and then he stops—wah! He wants to be changed!" She was delighted with the drama. "Then at the very end, did you hear him laughing? He was happy—goo! Because he was dry again!"
I had not heard that detail, actually. The clipboard lady continued beaming at me. She had faith in me. I was so close, so close to getting it, if I’d just try a tiny bit harder.
"Maybe I’m confused about what we’re doing here," I said carefully. "I thought you were interested in getting my opinion."
"Oh yes, of course!" she said, surprised.
"Don’t you see, it doesn’t matter what you say to convince me?" I said. "The point is that this commercial failed for me. Exxon did not succeed in conveying their message."
She looked a little chastised and I felt bad. She returned to her computer screen. I hadn’t said the other thing I thought was wrong with the commercial, but thought it best to hold my tongue for now.
"Was the message of this commercial that (a) Exxon provides a number of services for drivers, (b) Exxon offers excellent gasoline, (c ) Exxon has clean baby-changing stations, or (d) Exxon supplies maps and directions to travelers?"
"Um, c, the one about baby-changing stations."
"Based on this commercial, what is a service that Exxon provides for drivers?"
"Based on this commercial? I guess that would be baby-changing stations."
"Exxon sells high-quality gasoline, but based on this commercial, what else do you know about Exxon’s services?"
"Um, that they have baby-changing stations? Hey, haven’t we answered this question before?"
A smile applied with a phillips screwdriver.
"Based on this commercial, what would you say is one reason a driver might stop at an Exxon station?"
And so it went. Page after page. I began to hate baby-changing stations. I began to hate Exxon. I tried to shoehorn into some answers my dislike of the odd phrase "the driver human" and my opinion that changing stations that are only "clean enough" don’t sound like they’re clean enough. But it didn’t really fit in her little boxes.
At last I got asked an essay question.
"Was there anything you didn’t like about this commercial?"
"Yes!" I said, relieved. "Two things about the tagline. First…"
I paused. She was typing with two fingers. "Y-E-S T-W-O T-H-I-N-GS A-B-O-U-T…"
I spoke slowly. "I don’t like the phrase, quote, clean enough.’"
I paused as she paused. "Quote?" she asked.
"Quote," I repeated, less confidently. I watched her type "Q-U-A-T-E."
"It’s too lukewarm," I went on, feeling beaten. "It makes me think that they’re not really clean enough."
I waited a couple of minutes for her index fingers to catch up with my seven dollar opinion.
"Also, I dislike this phrase the driver human.’ It’s obscure and contrived. I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean."
She finally typed "M-E-A-N," then looked at me inquiringly.
"That’s it," I said.
She began typing, "T-H-A-T…"
I was beginning to feel like Hector dragged behind Achilles’ chariot. We went back into questions, like, "In addition to selling high-quality gasoline, Exxon offers a number of services to drivers. Based on this commercial, what might one be?"
Toward the end we got to the do-you-like-me questions. Would I now be more or less likely to stop at an Exxon station? Is Exxon a brand I would want to buy? Do I think the other gasolines are cuter than Exxon?
"Does Exxon offer goods and services that are better?"
"Better than what?"
"Better than other companies’?"
"Better than they used to be?"
Gas station loyalty has never been one of my virtues. I’ve always been a gasoline coquette, sempre libre, flitting to wherever the nearest pay-at-pump sign displays. Still, I’d say nearly half my gas purchases have ended up being at Exxon stations. But at this point I didn’t like Exxon much any more. I had sunk into a sour mood. When one question asked how I would feel if Exxon disappeared tomorrow, I’m afraid I answered with intemperate zeal.
At last the ordeal was over. The smiling lady handed me a five and two ones, stapled together, thanked me for my time a bit cooly, and indicated I could leave.
On the way out I passed a counter with a stack of forms and a metal bin. A hand lettered sign read, "Give us a hand! We value your opinion. If you would like to be consulted again, fill in this form and leave it in the bin. We’ll be calling you!"
It was a long form. I filled in every line.