Thursday, January 26, 2006

Getting through the filter: more on social commerce

Related to my last post on social commerce, the NY Times published a column last Sunday by Rob Walker, "Getting through the filter." Sometimes, it seems, we insist on buying things even when it is clear they don't work. I tip my hat to the marketers of the world who know how to work that trick. Also, for those unfamiliar with collaborative filtering, you may enjoy this Wikipedia primer as a complement to Rob Walker's article; his title is a clever double-reference to air filters (as a consumer product) and collaborative filtering (as a mechanism influencing our purchasing decisions).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License and is copyrighted (c) 2006 by Connective Associates except where otherwise noted.


Anonymous said...

January 22, 2006


Getting Through the Filter

Ionic Breeze

In October 2003, Consumer Reports published an evaluation of various products that promised to clean indoor air, offering allergy relief and generally better breathing. The magazine (published by Consumers Union, a nonprofit that dates to 1936) had tested such devices before and found little to applaud but noted that they continued to enjoy "brisk sales" partly because of "concerns about allergies and indoor air contaminants, coupled with heightened worries over terrorism." The 2003 report was particularly tough on Sharper Image, "the champion of air-cleaner marketing," giving the lowest marks in categories like dust- and smoke-removal to its Ionic Breeze product, which the magazine called flat-out "ineffective." Sharper Image sued Consumers Union for defamation. This set the stage for an interesting examination of the relationship between consumers and brands at a time when that relationship is widely believed to be in flux.

In 2004, a California judge dismissed the defamation suit, and early last year Sharper Image agreed to cover Consumers Union's legal costs. A few months later, Consumer Reports published a new look at "ionizing" air cleaners contending that some of these products not only do little to clean the air but also "can expose you to potentially harmful ozone levels." This time Sharper Image did not sue, but its C.E.O. called the report "irresponsible," and the company maintains that the Ionic Breeze has never emitted unsafe levels of ozone. Late in 2005, Consumer Reports came out with its latest round of tests, again slamming the latest Sharper Image Ionic Breeze model. "If you own one," the magazine advised, "try returning it for a refund."

Given that a 2005 survey by American Demographics found Consumer Reports to be far and away the "most trustworthy and objective" media outlet for information about consumer products, this seems like a devastating narrative for the Ionic Breeze. But it has an interesting subplot. Despite Consumer Reports's unequivocal criticism, ionizing cleaners have remained popular, accounting for "25 percent of the roughly $410 million per year spent on air cleaners," the magazine noted last May. In fact, new ionizing devices kept popping up. Suzie Stephens, a spokeswoman for Sharper Image, maintains that the 2003 Consumer Reports critique - the one that the company sued over - "really didn't do anything" to sales of the Ionic Breeze. She also says that it remains one of Sharper Image's best-selling items, and that plenty of customers write in to praise the device and recommend it to friends; the millions who have bought it, in other words, can't be wrong. "Consumers are smart," she says. "They will decide whether a product lives or dies."

Jeffrey Asher, vice president and technical director of Consumers Union, counters that the magazine's most recent critiques, raising the possibility of health risks, do seem to be having an effect. Indeed, Sharper Image's C.E.O. mentioned "a deceleration" of the Ionic Breeze sales in a recent conference call with Wall Street analysts, citing the Consumer Reports articles along with "knockoff" competitors, and the fact that many likely Ionic Breeze customers have already bought multiple versions of the device.

Yet even Asher concedes that some Consumer Reports subscribers bought the Ionic Breeze despite the magazine's tests calling the product ineffective. Asher chalks that up to it being a "very heavily marketed product," pushed in endless TV ads and infomercials. And more broadly, perhaps it's no surprise that as the product-information revolution plays out, the net effect of the vast array of opinions (from experts, from advertisements, from online reviews, from other consumers) means that sometimes we are simply unsure whom to trust. If you feel the air around you is unclean, and a gizmo comes along that says it will help, maybe you go with the recommendation that seems most hopeful. As Asher notes, Consumer Reports's medical consultants say most people do not need any of these devices. "So," he says, "the bigger issue could be, why are people buying air cleaners at all?" At a time when consumer choice may be more confusing than ever, the magazine can give people an assessment that has no commercial bias, he concludes, "but we can't make their decisions for them."


Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Valdis said...

Bruce, did you know that collaborative filtering translates well to network maps?