On Giants' Shoulders

Thursday, July 29, 2010

New and Improved

It has struck me lately how difficult it is to get original formula anything. Last week I went looking for original Crest toothpaste since that's what Dr. Ellie Phillips recommends. I ended up having to buy it online since all the stores around here had only the "new and improved" versions. I'd run into a similar problem with shampoo recently. I'd discovered a formula that actually helped my hair about a year ago. However, the last time I went to buy it, it was not on the shelf, instead there were a variety of other new and improved versions of the same company's products. I did finally find what's reported to be their new and improved version of the formula, but I'm still finishing up a bottle of one of their other formulas at the moment, so I can't really say whether it's improved or not. What I know about the toothpastes is that there are ingredients in them that are certainly suspect (like the whiteners).

Yesterday I was watching a television show and every commercial that was not a commercial for some other television series was a commercial for a new and improved something. One of the methods that formula manufacturers have been using to lure consumers and doctors to their formula is the "new and improved" route. However, there is as yet no proof whatsoever that what they've added has made any improvement to the health of babies. Similarly, the new and improved foods on the market have yet to compete with eggs from pasture raised chickens, or tomatoes fresh from the vine. That's not to say that there are never any genuine improvements. Certainly some advances in technology are a clear improvement over the previous one. IBM selectric typewriters were a definite improvement over jamming keys for example. However, some of the "improvements" end up simply being marketing devices, a way to make a consumer feel that they need the latest and greatest.

If your current_________________________(you fill in the blank) is meeting your needs, and is not broken, why does it need to be replaced? Why must cell phones be upgraded every year or so? Why is basic laundry soap not good enough (don't even get me started on the fact that buying simple Ivory Flakes is no longer possible!)? Many of the so called improvements have ultimately proven to not even be good for our health. Crisco was touted as a huge improvement over lard, now we know that it as actually far worse for us. However, advertisers are in the business of trying to lure the consumer from one brand to another, or back from another. To motivate the consumer they have to convince them that they have something better to offer.

Recently a new bakery opened up in our town. It's a tiny operation that bakes bread in a very traditional manner (as in a very long process rather than the more speeded up version now usually used). They didn't really advertise at all. They got one shelf at the mom and pop store and put the bread out. One version is sold out within an hour of the bread arriving and every loaf disappears before they come back to restock. It happened with no advertising at all. They have a good product at a reasonable price and if it's new and improved, it's only because it's old and predictable. The same thing has happened with the farm where we buy our milk. It used to be that there was milk from a day or two before in the cooler when you got there to buy milk. Now they have so many customers that if you don't get there before noon you'll have to come back the next day. They also have done no advertising. People buy milk from them because their friends recommended it. The milk isn't new and improved, it's just normal unadulterated, unmonkeyed with milk.

When things are produced locally on a small scale these are the sorts of things that happen. The reputation of the producer is at stake because he's depending on a small customer base that he needs to keep happy. It's ecologically more sensible because things aren't getting shipped all over the country, but it's also cheaper for the small producer because he doesn't have to appeal to people with expensive advertising. He can count on word of mouth to bring him all the customers he can handle. Now I'll grant you, the local bakery and the local farmer are not going to become the next Sam Walton. They may make a reasonable living, but they aren't going to get rich. They will have a personal relationship with the people in their community that is a sort of wealth of its own. I'm really liking buying my vegetables (the ones we don't grow) at the farmer's market or the farmstand, my bread from a local bakery (again when I don't make my own), my meat, eggs, and milk from local farmers. It may not be new and improved, but it tastes better and it's better for us than the new and improved whatever that the fast food restaurants are hawking this week.

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