Adventures In Consumer Products
The other day we bought a new vacuum cleaner for the farmhouse. It was been a great learning experience.
First, much to my amazement, there is a shop here that does nothing but sell vacuum cleaners. They are specialists. We chose to go there rather than one of those home appliance places because I’ve always been sceptical that the kid who has just sold someone an iPod and someone else a flat screen TV will be able to answer all of my questions about vacuum cleaners. Not that he won’t try.
We were greeted by a salesman who exuded knowledge of vacuum cleaners. He even had a uniform that made him look like a cleaner. After half an hour of Vacuum Cleaner 101, we knew everything we ever wanted to know. We settled on a named brand plus got fifty bucks off the list price and an extra pack of bags!
We went away happy.
So I took this thing home and unpacked it. I hadn’t noticed it in the store, but I was struck by the model name of the machine. It is called the Tranquility. Who thinks these things up?
I had a brief pang of buyer’s remorse. I don’t know about you, but to me a vacuum cleaner should be called something like Hurricane or Cyclone or Death Vortex. Tranquility doesn’t quite sound up to the job. It sounds, well, wimpy. Like, “Excuse me, dirt, do you mind if I gently suck you up?”
I started to think that the manufacturer might not have a total appreciation for the expectations of the consumer.
Then I decided to read the user manual. You are probably saying to yourself, What kind of dork reads the user manual for a vacuum cleaner? Fair enough. But I did it out of curiosity rather than a need for enlightenment.
But guess what? It was enlightening. The manual is seven pages in length. Four pages are just pictures. One page is devoted to the “Guarantee.” It is basically incomprehensible but is a shining example of the dictum “The Large Print Giveth And the Small Print Taketh Away.”
That leaves just two pages for “How To” verbiage. But you won’t find anything that tells you how the thing works in those two pages. One third of one page is taken up with one of those “Troubleshooting Guide” tables. As I mentioned, I found myself wondering what the manufacturer was thinking when they named the machine “Tranquility.” But I was positively intrigued at their perception of the skill level of their customers based on the content of the troubleshooting guide:
|Motor does not start.||No power||Check plug|
|Suction inadequate||Dust bag full||Replace dust bag|
The remaining one and one third pages are given over to safety warnings. The most frequently repeated words are “Do” and “Not.” In juxtaposition.
I’ve always thought that the stuff that they warn you about in these manuals are things that real people have done. Legally that means that the manufacturer has reason to believe that there is a risk and would be remiss if the consumer weren’t warned. That’s why when you buy a gas powered lawn mower it says “Do not use to trim bushes.” Or why we are warned not to use electric hair dryers in the shower.
These are some of the vacuum cleaner warnings: “DO NOT pick up flammable liquids such as petrol, etc.” Or “DO NOT pick up hot ashes or charcoal,” and my favorite: “DO NOT use on people or animals.”
And how about “Turn off when not in use.” That is important enough to be repeated three times.
I now have a profile of the average vacuum cleaner user (at least in the eyes of the people who make vacuum cleaners). They can’t figure out how to turn them on, if they manage that, they vacuum up hot coals and then forget to turn the machine off.
That, I think, is why they feel they can get away with saying something like this, which appears right below the troubleshooting guide:
Due to our program of continuous product improvement and innovation, sometimes the product you buy may differ slightly from the one shown on the product carton.
I guess we are supposed to believe that they are improving so continuously and so rapidly that they haven’t had time to print new boxes. But what I think it really means is “In order to squeeze every last cent out of our manufacturing process, we can’t be bothered to make sure we put the machine you buy into the right box.”
And this appears on the last page:
Our policy is one of continuous development and accordingly we reserve the right to change specifications without prior knowledge.
I’m not sure what a “policy of continuous development” is, but it must have a life of its own if product specifications are changing without anyone knowing about it!
Reading the Tranquility manual got me thinking about my days as an agent of global capitalism. I imagined the effort that would have gone into creating the manual. It would have been an interdisciplinary process with endless meetings and focus groups and drafts. If the company that makes vacuum cleaners is anything like the place I worked, producing the manual would have been more time consuming than making the machine.
I remember one time we were trying to get out a memo to the staff telling them that the office would be closed the day after Thanksgiving. It went through a series of iterations before we launched it toward the Human Resources and Legal department event horizons for their “input.” Sometime after Christmas it came back from some dank corner of HR with the notation “Superceded by the passage of time.”
So I imagine that hours would have been spent on the vacuum cleaner book debating whether it should be called an “Instruction Manual” or “Instruction Book.” Executives would ponder the issue and demand to know: “What is the competition doing?” “What does legal say?”
Marketing consultants, brand image consultants, lawyers, engineers all would have had input to make sure that the book was responsive to the customer and portrayed the image the company wanted to create.
And the scary thought is that all that talent decided that it did!
I’m going to go plug it in. Wish me luck!
PS—You will note that I made it through this entire post without a single pun on the word suck!