Eric D. Snider

Indistinguishable, That's What You Are

Snide Remarks #651

"Indistinguishable, That's What You Are"

by Eric D. Snider

Published on December 6, 2011

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I have brand loyalty for Q-Tips. The generic cotton swabs are cheaper, but they also have noticeably less cotton on the ends. You might as well be cleaning out your ears with a screwdriver.

I'm partial to Q-Tips because of their non-screwdriver-like qualities, but sometimes we're loyal to certain brands for reasons that are less logical than that: force of habit, perhaps, or a subconscious response to the pleasing shape of the company's logo, or the knowledge that a particular product is made in Norway, and we've always been fond of the Norwegians. Whatever the reason, brand loyalty often plays a significant part in decisions about where to spend our money. But there are some industries in which the individual companies, try as they may, can't get customers to become passionate about them.

Let us begin with movie theaters. Before the movie starts there's usually a commercial for whichever conglomerate owns the cinema you're sitting in: "Thank you for choosing AMC Theatres!"; "Welcome to Regal Entertainment!"; or whatever. Often these are elaborate animated productions touting all the amenities the theater offers. For example, did you know that refreshments are available in the lobby?? And that you should be courteous to other patrons by silencing your cell phone?? It is true!

The only thing I don't understand about these ads is why they exist. People who are sitting in a movie theater do not need to be sold on the idea of going to the movies. That is self-evident. As for promoting the specific theater chain: again, we're already there. We've already chosen Regal or AMC or Cinemark or whoever, and not to burst your bubble, but our choice had nothing to do with who owned the theater. Nobody ever says, "Hey, let's go catch a motion picture down at the Carmike Cinemas!" People say, "Hey, let's go watch this specific movie that we want to see at whichever theater is showing it nearest to our home!" Certain theaters might be avoided because they are rundown, unsavory, or infested with teenagers, but that doesn't reflect on the entire chain.

In short: Relax, theater chains! There is no need to sell yourselves to us! We don't care, and you're all the same anyway!

That goes for you too, airlines. Every flight ends with a stewardess saying something to the effect of, "We know you have many options for air travel, and we thank you for choosing us!" And yes, technically, I guess we did "choose" your airline. We told Travelocity where we needed to go and when, and Travelocity gave us a list of options, and we selected the flight that was cheapest and had the fewest layovers -- and yep, that happened to be one of yours. Congratulations, airline! Your policy of being a little bit cheaper this one random time has earned you a customer this one random time! Kudos!

It's even more presumptuous when the stewardess says, "We thank you for spending part of your day with us!" -- you know, like we just wanted to hang out for a while. Listen, don't flatter yourself. I needed to go to Austin; you were flying a plane there; I tagged along. It didn't really have anything to do with you.

I guess there are people who fly so frequently that certain patterns emerge, and they develop loyalties. Maybe the seats on one airline's planes tend to be made of a slightly less rigid form of cement than on the others'. Maybe one airline's stewardesses wear thicker pancake makeup and use more egregious Southern accents than the other airlines' stewardesses. For the average person, though, every flight is approximately as exhausting and nightmarish as every other flight, and when something is unusually terrible -- a lengthy delay, a foul-smelling seatmate, a wing falling off mid-flight -- it has little to do with the name on the side of the plane. That's just how air travel is (i.e., awful).

The only thing I know about individual airlines is that Southwest does not assign specific seats, in accordance with the company's philosophy that flying with them should be as much like riding a bus as possible. All the other airlines run together in my mind into one indistinct puddle of stale air, stingy accommodations, and general misery.

The saddest example of trying to create brand loyalty where none can possibly exist is gas stations. The average person considers all gasoline to be exactly the same. Sociologists believe this perception stems from the fact that all gasoline is exactly the same. It doesn't matter whether you buy it from Texaco, Shell, Arco, or somewhere else, or whether you refine it yourself in your own backyard, like the pioneers did. It's all the same stuff. Yet the chains that own these gas stations spend millions in advertising to convince us that their gasoline is better than their competitors'. Chevron has Techron! It will clean your engine! The gasoline you buy at OTHER stations will fill your engine with gunk and remorse, but Chevron gasoline -- with Techron! -- is so clean that the exhaust from your car's tailpipe will taste like lemon and have healing properties.

They go on and on, but we don't believe them. First of all, "Techron": that's not even really a thing. They made that up. And anyway, even if we don't know anything about cars, we at least know that gasoline is poisonous, and that the way an engine works is that it basically ignites that poisonous liquid so it explodes. The process is inherently filthy and toxic. So what do we do when we need gasoline? We go to whichever station is handy when we need it. If there are several options, we choose the cheapest one. The end.

Sorry, filling stations! You're not like Q-Tips! You're like movie theaters, airlines, and hipsters: you all look the same to us, and we are not interested in why you think you're different. Please stop trying. Please stop asking us to "like" you on Facebook. We don't like you. We don't dislike you, either; we just don't care. Keep selling us your services, and try to have a little dignity.

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This item has 36 comments

  1. Lane says:

    I like this rambly style of column, even if I don't completely agree with all of it (I develop brand loyalty towards the gas station with the best hot dogs, and if a wing were to become disconnected from an airplane mid-flight, the initial perception would be that of the plane falling off of the wing while the wing stays aloft briefly rather than the wing falling off).

  2. ElwoodCity says:

    I agree with you on gas stations. Often my choice is dictated by the necessity of turning left to get there. I do know people who swear that this station or that has gas that is bad for your car. I don't buy it, but I know people who do. Weird.

  3. Elain says:

    Brilliant!

    I admit that I sometimes buy those awful cotton swabs at the dollar store--but they're never for "ear duty."

    If something is going into my ear canal it's either a real Q-tip or a BIC pen cap (ideal scraping mechanism, too bad the pen is so lousy).

    My loyalty to the others is much like yours. None. Sad to know the price is jacked up to cover the millions spent on convincing me there's a difference when there is none.

  4. Duke of Earl Grey says:

    I agree that gasoline brand loyalty is ridiculous, but it's not always about the gas, it's sometimes about the attached convenience stores, which do differ from brand to brand. Maverik, for instance, offers trail points and soda refill punch cards, and 7-11 offers that unique coffee/dirt/menthol smell.

  5. Jim says:

    The only airline brand I've ever even been interested in that way is Virgin, and only because my brother once flew on it and said it was super cheap but "nice" with all those cool electronic features usually only reserved for first class people. I'm not sure that's actually true, or if that all airlines are adding that stuff. Anyway, as you probably can tell I rarely fly.

  6. Linda says:

    I actually prefer Southwest because they don't assign seating. If I pay $10 extra I can get on in the first group and get one of the front row seats with more leg room, mostly.

    Of course, riding a bus is much better otherwise.

  7. Racehl says:

    I have a lot of brand loyalty for Southwest. This is mostly because they don't charge for bags and they have regular flights to the three places I ever go =)

  8. Dave says:

    Spot on Eric, though I would point out that brand recognition for these things only begins to matter once you've had a BAD experience with them. (For example, I avoid DELTA Airlines now, having discovered first-hand what their name truly means: Don't Expect Luggage To Arrive)

  9. aaron says:

    They obviously believe that the money spent on advertising buys them some modicum of loyalty, otherwise they wouldn't do it. How do they become so misguided?

    I blame people who majored in marketing in college. This massive loss in societal economic welfare is all on the advertising industry.

    As if you needed another reason to hate Don Draper.

  10. Tom says:

    If you piled up all the people who endure an advertisement that isn't meant for them or will never have any effect on them, how high would the pile be? I wish there was a way to only have the theater chain ad on the one reel that will be viewed by the CEO of said theater chain (so the ad guys look like they're doing their jobs) and save cellulose everywhere else*. Better yet, I think I should be credited a few cents for every useless ad that invades my sensory space.

    I enjoy these voice-of-the-people snide remarks now and again. Thanks!


    * Yes I know about the cleverness of Gmail.

  11. Cameron says:

    ...which was the style at the time!

  12. Unnamed source says:

    If you were seeking to procure some gasoline in the late 1800's before the arrival of the SUV, you(or possibly your horse)would trot on down to the old general store and ladle some out of a barrel into your mason jar.

    I also, avoid Delta for several reasons, and have acquired a fondness for Jet Blue probably due to the aforementioned Don Draper type on Madison Avenue.

  13. Kyle says:

    I've flown maybe 20 times in my life (10 round trips) and enjoyed every flight. I think flight is a miracle, and I love looking out the window at the clouds, the ground, the lights in the cities as we overfly them, lightning storms as seen from ABOVE the clouds, etc. I think it's too bad you hate it so badly.

    And I know next to nothing about cars, but I had a friend who used to drive gasoline tankers, and he said when you empty the tanker, you can see the difference in purity in how much dirt is left on the side, and that Chevron is by far the best and cleanest, so that's what I buy.

  14. Emily says:

    I agree, except that Megaplex Theatres in Utah really are better. Reserved seating, clean theaters, a wide range of food options. I hate going to any other theater chain now that I've gotten used to Megaplex.

  15. Paul Norman says:

    As a Chevron employee I would like to thank Kyle for his plug. Techron is real stuff you can actually buy in a separate little bottle around where I live. Whether it is better than the stuff Exxon-Mobile or Shell put in their gasolines, I have no idea.

    I am also glad that Kyle still finds flying on airlines a pleasure. For those of us who have flown a lot, we are tired of being treated as the enemy and being confined to such a small space for hours at a time. I am pretty sure that if we had high speed rail service between major cities, a lot of us would switch over because flying has become so awful.

    I have to agree with Eric that a lot of advertising seems utterly pointless. Do enough people really buy on the basis of commercials to justify their cost to the company? I have tried things to see if the product lives up to the hype, but when I am disappointed, I cannot be persuaded to buy said product again.

  16. Joel says:

    This reminds me of the ad campaign for Fina gas stations.

    Our motto:

    "If you're driving down the road and you see a Fina station and it's on your side so you don't have to make a u-turn through traffic and there aren't six cars waiting and you need gas or something please stop in."

    The man who created it was a genius named Howard Gossage. He hated advertising.

  17. Sean says:

    If Southwest flies to wherever I'm going, I consistently fly Southwest because they are (1) cheaper (both because of the face value of the ticket and because they charge fewer fees for random things) and (2) they don't pretend like it's 1946 and there's still something sexy or glamorous about traveling by aeroplane.

    Other than that, airlines are as fungible as gas stations, cinemas, and hipsters.

    If you saw a noticeable drop in the quality of Q-tips about ten years ago, you can blame Six Sigma. I had to get a Six Sigma "Green Belt" (they really call it that) for my former employer. The trainer was very proud of the fact that they had convinced Johnson & Johnson to lower their manufacturing standards for Q-tips and make them more chintzy.

  18. Charles Norris says:

    Kyle, let me introduce you to my friend, the fuel filter. This little guy makes all gasoline the same. Just FYI, Techron is what Harry Potter uses to power his Firebolt so if you buy Techron, you'll be able to make your car fly if you're a wizard.

    On the airlines note, I'm glad you enjoy flying. I've been up hundreds of times in small and large aircraft and I still love it in spite of all of Eric's valid points.

  19. Jon says:

    Charles, have you never had a clogged fuel filter? It's not a cheap repair.

  20. Charles Norris says:

    Yes I have had a clogged filter, but I do my own repairs so I guess I didn't consider the cost for somebody who doesn't.

  21. Kimi says:

    Eric, I too enjoy the fluffy comfort that only Q-tips can provide! I get your point about the 'theater commercials' however I don't know what I'd do with myself if before a movie I couldn't...several times...whisper...Wehrenberg, Wehrenberg, Wehrenberg...while that crown spins around so elegantly! Tee-Hee! :)

  22. Phil says:

    Sean,

    Q-tips are made by Unilever, not J&J. I haven't noticed a quality decline in Q-tips over time, but I'll never use the J&J brand cotton swabs because they have a lower cotton count as well as the flimsy plastic beam.

  23. Sean says:

    I stand corrected, good sir. But I am pretty sure it was Q-tips. The guy went on about how they would test samples from every batch, and they would reject the batch if the samples couldn't, for example, hold 100 pounds by the stem. Then a Six Sigma trainer came in and told them they were wasting money and there was no need to make such awesome products. He convinced them that it would be more efficient to make slightly more craptastic Q-tips because most people wouldn't notice the quality difference anyway. Somehow, this same program was supposed to make us better engineers. (We were making nuclear missiles.)

    That's why I'm a lawyer now. It's just as stupid, but it pays better.

  24. Rob D. says:

    I always crack up with Cinemark's cheesy still photos of the different types of movies people can enjoy. Really, we can go to your theater for a date night? family fun? fright night? girls night out? etc. We had no idea of the endless possibilities!

  25. corned_beef says:

    I always like when you address inanimate objects in your writing. "Thanks, movie!"

  26. Tricia says:

    I really enjoy flying. I'm always elated to have not died during takeoff. And I like looking down on all the puny mortals who are not flying. And I'm someone who has pretty much never had to fly somewhere they didn't want to go. I know this reveals that I am lower middle class.

    Q tips are for babies. I use metal implements! I used to be loyal to Texaco and Phillips 66. I think it's because I was a goth and they had the most black in their logos. But I guess you addressed subconscious logo attractions.

  27. Nessie says:

    My favorite part of this review is the hipster comment in the last paragraph.

  28. Neil says:

    The only time I've shown loyalty to a gas station is my current choice (GetGo). They are owned by my megamart of choice, and have the usual 10 cents off per gallon for every $50 you spend at the grocer. That isn't special. What is, is that I get 1% off my grocer bill for every 10 gallons I fill.

    We save our accumulations and get $300 worth of staples every three months. We usually have 10-15%, so we get $30-45. We then enjoy the 60 cents off per gallon on our next trip to get gas (unless they have a bonus thing running - 20 cents per $50, giving us $.20).

  29. Prufrock says:

    I agree. Except with airlines. See, some go via different routes. So I choose United/Continental so I don't have to connect through Heathrow. And so I can have the extra legroom.

    As it turns out, for regular fliers the airlines go out of their way to differentiate. It's just for the hoi polloi that they all blend together. And then, after picking the best airline for years, you're locked in to a frequent flier program, and then they have you by the short hairs. :)

    Yay! At least I can use the lounge in Newark.

  30. Kit says:

    So onboard with this. Agree 100%.

  31. bartonjabber says:

    Brand loyalty is a definite plus for a few items.

    Hostess Ding Dongs only! Never would a Little Debbie look alike cross my tastebuds.

    Nabisco Fig Neutons ONLY... no store brand for me! Liek eating solidified barf.

    M&M's have the real m-m-m-m in them... imitations taste, well, awful.

    Reynolds Wrap Aluminum Foil - Do not try to foil me with others!

  32. notaturkeybone says:

    Milk. I'm looking at the gallons of milk in the supermarket and this one is $2.69 and the one above is is $4.89. It's not organic milk or anything. They just slap a Berkeley Farms label on it and suddenly it's worth over $2 more? I think not. My kids can drink the generic milk. And they will like it!

  33. Clumpy says:

    @Eric

    Orson Scott Card gave you a shout-out in a local paper he writes rambling reviews for (scroll to the bottom):

    http://hatrack.com/osc/reviews/everything/2011-12-08.shtml

  34. WhoMe says:

    The employer I work for chooses my airlines, so I end up flying whatever's cheapest or has the best deal with my employer that month. So I've flown and reflown on many airlines. They are all the same. They've all had good flights and bad flights. They've all lost luggage at some point. People like Southwest better because they make it feel like a bus, so people expect less of them. (They just lower expectations to where they're already met.)

    People who don't fly all that often will have a bad experience or two with one airline and assume that they are just a bad airline and develop anti-loyalty for them. But it's just chance. You find people with anti-loyalty based on anecdotal evidence for every airline. They are all the same. Except for America West ... there was this one time they really messed up my flight ... oh never mind.

  35. Brad says:

    Kyle, try flying about 10 times a month and then let me know how pleasurable you find it.

  36. Wayne says:

    Just got an email that said "Thank you for choosing us", sent from a title company who was assigned by our loan officer to close our home refinance. I had to go back and re-read this article, just for kicks.

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