CONSUMER PRODUCT

Pure Products

Thus there exists a dictionary situation for everyone: designers design, manufacturers manufacture, and diverse consumers consume diversity. --Henry Petroski (The Evolution of Useful Things, 1992)

We look to nature for products because natural selection has had an incredible amount of time to optimize substances for varied purposes. --Scott Rapoport (2000:E-2)

Rubbermaid products evolve according to Darwinian laws. --Jay Mathews (1995B:H4)

Like computing, genetic science is evolving into a consumer technology. --John Rennie (2000:6 [Author's Note: Our own bodies have become consumer products.])


Artifact. 1. A material object deliberately fabricated for mass consumption and use. 2. An edible, wearable, drinkable (i.e., usable) commodity exhibiting a standardized design. 3. An artifact bearing a brand name (see, e.g., BIG MAC) promoted in the media.

Usage: Like gestures, consumer products are informative, provocative, and highly communicative. Shoes, hats, and wrist watches, e.g., have a great deal to "say" about gender, identity, and status. The make, model, and color of a new car reflect a buyer's personal tastes, moods, and individuality.

Clutter. 1. "She [Marilyn Vondra, an opera singer] telephoned her clutter-support person a week later [after attending a 'Letting Go of Clutter' workshop] to say that, for the first time in some years, she had glimpsed the top of the coffee table. 'It's glass,' she said" (Dullea 1992:C1). 2. ". . . as experts will tell you, attachments to objects are emotional, never logical" (Dullea 1992:C6).

Design. Consumer goods "speak" via messaging features--expressive emblems, insignia, and signs placed to stand out against more functional elements of a product's design. The mouth-shape of a vehicular grille, e.g., which suggests an alert, angry, or tense face, has little bearing on automobile reliability, safety, or speed. The tiny flag-shaped tag on the derriere of Levi's blue jeans, too, adds information rather than durability to the product. (N.B.: Messaging features resemble the aromatic secondary products of herbs & spices, which evolved to communicate apart from the practical needs of plant metabolism, growth, and reproduction.)

Evolution. The earliest known products (dated to ca. 2.5 m.y.a.) are intentionally flaked Oldowan pebble tools from Ethiopia, produced by our oldest-known human ancestor, Homo habilis. By ca. 1.6 m.y.a., a more eloquent, fist-sized hand-axe, bearing a standardized, symmetrical, leaf-shaped design, was chipped in East Africa by Homo erectus. Since the Stone Age, the number of products invented and used by our species, Homo sapiens--from Silly Putty to interstate highways--has increased at a rate three times greater than biological evolution (Basalla 1988). As the brain and body were shaped by natural selection, consumer goods adapted to the mind through a parallel process of product selection, which has rendered them ever more fluent, expressive, and fascinating to our senses.

Materialism. "The Gallup Organization revealed today the first scientific national poll of the world's most populous country, revealing a billion Chinese ambitious to become rich and buy millions of televisions, washing machines, refrigerators and videocassette recorders" (Mathews 1995:A13).

Media. Product selection in the modern age is shaped, intensified, and sped by electronic media through an ancient, imitative principle know as isopraxism. On January 31, 1993, e.g., broadcast images of contented human beings gulping carbonated soft drinks reached an estimated 120 million viewers of Super Bowl XXVII, many of whom later purchased products seen on TV.

Packaging I. "A study by the DuPont Corporation showed that 78 percent of supermarket purchases were made as a result of package design and eye appeal" (Vargas 1986:143; note that packages are consumer products, as well).

Packaging II. A singularly effective package is the Betty Crocker cake mix box, introduced in 1954. "A close-up photo of the prepared cake, ideally colored, provides the background for an oval red spoon containing the logo. Ovals are more pleasing to the subconscious mind than shapes with sharp angles [by 1956, sales of Betty Crocker cake mixes had quadrupled]" (Vargas 1986:144).

Shopping. "In places like Poland and Hungary, the huge stores that have replaced drab, poorly stocked shops of the communist days are the busiest places in town on Sundays. Thousands of cars fill parking lots and couples with children, many dressed in their Sunday best, push carts filled with groceries, clothing, even appliances" (Stylinski 1998:A8).

Speech I. There is an evolutionary link between material artifacts and spoken language: "Evidence that 'archaic' Homo sapiens did indeed have cognitive control of hierarchically structured composite [speech] units comes from their tool technology. For the first time, hafted tools appear. These are composite tools, made from individual pieces put together and functioning as a whole" (Foley 1997:72; see MEDIA, Images and words; and SPEECH, Evolution I & II).

Speech II. Just as our species combines words into sentences, human beings also combine materials into products. The first known use of glue (a heat-treated asphalt) to join stone tools to wooden handles, e.g., dates back ca. 30,000 years to a Syrian archaeological site between the Palmyra and Euphrates rivers (Weiss 1996).

Writing. An evolutionary link between artifacts and writing exists as well: "Writing was invented [around 3300 B.C. in Sumer, in ancient Mesopotamia] to keep track of the storage or disbursement of commodities, and for several centuries it was used only for accounting purposes" (Anonymous 1992).

RESEARCH REPORT: The number of everyday artifacts encountered in our lives has been estimated at between 20,000 and 30,000 manufactured objects (Petroski 1992).


E-Commentary: "In watching the impeachment hearings last week, I was struck by the role of gifts in the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship. There seems to have been a compulsion to give gifts--she gave him 40, he gave her 24--even though they carried some risk. Indeed, the disposition of those very gifts forms the basis of the obstruction of justice impeachment charge. It all made me think: What is the deal with gifts? Why do they loom so large in courtship?" K.O'B., The Newark Star-Ledger (99-01-21 10:19:41 EST)

Neuro-notes I. We eagerly covet, collect, and consume material goods, which beckon to us as "gestures" from billboards, catalogues, and discount store shelves. Juice substitutes, women's shoes, and new car smell, e.g., engage diverse areas of our brain to which they "speak." PET studies show that we process object knowledge (i.e., the verbal labels for products) through many separate brain areas linked by interconnected circuits called distributed systems.

Neuro-notes II. Color words used to describe, e.g., a super bouncy ball come from our brain's ventral temporal lobe, located in front of the "color area" on the inferior temporal cortex. Motion words for the ball's lively bounce, on the other hand, come from the middle temporal gyrus in front of the brain's "motion area," on the posterior parietal cortex (Martin et al. 1995:102). MRI research suggests that a large part of our neocortex is occupied by such processing "substations" for vision (Sereno et al. 1995:889). Thus, while super bouncy balls cannot actually speak, their messaging features nonetheless engage multiple knowledge areas of our brain. Colorful balls have more to "say" than natural objects such as twigs and fallen leaves, because only the most expressive consumer products survive.

See also OBJECT FANCY, WWW.Target.com.

Copyright 1998 - 2010 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Photo of Big Mac and fries (December 20, 2009, at McDonald's on East 29th Avenue, Spokane, Washington, USA; copyright 2009 by Doreen K. Givens)