September 29, 2016
(++++) NOT-SO-SWEET MYSTERIES OF LIFE
The Best 381 Colleges, 2017 Edition. By Robert Franek with Kristen O’Toole and David Soto. Princeton Review/Random House. $23.99
All About Them: Grow Your Business by Focusing on Others. By Bruce Turkel. Da Capo. $24.99.
The number of “best” colleges in Princeton Review’s annual 800-plus-page survey book keeps creeping up: there were 371 in 2010, then 373 in 2011, and so on until the current assemblage of 383. Exactly how these almost-400 schools make the grade and the remainder of the 4,000-plus do not is a bit of a mystery, but then, so is the whole college admissions process, even for those who have negotiated it successfully. Perhaps especially for those who have negotiated it successfully, as in “How did he (or she) get in here?” One answer may lie in careful study of this super-heavy tome, whose sheer size does not stop it from managing to encapsulate each college in just two pages of statistics (campus life, academics, selectivity, freshman profile, etc.) and commentaries – by students (academics, campus life in general), the school itself, and Princeton Review’s editorial team. These last remarks can be especially useful, explaining, for example, that “very important factors” for Clemson University admission include rigor of secondary school record, class rank, and state residency (South Carolina), while at Moravian College those factors include character/personal qualities, alumni/ae relation, and “level of applicant’s interest.” These issues can quickly help students narrow down their list of college choices. Of course, the winnowing can also be accomplished, using this same book, in more-traditional ways, for instance by noting that Pitzer College students have SAT scores of 620-720 in critical reading and 630-720 in math, with average high school GPA of 3.9, while those at University of Dayton score 510-620 on SAT critical reading, 520-630 in math, and have average high school GPA of 3.6.
Indeed, The Best 381 Colleges, 2017 Edition provides all sorts of ways to compare and contrast schools. For instance, both Haverford College and Mills College were found, in a student survey, to have lots of liberal students and active minority support groups, and the phrase “diverse student types interact on campus” applies to both; but at Haverford, which is in a “town” environment, “students are always studying” and there is “lots of beer drinking,” while at Mills, in a “metropolis” environment, “students are happy” and “dorms are like palaces.” Students and families can decide which factors they care about most and thumb through the book to find schools that provide the focus and orientation they want. They can also use the profile of one school to search for others – in some cases, although not all, the book lists schools that “applicants also look at and sometimes prefer,” which means if Guilford College might be a good fit, then it can be worthwhile to check out Earlham College, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Goucher College and Elon University as well. Families looking at any college should also, very emphatically, check out the “financial facts” provided for each school, and should try not to be scared off by the huge numbers. Dartmouth College, for example, has annual tuition of $48,120, plus room and board of $14,238, required fees of $1,386, and books-and-supplies costs of $1,260; but it also offers need-based scholarships averaging more than $44,000. There may be no such thing as a free lunch – despite some politicians’ call for “free college for all,” which basically means forcing someone other than students and their families to pay for it – but there is considerable generosity among these schools, which puts a great many of them within financial reach of all students who meet their entry qualifications. What The Best 381 Colleges, 2017 Edition does not show is who gets left out of the equation: middle-class families considered too “wealthy” to get substantial financial aid but not genuinely rich enough to pay the colleges’ full costs. That, however, is a political hot potato that neither this book nor politicians nor academics seem inclined to handle. Given the current state of higher education and the absence of pie-in-the-sky imaginary college freebees for all, The Best 381 Colleges, 2017 Edition is as good a solution as any to the mystery of how to come up with a solid list of attainable colleges (and maybe a few “stretch” ones), and find out what it will cost to attend them and what it will feel like to be on campus.
There are mysteries of a different sort – the consumer type – explored in Bruce Turkel’s All About Them. This is a sort of 21st-century version of Vance Packard’s justly famous The Hidden Persuaders, the 1957 book that first showed consumers how companies manipulate their wants, make them seem like needs, and use those “needs” to sell all sorts of products whose value ranges from genuine to dubious. Turkel is an expert at using those hidden persuaders, and from his perspective, which is that of a contemporary marketer, persuasiveness in the service of greater sales of just about anything is a grand goal. For example, he delights in the story of the second-generation Toyota Prius, which became a huge hit as “the instant darling of the Hollywood elite,” allowing any unimportant, grotesquely overpaid celebrity nonentity to proclaim himself or herself “a sensitive world citizen who cared deeply about the environment.” Turkel is delighted to quote a New York Times story about marketing research on the car that showed that “57 percent of Prius buyers said their main reason for their purchase was that ‘it makes a statement about me,’ while only 37 percent cited fuel economy as their prime motivator.” Meanwhile, the essentially equivalent Honda Civic Hybrid languished in sales because it looked like a regular Civic and did not give buyers the same sense of self-importance. Buyers need not be upscale or even would-be upscale to be manipulated this way. Turkel explains that he could not give his old tube TVs, which worked perfectly, to Goodwill, since they were not flat screens: Goodwill would not take them, because even people who must buy TVs there would only buy flat screens. This is not exactly what was meant by the phrase “trickle-down economics,” but it certainly seems like trickle-down manipulativeness.
Turkel is not the slightest bit upset or even much concerned by the triumph of form over function; in fact, he revels in the notion that “if all products and services work equally well, or at least appear to,” then “people don’t choose what you do; they choose who you are.” This explains everything from Apple’s success at selling coolness rather than products to Barack Obama’s successful “yes we can” campaign slogan. There is a lot more of this, including plenty of examples and a variety of specific ways that today’s marketers can explore and exploit people’s understandable predilection for buying products that make them feel good about themselves and make their lives (at least apparently) better and more meaningful. Really, none of this is new: it is all the same stuff that Packard discussed when developing his theory of the eight hidden needs that advertisers and marketers make consumers believe some product or other can fulfill. The needs are emotional security, reassurance of worth, ego gratification, creative outlets, love objects, sense of power, roots (family, nation, team, etc.), and immortality (which is the desire to create meaning so our lives will not have been in vain). It is scarcely necessary to read All About Them to see the many ways in which this 60-year-old list is in constant use today in every medium imaginable. In fact, in one of the many acronyms of which Turkel is fond (such as SPOC for “single point of contact”), he neatly encapsulates a batch of Packard’s hidden needs: Turkel writes about SMIRFs, “an acronym for the categories that encompass most people’s passions,” which he says are Society, Milieu, Interest, Religion, Fraternity, and Substance. That last one is somewhat questionable – “appearance of substance,” as in the Prius example, may be more accurate – but the point Turkel makes is that products and services do not actually have to serve these areas of passionate concern. They only have to be made to seem to serve them. And that is the job of marketers, such as Turkel himself. For businesses, All About Them is a savvy, clear and punchily written guide to taking lookalike, workalike products and making them seem special and important by finding ways to manipulate consumers into believing that one and only one in a group of otherwise identical products will fulfill one or another of their deeply felt needs. For consumers, who unfortunately are unlikely to read it, Turkel’s book can stand as a modern explanation of the ways in which they are targeted and picked off, monetarily speaking, every single day – indeed, many, many times a day. It reads a bit as if The Hidden Persuaders had been created by someone who thought the subtle and not-so-subtle ways of skewing and skewering consumers’ brains were a good thing, not an appalling one. Packard himself, who died in 1996, might not have been scandalized, but neither would he have been particularly surprised.