I sat on a bench in the rum shop, facing them this time, sipping my drink as inconspicuously as possible.
In the Caribbean people speak with their body, the jerk of a hand or the tilt of a head says as much as their words.
For the thin one it was his face, and especially his eyes.
They glinted as he pointed at his sombre companion, “…and you’re the same. We all are, as far as humans go. It’s the greatest power of all civilization! You can’t use a tool fully until you properly understand how it works; we’ve been understood, and now we can all be tools. You just have to know which buttons to press and how, and then…press them. It’s perfect, and easy!”
“You say tools, because you don’t want to say sheep–too crude and you know it. But I see what you’re really saying. I know your stand ‘Topho.” His voice was quieter than normal through the grin, and yet inflected with a sense of doubt. “But c’mon. It’s not that easy, and no system of control is that perfect. There is no perfect…”
The thin one waved his hand dismissively. He saw the crack, the unsure cadence in the tone, so now he would exploit it. This was the fun of the game the two shared; why not play? He tried to constrain a smile, but his eyes betrayed him.
“Maybe so.” he conceded, “but I ever tell you the story about those Betty Crocker cakes?”
He hadn’t, as the thin one knew well enough.
“Well its something like this…”
You see, back in the day there was this problem. The whole World War was over, and the system was getting itself back on track. ‘Cept there was this hitch. They had all this machinery, these factories, this massive system churning out stuff, and they had to find a way to sell it. The war had given people production excess, and with it, freedom from a depression, but now that it was over… what? They had to increase consumption, and if people weren’t gonna buy, they had to figure out how to get them to.
Enter Betty Crocker pre-made meals and desserts.
One of the many new products being created, and logically so as it was the era of convenience: Pre-mixed cakes.
They thought, “Why not pre-mixed cakes? Sell them in droves and cartonfuls? Everybody likes cakes and everyone likes convenience. Certainly the housewives of America will rejoice! This is an easy sell, man. Easy sell!”
Except, it didn’t–sell, that is.
Betty Crocker was confused.
So they get this guy, this Dr. Ernest Dichter, a psychologist, to come along and run a ‘focus group’. He gets a bunch of average housewives together and like conversational mice in an experiment, lets them talk about how the product made them feel. “As if that matters!” some would argue, but he did it anyway, and he writes it all down.
He found something unexpected and extraordinary:
The reason behind the reluctance to buy pre-made cake mix was an underlying sense of feminine guilt, built into the social expectations of the housewife as home provider, and this guilt was pervasive throughout the entire country’s cultural landscape.
“Instant cake mix was a fraud; the act of making the cake, the deep nurturing impulse, was stolen from the woman. Completely unintentionally, mind you, but they felt it anyway and became defensive against the concept.”
So he advised something totally ludicrous, unnecessary… and brilliant.
“Just tell them to add an egg! Put it on the box, that not just water, but also an egg (maybe 1/4 cup of oil too for good measure) needs to be added for perfect cake goodness.”
And with that, that simple act- albeit totally unnecessary for actual perfect cake goodness- that act of feeling worthwhile and essential to the purpose… it worked.
The women were now participants in the creation of the cake. It wasn’t a fraud anymore!
Suddenly Betty Crocker cake mixes were flying off the shelves. People loved that shit. He had stumbled across a cultural nuance that could be exploited, and he did so… very successfully.
It became a trend, in everything: advertising, politics, education… Figure out where the buttons are, and press them properly, and you can sell anything, in fact… you can do get people to do anything.
“And we’re still in it Sokko.” the thin one said as he leaned back in his chair triumphantly, left arm regally laid on an armrest and right hand bringing his drink to his lips and downing it in a personal toast to victory.
The sombre one furrowed his brows and stroked his left earlobe, then his wispy beard (its amazing how cliché men’s physical appearance is when contemplative; culturally indoctrinated or otherwise). But he remained silent.
“Or I suppose if you want to put it another way: Give a sheep a pasture of grass and a fence for the wolves, and it’ll give up its skin and its young for the privilege.” he continued, testing the elasticity of their conversation. What were the boundaries of the tension here? How far could he push it?
“Ha!” the man named Sokko laughed, “I guess I can’t say much to that, other than that people aren’t sheep, and despite easy cake mix, pastureland and high fences, we all crave something more. Life isn’t so simple.”
The thin one laughed back, seemingly content with the response; a response likely anticipated. Non-committal and vague, it was easy enough to ignore. Besides, more pressing things were on hand.
“Well, you’ll let me know when you figure out what that something is, then. For sure. Until then, another round?”
I got up to use the bathroom and on the way walked past a picture of cold, frosted bottles against a dense, tropical heat. Written in a large, bold, hard font were the words: “The Man’s Beer”. Simple, proud, unapologetic. It was the same beer I had just finished and needed to pee back out 30 minutes later.
I stood in front the toilet, unzipped my fly and sighed, “Baaa.”