Take buying a toothbrush. It used to be manageable enough - hard or soft? Bristle or nylon? Red, green or blue? But these days Boots stocks 75 kinds of toothbrush, not taking into account the colour variations. Single-tufted head? Angled head? Contoured head? Soft standard? Extra hard? Firm? Contoured massage filaments? Non-slip rubber grip? With or without interdental brush refills?
Shampoo is worse. There are 240 varieties in Boots. Do you want body, shine and manageability without the waxy build-up? Or just manageability and shine? What kind of shine exactly? Healthy shine or jojoba shine? Would a dash of sea kelp, pina colada, or marshmallow be nice? Massoia nourishment? Elastin volume? Anti caspa? Ginkgo strength? Or, hang it all, just stick with the old Swiss botanical humectant?
In north America a whole anti-consumerism movement is gathering strength to combat the toothbrush explosion and other excesses. But in Britain product proliferation continues apace. Philips alone produces 13 different kettles and 24 irons. One Oxford Street store last week had 110 types of personal stereo on display. The current Nike catalogue describes 347 separate varieties of trainer.
'It's impossible to keep a record of the number of new products,' says the Consumers Association. The proliferation of variations makes it difficult to know which one to test, especially since many are likely to be superseded before tests are complete.
'It's due to market segmentation and target marketing,' explains Vince Mitchell of the University of Manchester Insitute of Science and Technology (UMIST). 'As markets become increasingly competitive manufacturers feel they have to meet the customers' needs ever more specifically.'
Once they find a new need to meet, of course, all their competitors find a need to copy. Me-too-ism is the buzz word. Some producers update or face-lift their product ranges every six months. Sometimes, when large retailers squeeze other manufacturers off the shelves with own-brand me-too- ism, more products actually mean less choice.
It's exhausting enough flopping into a hamburger restaurant and having to run the gamut of blue cheese, thousand island, French or Italian, quarter pounder or half, rare, medium, medium rare or well done, jacket potato or fries, coffee small / large / espresso / cappuccino / filter or decaf. Should we, then, when we want to iron a shirt, have to run through cord or cordless / with or without cord wind / drip-stop/anti- calc / see-through / ergonomic / sole plate in aluminium, silverstone or stainless steel?
'Why should we force a customer to have a sole plate they don't want?' says Philips' spokesman Barry Coldbreath defensively. (Did you even know you had a sole plate? It's the metal bit which gets hot, apparently.)
'What manufacturers are doing is securing price premium on the basis of minor product differentiation,' says Dr Vernon Ward, head of the Department of Technology and Consumer Science at the Roehampton Institute in South-west London. 'The ultimate market is where every product is personalised. You see it in cars with the add-on extras: go- faster stripes, alloy wheels, sunroofs, seat covers.
'I can't think of any manufacturer which only has a single product. The feeling is that the more choice the consumer has, the better. Manufacturers have a basic range and all the variations represent increments of consumer convenience.'
Convenience or blind panic? In Marks & Spencer in Oxford Street last week shoppers were standing before the tights (for Active Legs or Active Busy Legs?) and the sandwiches with the same curiously paralysed expressions. A young man, a consultant to the aviation industry, stared fixedly for some time before selecting two packs, then returned several minutes later to change them. 'You see, I like the packs where you get three, but it seems that one of them has to be prawn. So you have to buy two packs to get the right number of sandwiches without the prawn.' Would he prefer less choice? 'No, I like choice. I just don't like prawns.'
Across the road, in the dazzling white goods department of John Lewis, a couple in their fifties, wearing familiar expressions, were looking at a food processor. 'I want a food processor for my daughter,' said the wife. 'I bought one about 10 years ago, but they all have so many fittings now . . . if there's too much choice you get confused.'
Quite. Twelve kinds of kitchen scissors. A vertical chicken roaster. A burger maker. An onion holder. A floating peeler. Was it the kitchenware department or the Land of Indecision? Naturally, across the Atlantic, there are buzz words for the solution as well as the problem. Canadians are being encouraged to go in for 'anti- consumerism' and 'culture jamming' by a Vancouver- based organisation called the Media Foundation. The Foundation, which is non-profit- making, produces a glossy magazine four times a year called Adbusters, with articles on how to subvert and ridicule the commercially obsessed evils of advertising, broadcasting and marketing. It has produced a series of 'uncommercials': a parody of a vodka ad with the caption 'Absolute Hangover', a poster for 'Calvin Swine'
featuring an arty photo of a naked woman under the heading 'Obsessed'. A picture of a businessman with a mouth stuffed with dollars bears a little white-on-green caption saying 'The True Colours of Bennetton' (sic).
The Media Foundation has screened 15 television uncommercials in Canada. One presents the car as a dinosaur in a Jurassic Park-style used car lot; others argue against watching television instead of living and the manipulation of body- image by advertising. Yet another presents the north American continent as a greedy pig snorting and grunting as a voiceover explains: 'Five per cent of the people in the world consume one third of its resources and produce almost half the non-organic waste.'
''Rampant consumerism and excessive consumption is a major environmental problem,' explains Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn. 'The existing consumer based culture is dysfunctional. The media is its command centre. We need to create an alternative media culture which is non-commercial.'
For the past two years the foundation has organised a Buy Nothing Day on 24 September. 'We want people just to try out the experience of not being consumers for 24 hours,' says Mr Lasn. 'The whole of our culture is urging us to buy more. Planned obsolescence is part of that. The commercial world uses very powerful persuasion to convince us that we need nine kinds of fork instead of one. Cupboards the length and breadth of America are stuffed with unused consumer durables. I think in time manufacturers will go back to producing just the basic simple things we need. But it will take a major environmental collapse to make us see that we've been on the wrong tack for 50 years.'
The foundation is finding growing support in Canada and the US, particularly on campuses. Radical groups such as the Billboard Liberation Front in San Francisco and Act-Up in New York are fighting a similar semiotic guerilla war. There are links in Japan too - but not in Britain. Both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth declined
to comment on product-clutter or culture jamming, saying neither were areas that they had looked into.
Dominic Mills, Editor of the advertising industry magazine Campaign, says: 'I don't think it's terribly serious, here. Often it plays into the hands of advertisers by increasing their publicity.
'Anti-consumerism might take off over here in time. After all, the green movement used to be marginalised and fragmented but eventually created such a stir that everyone jumped on the bandwagon.'
Already, for marketing, rather than ethical or environmental reasons, there is a glimmer of a trend towards simplification. 'There's a syndrome called the Pareto effect which decrees that in general 20 per cent of products attract 80 per cent of revenue,' says Vince Mitchell of UMIST. 'As marketing becomes more sophisticated, it's possible that producers will have the confidence to delete more of the wasted 80-90 per cent and cut back on the deep product proliferation.'
Apple computers are currently lengthening their product lifecycles and, in a response to customer demand, trying to make models upgradeable, instead of rendering them obsolete with entirely new ranges.
In certain areas, such as televisions, hi-fis and videos, the notion of customer convenience is becoming synonymous with simplicity. 'The perception used to be that customers liked as many knobs and buttons as possible,' says Mike Brown, senior marketing director at Toshiba. 'Now user-friendliness is the key.' VideoPlus, a system by which the video recorder can be set by simply tapping in a programme code number, is replacing knobs and buttons at a rate of knots.
It's quite possible to imagine Back to Basics capturing the public imagination when applied to kettles. After all, a pan of water on the cooker usually manages to boil. Is it absolutely necessary for a peeler to float? Or to buy a hairdryer with long plastic fingers attached, when you have some on the end of your hand?
But an anti-consumerism fad would be unlikely to have much effect unless people actually ceased to buy. 'You can't expect manufacturers to see product proliferation as a mistake when it sells products,' says Phil Brown, editor of Electronic Product Review. 'If you sell it, and nobody uses it, you've still sold it haven't you?'
Images of starving Africans, chopped down rainforests, and oil-smeared seabirds have little sway over that sort of logic. What seems probable is that anti-consumerism will come to have a similar effect to the greening of the supermarkets. Manufacturers will add a new area of competition - to see who can sell more of the Back to Basics finger-free hairdryer; the cheese and butter sandwich; the hot flat-iron; the no-fuss- stick-it-on-the-cooker kettle; and just-like-granny's-sinks- like-a-stone potato peeler range - on top of all the rest.
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