The Wiki Man

How consumer habits are subject to the law of unintended consequences

The rise of the box-set binge and the decline of the weekly shop

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

Some time in the 1960s, a group of people in an advertising agency (among them Llewelyn Thomas, son of Dylan) found themselves debating the direction of causation in the purchase of electric drills. Their dispute revolved around one question: do men a) conceive a need for making a hole and therefore go and buy a drill or b) buy an electric drill in a shop because it looks cool and then wander around the house desperately looking for any excuse to make holes in things.

(One joy of working in advertising is that you get paid to have the kind of conversations when sober which other people are only allowed to have when drunk or stoned.)

Yet the question is not quite as silly as it sounds: your approach to selling drills would differ depending on which of these two theories is true. (I definitely lean towards the latter, Freudian explanation of drill purchase over the rationalist assumptions of the Chicago school.)

You could hold a similar debate about the recent problems of Tesco. Which way does the causation run? Do people do big weekly shops because they want to, or because that’s what you do when shops happen to be big?

The conventional explanation for the decline of Tesco (beloved of accountants, city analysts and other members of the economic autisto-cracy) holds that cheap shops such as Lidl and Aldi undercut Tesco’s prices and so people deserted Tesco to save money (yawn). A more interesting explanation takes a complex view of human behaviour. Since Tesco and every other grocery retailer expanded into lots of smaller locations, people found themselves surrounded by shops and started shopping in smaller batches. When you shop more frequently, your behaviour diversifies: instead of going to one mid-market megastore for a balance of price and quality, you vary your repertoire. A spot of bargain-hunting at Lidl; a posh treat at M&S; the odd farmers’ market. Mid–market dominance is less valuable when people spend £25 at a time than when they spend £120.

This approach acknowledges that people do not have fixed preferences: context matters. Hence when distribution changes, people’s tastes and behaviours change accordingly.

One area where the same pattern is being played out is in the film and TV industries. New ways of watching films and television have created a shift in tastes. The highest-octane form of entertainment is no longer the Hollywood blockbuster but the box-set binge. Six episodes of Game of Thrones back to back makes a trip to the cinema seem comparatively underwhelming; like reading a Jeffrey Archer short story after Buddenbrooks. Films now sit in that awkward middle ground between YouTube cat videos on the one hand and epic 24-hour masterworks on the other.

The television industry (in its widest sense) is now engaged in a magnificent creative battle to produce complex works that are sufficiently intellectually rewarding to warrant an extraordinarily large investment in a viewer’s time. Hollywood, by contrast, has a business model which demands the kind of film that induces 11 million vapid teenagers from Topeka to Taipei to patronise an overpriced popcorn stand with a cinema attached.

Victorian classicists assumed that the works of Homer were too long to have been performed at one sitting. Given what we now know about our propensity to absorb a whole series of Breaking Bad in a sitting, does this still hold? Or was The Iliad performed in a massive binge? ‘Right, lads, Books 1–24, right through… Mate, pause it before the catalogue of ships, can you? Herodion needs a piss and Pythagoras needs to get the pizzas in.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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