Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Little did ethnographic film pioneer Robert Flaherty suspect that his 1922 Nanook of the North, with scenes of Eskimos going about their everyday tasks, would emerge as the model of cutting-edge consumer research. But when a Cincinnati packaged-goods company is in pursuit of a bigger share of the Thai housewife’s wallet, research methods once used to plumb the strange customs of Amazonian tribes are just the thing.

To that end, Procter & Gamble recently unveiled a research project that plants cameras in 80 households in the U.K., Italy, Germany and China to record their daily habits at soporific length. It’s reality TV with all the good parts cut out.

Capturing consumers in situ like so many Nanooks is such a useful idea and the technology so long available one wonders why no one thought of this before. Of course, others have. Trained anthropologists have been infiltrating the ranks of market research for a decade, bringing their methods with them.

In numerous conferences, account planners have extolled the superiority of ethnographic techniques over the contrived focus group only to be stymied by clients content to commission a few and be done with it. Now that a behemoth like P&G—which is cultivating a second information-economy identity as a consumer-research company—has put its imprimatur on the method, ethnographic research’s moment has arrived.

Yet there is a residual creepiness in the idea of a corporation training cameras on consumers in their homes. Which is why P&G was careful to lard the public unveiling of the research project with many pious assurances regarding the research subjects’ privacy. Much was made of the rigor with which the privacy laws of each country were being obeyed and the privacy course all P&G execs with access to the Web site have to take. After all, in endless surveys consumers say they are extremely concerned about the issue of privacy. The fact P&G can engage in such a project without the public raising much more than a bemused eyebrow tells a different story.

Surveillance of every kind has become normalized, even expected. This year, we were surprised to learn the Super Bowl crowd was captured on camera one-by-one; next year, we will assume it. We’ve become a nation—make that a world—of watchers and watched.

When we’re not home watching real people under camera surveillance on prime-time TV, we are under the camera: in building lobbies and public parks, at ATMs and traffic intersections. In 1998, the NYC Surveillance Camera Project counted over 2,300 CCTVs in New York (today the number is easily double).

With crime down, only colorful cranks like the Surveillance Camera Players have bothered to complain. The U.K., with 1.5 million CCTVs on the watch, is already the most surveilled nation on earth. Earlier this spring, the British government, brandishing studies showing public approval, announced funding to boost the number to 2 million over the next three years.

We have not only acclimated ourselves to prying electronic eyes, we’ve embraced them. Drivers of cars with GPS systems happily trade the prospect of being followed for the security it provides. It’s only matter of time before GPS is standard equipment in American cars. Parents have begun installing a Web-linked transmitter designed for the trucking industry in the family car; that way they can know where and how fast Junior is driving every minute he’s at the wheel.

For the real story about the importance of privacy to consumers, look not to complaints about cookies on hard drives but to France. A few weeks ago, a band of hapless defenders of French civilization tried to “liberate” the camera-hunted “victims” of Loft Story, French TV’s version of that global scourge, Big Brother. It turned out, however, that nobody wanted to leave—much to the relief of the French viewing public, which, like viewers worldwide, are mesmerized by the spectacle.

Of course, it’s this very gap between what people say and how they behave that P&G’s research project is meant to address. You don’t have to be an ethnographer to see that if consumers don’t mind being unwittingly captured by camera systems using face-recognition technology, a little spying-with-permission on P&G’s part is not going to upset anyone.

Besides, it’s easy for market researchers, no matter how invasive, to convince consumers they care about their privacy—as long as consumers are so careless with it.