The Untargeted

Once upon a time I was a regular person. No focus groups studied the food I ate, the clothes I wore or the entertainment I enjoyed. No marketers analyzed my every move. No surveys tracked my spending. No telemarketers called.

I was a kid. And I was left—blessedly—alone.

Marketing was more primitive during my childhood. It wasn’t the kind of calculated, strategically driven effort children are bombarded with today. I grew up in a household with one TV and programming that was as targeted as buckshot. But this limited, eclectic brew gave me a lot.

The hodgepodge of entertainment on The Ed Sullivan Show exposed me to high and low art. Before Ed introduced the latest British pop stars, I had to sit through everything from Borscht Belt comics to prima ballerinas to the plate spinners of the Moscow State Circus—entertainment that was often well outside my area of interest. And it served me well. You’d be surprised how valuable a passing knowledge of Henny Youngman can be when you meet your Jewish boyfriend’s parents.

Even better, this untargeted, nonstrategic lineup of talent gave me a richer understanding of my own family. My mother’s demand for silence meant Frank Sinatra was about to perform. My sister’s uncontrollable laughter meant a pie was flying into someone’s face. All of us groaning in unison meant here comes that stupid puppet, Topo Gigio. These expressions were another layer of the intimacy that is experienced only in a family.

My nondemographic childhood taught me a lot about handling competition, too. In the car, we had no portable CD players, no Game Boys, no laptops—just radio. If my step father was behind the wheel, that meant 1940s big-band music. Where did all my whining get me? Nowhere.

Sometimes you get what you want, sometimes you don’t. Learning to handle minor disappointments is important to emotional development. But in the age of targeted marketing, this lesson is often lost.

I think about the first time I went to Europe back when the world was just a world and not a global marketplace. Nothing was familiar. Everything was a surprise. And navigating my way through this exotic landscape tested my patience, tolerance, determination and resilience. You can learn a lot when there’s no Gap to turn to.

That is what life was like before I became a demographic.

The world is different now. Pollsters, bar codes, focus groups, cookies and telemarketers scrutinize my life so that information, entertainment, products and services can be funneled into my demographic silo. Companies customize and deliver exactly what’s right for me and what’s profitable for them.

In business, it makes good sense. In life, it’s another story.

Life in a demographic silo can be lonely. If all I experience is a reflection of my demographic, how broad can my palate be?

But marketing is here to stay. I guess I should adjust. Still, it’s hard to shake my hunger for the unexpected, the unexplainable, the un quan tifiable. So I’m figuring out ways to escape my silo. I want a wider view.