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TODAY

Wednesday, July 17

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Airbags

A few years ago I signed up to do some market research. It seemed like an easy, if infrequent, way to make some extra cash, as indeed it has turned out to be. The term "homemaker" isn't one that easily rolls off my tongue when asked to describe what I do, but in reality, and on paper, it's a fact. I don't work, aside from the occasional part-time job. We made the choice to live on one income so I could stay home with the kids. That equals homemaker to anyone who needs to put a label on it; anything else you might do with your time is merely a hobby. Major food companies are hot for housewives so I get the occasional call to take part in marketing surveys. The calls don't always pan out. Sometimes I can't manage to negotiate my way through the questions without ramming into one of the brick walls set up along the way in order to weed out the undesirables. The phone call usually goes something like this.

"Hi Lori, Marjorie Cramer. You have two boys, are they under 10?"

"Uh, hi Marjorie (who I haven't spoken to in a year) yes, they are 4 and 8, and I have a daughter who is 12."

"Do you use ______ (insert random food item here, salty chips, diet soda, vegetable oil, milk)?"

(Here I try to be noncommittal, which is, I've discovered over the years, exactly what Marjorie wants, because the next question will generally lead me in the right direction. I don't know if Marjorie's calls are recorded, but I suspect they are.

"Oh, sometimes..."

"So, you aren't a regular user of _____? Meaning, if you don't express enthusiasm for this item, this conversations is over. Or, in the case of soy or organics, if you express too much enthusiasm, then you won't qualify because clearly you don't buy junk food. I'm careful to hold my cards at this point in the call.

"Oh, yes, I use ____ often!"

"Would you say that you use _____ daily, three or more times a week, monthly, or rarely?"

Here is where I start to chat, without actually saying anything. "Oh, I don't know, sometimes I really like to use _______ a lot, like maybe six times a month, more or less!"

...And we're off. Once Marjorie has established that I am at least familiar with whatever type of product she's finding "consumers" for, she'll lead me past the hurdles and eventually to the finish line, which is a gig downtown, seated around a table with other consumers getting our brains picked while being observed from behind a two-way mirror. The rooms are wired for sound, probably videotaped, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to find out that the chairs record our blood oxygen levels and brain activity. I know that this particular firm offers their clients the ability to watch the interview sessions live, over the Internet. Reminds you of another successful Internet business, doesn't it?

This one paid better than average, though it was longer than most. Usually they last about two hours, this one stretched from 9am past 1:30, with no break. The kicker was that there was a homework assignment. Marj had been specifically charged with finding some creative types (but not too creative!) so I was asked a lot of questions about my hobbies and creative outlets. Once we established my extreme, but not too extreme, creativity, and after it was determined that we are a family of milk swilling, yogurt eating fiends, I was in.

The homework was to make a collage. You know, the kind where you cut stuff out of magazines and glue them onto a piece of cardboard in an artistic, meaningful fashion. Like you may have done in 6th grade for a book report on Across Five Aprils. Marjorie read me a statement about "an exciting new product, a blended milk product, not a yogurt or a pudding, made with low fat milk, in a variety of flavors — plain, vanilla and strawberry." There was more to the statement, but I'm sorry to say that I sort of fixated on the statement "not a yogurt and not a pudding" and tuned out the rest. Would I like to make a collage about my feelings on this exciting new product, show up at the appointed time to get my head examined and walk out with $350? You bet I would!

My kids were curious about the collage project. I too was curious about the collage, though not curious enough to get started on it. How did I feel about the exciting product that was neither yogurt nor pudding? I was pretty excited about the $350; I thought about putting dollar signs all over the collage, with a bunch of question marks. We had the idea of mixing up a gelatinous milk and flour goo, encasing it in plastic and affixing that to the cardboard. I thought about bringing in a bowl of oobleck and letting my co-consumers play with it. I had all kinds of great ideas, but in the end I put it off until the night before. I paged through a stack of old magazines to find some key phrases that would describe my true feelings about this exciting product.

What it boiled down to was exactly what one would expect. I cut out a bunch of pictures of people of all ages and races, all of them in the picture of health; this product would certainly benefit all walks of life, if in fact it did turn out to be so nutritious that it was going to cause millions of yogurt eaters to jump ship. I put on phrases like "on the go!" and "too busy to cook." I took apart a bottle of soy protein smoothy (42 grams of protein per bottle, I doubt that the exciting new product would be able to top that) and put the deconstructed label onto my collage. Thinking about other handy snacks that I shove in my kids' hands, I glued down a cheese stick wrapper and an empty box of raisins. It was lacking something. Glitter. Nothing says "this is a bullshit project" like glitter. I dug out the giant tube of holographic glitter that I once used to re-glitter my daughter's sparkly mary-janes and liberally shook it all over my collage. There. It was three dimensional. It was sparkly, and it had "100% Organic" right in the center. Perfect. My friend (and Majorie Cramer stable-mate) assured me, sight unseen, that my collage would be the best one there.

The day of the survey dawned. I had stayed up too late trying to finish a novel I was reading. When I am in the middle of a good book I tend to be distracted and a less than stellar parent. Best to get them out of the way as quickly as possible; I'm willing to sacrifice a night's sleep in order to get the job done. No surprise, I overslept. I needed to get down to Michigan and Delaware by 9, and I had 45 minutes to do so. I live about as far west of the Hancock building as you can get and still be in city limits; there is no rapid transit or expressway near my house, it was going to be a long slog across town. I didn't grab any breakfast, figuring that the research firm would be setting out some snacks. One gig I had a few years ago had an entire buffet of food — veggies, nachos, cookies, sandwiches, tea, coffee, you name it. Everyone was eating like pigs and talking about chips. Surely this would be similar, or at the very least there would be some danish laying around. At 8:50 I hit traffic on Ohio and gave it up to fate. I had to zen the moment and hope for the best, no point stressing about it. The best, actually, would be getting there and sitting in the lobby and having the research team member call everyone's name except mine and one other person's. When that happens you get to collect your cash and leave right away, no four hour interrogation, just the commute there and back and an envelope filled with cash for your trouble. And, in this case, a collage.

That was not to be my fate on this day, however. I entered the reception area of the research firm at 9:05, hoping to see a crowd still milling about and a scrumptious plate of danish. The crowd was still gathering, I wasn't late, but there was only a bowl of hard candy and pot of coffee. Yum. It was going to be a long morning. I hoped that at least the exciting product wouldn't taste like paste. I sat down and started leafing through a copy of Vogue, eager to read all about one of the Jennifers. Not Aniston. The reception area was blandly corporate, with all of the furniture facing oddly away from each other. They don't want to encourage chumminess on the part of the consumers, as then they'll have people cracking jokes, giving each other the eyeball, and teams forming up.

"Hi, aren't you Lori?", I heard a woman ask. She looked familiar. "I'm Kai! We met last weekend at the homeschooling conference!"

I remembered Kai; she was definitely going to spice up the action in the conference room. She taught a seminar about holistic health and nutrition for children at a conference I had just attended. She must have lied through her teeth to get into this focus group; I couldn't imagine she was going to lie once we got in there. Things were looking up.

Names were called, the lucky unchosen duo tried not to smirk as the rest of us, carrying our collages, were ushered out of reception and into the maze that would eventually lead to the conference room. I left a trail of glitter behind me. As we approached the end of a corridor there was the sound of a roomful of people laughing. Our leader strode ahead and quickly closed an opened door and ushered us into a conference room. There we met Cindy. Cindy was the good cop. She was pleasant, and sympathetic. Stylish, I guess, with a pair of sunglasses stuck into her leopard print scarf, she was casual, carefree. She was on our side. She started to explain how it was going to go down. She would be joined by her partner Tracie at some point. Tracie would be asking for clarification of our thoughts. We were going to be getting creative today, really using both sides of our brains. The door to the conference room opened and a woman stomped in wearing, and I'm not making this up, a black leather, double breasted vest. No, not a vest. A vest with sleeves, sweatery sleeves. She was pissed. "There is no sound back there at all, we can't hear anything." She didn't look at us, her rage was directed only at Cindy. A meek office drone came in, practically genuflecting and frantically tried to get the sound going. The decision was made to switch conference rooms.

Interesting. Usually there is no reference made to the people behind the mirror, or the recording equipment, and now we were being shown the inner workings, and a bitchy meltdown to boot. Perhaps I've seen one too many corporate conspiracy movies, but I have always felt that every thing I do once I set foot in the door is being scrutinized, from the chair I select in the waiting room, to the magazine I pick up. I wondered if this was all part of the plot, to monitor our flexibility, see how well we handled being unsettled. Or was this little vignette meant merely to establish character? Tracie: Top dog, don't f@*k with. Check. Cindy, nice. She cares about us. Check. I gave my team mate Kai the eyeball. What's the point of being on a team if you don't get to play together?

Once settled in the new room, we went around and got to know one another, with instructions to talk about the snacking habits of our families. The rest of the consumers were a likely, and mostly likeable lot. All of us were mothers, all had children between 4 and 10. All of us preferred healthy snacks for our kids, though the definition of healthy turned out to be a broad one, including such things as Trix Yogurt. We seemed to be a perfect mixture of personality types. Cindy was there to make sure that no one talked too much or too little. She announced that she had ordered us the two plates of food sitting in the middle of the table, a plate of fruit and a plate of veggies. No one moved to touch either of them. We were told that we could leave at any time to use the bathroom. Cindy wanted us to feel comfortable. Tracie barged in with another display of her excellent people skills to announce that the getting to know you period was dragging. We needed to wrap it up and move on with our collages.

My collage wasn't the best one there, at least not to Tracie, she had my number and wasn't interested. She didn't want to hear my thoughts on packaging that was completely recyclable if not biodegradable. She didn't care about my three dimensional representation of the convenient, wholesome, snack foods that my family enjoys. She much preferred the collages from the people who were less art school, more naive. She really liked Katie's collage. Katie was the type that would be fun to go to have at a family party, quick witted and funny, but without an edge. She didn't have an eye for placement, she shot from the hip with her picture of a rollercoaster, and some other random images that Tracie really keyed in on. Katie was the golden girl in the group. She knew what to say, and how to say it without being a butt kisser like the woman next to me, who couldn't stop talking about how much fun her family has on their "weekend excursions," and all of the healthy snacks they eat, including "the puddings." Before long Tracie grew tired of our collages and stopped us halfway around the circle, ready to move on to the next activity. Cindy, our friend, allowed a cursory showing of the last of the collages.

Kai's collage was a hammer in the machine. Her collage was the best one, covered with question marks (what was this exciting product? How can you do better than yogurt? What was it going to be made from?). In the center she had placed a picture of a woman climbing a staircase in a high rise building, with doors leading off in different directions, one door led to images and words relating to health and well being, another door led to the opposite ideas, unhealthy food and environmental issues. Tracie hated it, and clearly was not enjoying the artistic genius of the fringe team. I was really liking my team.

Despite feeling that there was something going on with those plates of food, I couldn't take it anymore, and reached over and grabbed a strawberry. That broke the spell, and soon everyone at my end of the table was eating the fruit. The vegetables remained untouched. I wondered if where you chose to sit at the table meant something, as I clearly sat by the fruit, but the fruit was at the far end of the table, away from the mirrored wall, and farthest from Tracie and Cindy. I decided I didn't care and fixed myself a plate. I was starving. Analyze this data: middle aged woman eats pineapple.

The following hours were spent reading and critiquing endless pages of statements about the exciting product, which sadly I did not bring home with me. My kids would have loved to read through all of it and analyze the material for themselves. Unfortunately my brain jettisoned most of it before I got to the parking garage. The first set was our attitudes (We are a busy family who need snacks that provide fuel for our bodies, not just empty calories), the second set was all about the benefits of the product (made from lowfat milk, it contains half the sugar and all of the nutrients in yogurt), the third were statements about the product (that I can't for the life of me recall), the fourth was a list of possible names (CalciYum! Creameries, YoMilk). (Which I thought would be better as Yo! Milk!) After we went through all of this, we had to go back and create our own "stories" using statements from each group. I guess that was the right brain activity. While all of this was going on, Tracie pulled the vegetables over and proceeded to eat the entire plate, except for the green pepper. Crunch, crunch, crunch, down the hatch. What did that mean? Rudeness? Could it be as simple as that?

While Tracie enjoyed her meal, there was a lot of discussion about milk, and pro-biotics, and acceptable amounts of sugar. A few of us at the table couldn't help but express the obvious: Why not just eat yogurt? Doesn't the multinational conglomerate have yogurt somewhere in its holdings? After a quick googling, I discovered that there is no yogurt being produced under the brand name, but I don't understand why they need to reinvent the wheel, can't they just buy out some yogurt company and call it a day? Or make their own brand of yogurt? After all, you just need a jar, some milk, a little plain yogurt and a warm spot — it's not rocket science. But then, again, there are probably a lot of people out there who don't like the taste of yogurt (my Dad being one of them) who might prefer to eat something that tastes a bit more like pudding. And yet, not.

I can tell you this about people who don't eat yogurt — they are perfectly content to go on living their yogurt-free lives. So it isn't the adult yogurt haters they are going for, it's the panicky, busy moms whose kids prefer to eat junk. It's going to be marketed as a snack for the mom as well, because we all know that moms end up eating what their kids do, or don't, even if it's the leftover crust of sandwich and the last three bites of egg. It's clear that mothers in a certain income bracket have spoken and want tasty packaged snacks that don't have preservatives, artificial colors, high fructose corn syrup or any other unhealthy additives in them. They want snacks that will give their kids a real dose of nutrition, because no one has time to peel a carrot or dump some granola into some yogurt. Granted, that's a complicated process, and leaves a dirty dish behind as well. Busy mom's don't have time for dirty dishes, or pouring and mixing two separate items. We want a bar, or a tube! A bar you say? Well, guess what popular shape the not yogurt/not pudding is going to be compressed into? Rectangles! Refrigerated rectangles that taste like candy. At the end of our long battle with ad-speak, rude behavior and covert observation, we got to the holy grail: tasting.

It came in two consistencies, thick custardy and thin yogurty, and two colors/flavors. White and beige, vanilla and strawberry. It wasn't terrible — for a weird, whipped milk substance that wasn't yogurt or pudding. I appreciated that the strawberry was beige, because only fake strawberry is bright pink. The fringe team advised adding a little beet juice to get kids to eat it, an outlandish notion, judging by the reactions from around the table. Again though, what's the point? Why not just eat some yogurt? The bars weren't bad. It was like eating the food of the future, some kind of compressed protein cake, with dried fruit and nuts mixed it. I was starving, and more than happy to eat two different kinds of bar and all of my containers of goo. When we are all living in terrariums on the moon, we'll be happy if our compressed food nuggets taste half as good.

When my daughter was in kindergarten, one of her classmates came to school every morning with a big box of Nerds that her sister gave her for breakfast. Would this product benefit this family? Not likely. If a parent can't get it together enough to throw together a peanut butter sandwich or a piece of cheese and an apple, I'm pretty sure they don't care so much about grams of protein or probiotics. I don't know that there will ever be a marketing campaign successful enough to attract this segment of the population. Hello educated mothers! You are about to be swept off your feet by something that is not yogurt and not pudding, something so exciting that you will march in droves to the refrigerated section of your local supermarket to purchase it in all of its shapes and varieties. You will feed your children these items, your children will flourish. Let's all stand and stretch and walk like zombies.

I don't really believe that there is a vast conspiracy out there, studying the behavior patterns of women and fruit and vegetable trays, but I do feel like I took part in something I don't agree with. On the one hand it is good that companies are wanting to make better foods for people — fewer preservatives, fewer artificial ingredients. I'm glad I got my comment in about recyclable packaging. There was a lot more I could have said, but didn't. I'm not a very brave activist, too self-conscious, and I did take the money. I am complicit. What I wanted to say, and have acknowledged by Tracie as the representative of the entire industry, is that simple, nutritious snacks are already available, if you are willing to go to the effort of spreading some peanut butter on a slice of whole grain bread, washing an apple, or cracking some pistachios. What everyone really needs is more free time, but you can't market that.

There was no mention of money made by Cindy or Tracie. It was unspoken, we all knew why we are there. After we were dismissed we filed to the reception desk and were handed our envelopes filled with fifty dollar bills. I flew home, feeling like I had just eaten a box of dexatrim, wondering what exactly was in that stuff I had just inhaled. I walked inside and headed immediately for the shower. I felt like I'd just done something sordid, and possibly illegal. In the following days, I spend the money as quickly as possible: thrifting, good food for our animals, Easter treats from the Korean store, tickets to hear Adele Faber speak, the makings for several foam swords, lightbulbs, flowers. I couldn't get rid of it fast enough. I blew it, and it's like it was never there at all. Like spirit money, it might as well have burst into flames.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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