In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about how Hush Puppies became must-have footwear in the ’90s, and attributed it to the decisions of influential “mavens” and “connectors” whose involvement helped make Hush Puppies a fashion trend.
But, what if the reverse were true? What if there are people out there who have the opposite effect — whose tastes are so perverse, and whose decision-making is so out of line with the mainstream, that their decision to purchase a product almost guarantees that the product will crash and burn?
Researchers now think they have inadvertently found that such people exist. As the New York Times reports, the identification of these Typhoid Marys of consumerism came out of patterns shown by six years of purchases by loyalty card customers at a national convenience store chain. When analysts looked at the data, they found that about 25 percent of the people whose purchases were logged had a special affinity for buying products that ultimately turned out to be duds. And if those particular consumers bought a product more than once, the product’s chances of success grew even smaller. One of the researchers calls these people “harbingers of failure,” but that doesn’t seem strong enough to me: these are harbingers of doom, so powerful in their wrong-headed buying decisions that their simple attraction for a product heralds its demise.
What’s more, when researchers started looking at this phenomenon more closely, they found that these harbingers of doom tend to cluster together, and that there are entire zip codes that can reliably be expected to reveal ill-advised products through their purchases. The data also shows that harbingers who move also tend to move to other harbinger zip codes — where the property values tend to be lower, incidentally, than in neighboring zip codes. What’s more, the data indicated that the harbinger of doom effect isn’t limited to consumer products. When researchers tied the harbinger zip codes to political contributions, they also determined that the harbingers prefer to make campaign donations to failed congressional candidates.
And here’s the thing: I think I might be one of these Grim Reaper consumers. As a kid, I loved Quisp and Quake cereal, which were promptly pulled from the market. In the early ’80s, when confronted with a choice between a VHS and a Beta video player, I listened to the salesman’s explanation and bought the Beta — just before the Beta product failed, they stopped producing Beta versions of videos, and I was forced to go out and buy a VHS machine. I regularly like TV shows that are abruptly and mysteriously cancelled mid-stream, like Deadwood or The Borgias.
I’m a Harbinger of Doom, and I didn’t even know it!