Mega-Corps and Micro-Soc

You've got to know how your product is used. Photo by FourTwentyTwo via
You’ve got to know how your product is used. Photo by FourTwentyTwo via

The era of bothersome consumer surveys and robo-calls may be coming to a close, as these shallow techniques of data collection just don’t cut it in the information age. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood describes a growing trend in market research: big business hiring social scientists to do fieldwork. Corporations have long researched the quantitative aspects of their sales, but qualitative knowledge about the use of the products has been somewhat limited. Social scientists and those business researchers known as “consumer behavior” (vs. “quantitative”) economists—long since part of the business discussions within academia—are now being hired to uncover how products are used, as well as who uses them and how those users feel about the products.

After realizing that they new little about the home consumption of their product, for instance, Absolut Vodka commissioned ReD, a forerunner in what we might think of as anthropological market research, to study the home party scene and the rituals and norms of drinking. One consultant on the project, former Yale anthropology Ph.D. student Min Lieskovsky, noted some party trends that Absolut quickly applied to their marketing:

‘One after another, you see the same thing,’ Lieskovsky told me. ‘Someone comes with a bottle. She gives it to the host, then the host puts it in the freezer and listens to the story of where the bottle came from, and why it’s important.’ And then, when the bottle is served, it goes right out onto the table with all the other booze, the premium spirits and the bottom-shelf hooch mixed together.’

The quality and status of the liquor seemed to be much less important to the consumer than their personal association with it. Despite years of market research, without this use of social science, the social significance and human connection of the product might have gone overlooked—and fewer bottles of Absolut might have gotten sold.

Desegregating the Toy Store

Catalog image via and

The moment they are born (and even before), children are shaped by gendered expectations: boys today are born into a world of blue and girls in pink. Boys are expected to go outside and be rough, playing war games and cops and robbers, where girls play house or tend to dolls. Even toy stores are segregated, with “girl aisles” strewn in pink and bursting with dolls, wholly separate from those for boys, which are stocked with weapons and action figures.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, however, describes a Swedish company working to eliminate such stereotypes. The Top-Toy Group has released its holiday toy catalog, and shoppers have found it breaks common gender expectations. The catalog features young boys playing house and giving make-overs, while ready for battle with their shiny toy guns.

Occidental College sociologist and Sociological Images’ co-founder Lisa Wade was interviewed by the article’s author, Anna Molin, to help explain the significance of Top-Toys’ gender neutral catalog. Wade points out that the company is doing a lot to challenge our concept of masculinity: “You may give tool toys to your daughter, [but] you don’t [usually] give the lipstick bag to your son.” That would deviate too far from society’s gender norms. Wade warns, however, that the catalog may be nothing more than a marketing stunt. As she puts it, “It’s a mistake to think that companies typically do this out of ethical belief. Most of the time they are doing it strategically.”

Whether it’s clever advertising or a real effort to change gender perceptions, Top-Toy’s lookbook is bringing a lot of attention to gendered play. Seeing girls aim their Nerf guns and boys “baking” cookies, parents might ask their tots what they really want, rather than reflexively heading for the pink or blue aisle.