Chapter 5: Marketing, Testing and the Production of Preferences

Chapter 5 of The Provoked Economy (“Testing consumer preferences”) takes the reader to a consumer testing venue, the same one that Anne-Sophie Trébuchet-Breitwiller got us into in “Becoming a measuring instrument: an ethnography of perfume consumer testing”. What happened there? What kinds of things were provoked? Consumer tests and other kinds of experimental market research technologies are instruments for the observation of the reality of consumer markets. But the reality they really observe is an artificially generated reality that rarely looks like the mundane vagaries of people wandering in the shopping mall. And, still, this reality works well as a realization of the consumer. As the chapter argues, this is a perfect illustration of the problem of the simulacrum. In that sense, the chapter starts with a reference to studies that have emphasized the performative features of one comparable, quire widespread technology for the elicitation of attitudes, preferences and opinions: the focus group, as depicted in “A market of opinions: the political epistemology of focus groups” by Javier Lezaun, and in “Convoking the consumer in person: the focus group effect” by Catherine Grandclément and Gérald Gaglio (also available here).

The chapter is about perfume. Olfactory tests are a key element in the organization of the competition between fragrances. Fragrance firms test their fragrances before submitting them to brands, which again test them:

“Fragrance forms do actually conduct testing campaigns to identify the fragrances that should be submitted to testing campaigns. Mass-market perfumes are entangled within these layers of tests, hence constituted through this mille-feuilles of simulacra.” (p. 84)

Rather than looking as this industry-wide entanglement, the chapter examines what exactly happens inside the testing venue. One central claim here is that in order for the test to function test participants need to engage with the active task of becoming measuring instruments:

What happens to participants inside the testing venue? What do they do? The easy answer is, they are consumers; they express their preferences, so they act as proxies for the real market and the test records that. An ethnographic examination of what actually happens inside the testing venue tends to blur that answer a little. Participants do act as surrogates for something else, indeed; but this acting is an active performance, and active alteration of oneself. Participants we talked to thought of themselves as acting ‘naturally’ (as the facilitator actually requested of them), but they also repeatedly employed the vocabulary of learning and performing – and of becoming. The test did not measure something inside of them, rather the test turned them into ‘measuring instruments’.” (p. 86)

The chapter does then something rather unusual: it allows the author to just delve into his own experience as an “experimental subject” in one perfume testing session. Are “consumer preferences” really a performative achievement that is prompted within an elicitation device? Is this really true when one is true to oneself in the account of the effects of being plunged in such a device? The answer given in the chapter is yes.

A number of conclusions are then drawn together in relation to the sociology of testing, a specialty whose lineaments were already sketched out in a number of notable contributions to science and technology studies — see in particular Trevor Pinch’s. Testing, as this literature shows, is about establishing relationships between something that happens in the testing venue and something else:

“Putting all of this in terms of translation is also a nice alternative, one that insists on the performative endeavour of the act of establishing relationships. This alternative has been investigated extensively throughout actor–network theory: reality does not travel well without material, generative operations of translation, and this applies to the claims that circulate within and outside the experimental site.” (p. 92)

The chapter pulls Michel Callon’s original idea of “operations of translation” in that direction:

“What happens inside the testing venue amounts to a series of problematic statements (e.g. ‘this fragrance records the highest hedonic performance’ or ‘participants can express their personal preferences quantitatively’) that undergo more or less felicitous operations of translation within the testing venue, but also externally in order to meet the terms of problematic statements that characterize other sites, outside the testing venue (e.g. ‘this perfume is a blockbuster’ or ‘men do not like dark, soft perfume’). These operations produce knowledge: to know things is to operate schemes of transformation on the ensembles that contain them. But they also require the formation of a welcoming reality: operations of translation amount to the creation of metric connections, the development of habits and the circulation of objects. When something is subject to testing, it is indeed a thing to which something happens in the testing laboratory; but it also translates something else, distant from the testing laboratory. The problem of the distance between the test and the tested is not to be solved through a faithful copy of the original, but through the proliferation of operations of translation that can be severely transformative.” (p. 93)