In the spring of 1958, S.I. Hayakawa, a professor of semantics (and later a Republican U.S. senator from California), ascribed the Edsel's failure to the Ford executives' excessive confidence in the power of motivational research to enable them to predict -- and modify -- Americans' behavior. In their attempt to design a car that would cater to customers' sexual fantasies, status anxieties and the like, Ford's deep thinkers had neglected to supply good transportation.
"Only the psychotic and the gravely neurotic act out their irrationalities and their compensatory fantasies," Hayakawa wrote. "The trouble with selling symbolic gratification via such expensive items ... is the competition offered by much cheaper forms of symbolic gratification, such as 'Playboy' (fifty cents a copy), 'Astounding Science Fiction' (thirty-five cents a copy), and television (free)."
In 1958, with the Edsel already turned to ashes, John Kenneth Galbraith, with bad timing comparable to the launch of the Edsel, published "The Affluent Society." It asserted that manufacturers, wielding all-powerful advertising, were emancipated by the law of supply and demand because advertisers could manufacture demand for whatever manufacturers wished to supply.
This theory buttressed the liberal project of expanding government in the name of protecting incompetent Americans from victimization, and having government supplant the market as the allocator of wealth and opportunity. But all of Ford's then-mighty marketing prowess could not keep the Edsel from being canceled in 1959. Brooks calculated that it would have been cheaper for Ford to skip the Edsel and give away 110,000 Mercurys.
Today, the United Auto Workers union and General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are trying to reverse the slide of the American automobile industry. Fifty Septembers ago, the country was atingle with anticipation of a new product that turned out to be a leading indicator of the slide. As Detroit toils to undo some contractual provisions that have burdened the companies with crippling health care and pension costs, it should remember the real lesson of 1957: Americans are more discerning and less herdable than their cultured despisers suppose, so what matters most is simple. Good products.
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