I wrote the following essay in 1988 when I served as Packaging Director for Steinberg Inc. in Montreal Canada. It was never published. Other than some minor grammatical corrections and updates , here it is again for your enjoyment.
– Frank DiMauro
It’s now 35 years since the publication of Alvin Toffler’s bestseller The Third Wave, an account of his theory defining the period we were entering at that time as well as what he believed lie ahead. According to Toffler, we were on the cusp of a third era or Wave in the history of civilization .
The first wave, claimed Toffler, was agrarian in nature, dominating the planet until roughly 300 years ago, when the second wave, which he defined as industrialism, began to gain momentum.
Finally, post-industrialism or the Third Wave, was crashing down on us and, Toffler contends, it is this clash between Second and Third Wave cultures which is at the root of many of today’s social, economic and political upheavals. By post-industrialism, Mr. Toffler was referring to the ubiquitous penetration of digital media and electronic media into our daily lives and their effect on the social psyche; to the all-at-onceness of electronic media versus the sequential order of printed media; to automated, robo-assisted assembly lines versus mechanically driven, labor-intensive manufacturing.
Upon reading this book back then, what struck me was his astuteness in forecasting, as far back as 1980, the spread of technological developments we take for granted today: personal computers, microwave ovens, micro-chip circuits, satellite dishes, VCR’s, portable audio devices, portable video devices, pay-TV networks, computerized banking, etc. Indeed, Mr. Toffler’s observations and forecasts went beyond the hardware, analyzing in-depth the effects and probable impact of this rapidly changing technology on society.
PACKAGING AND THE THIRD WAVE
On another level, the book made me reflect on the positions of the packaging and retailing industries vis-a-vis the Third Wave. Are these industries coping with the transition or are they liable to be rendered obsolete with the rest of the so-called Second Wave technologies, ideologies, and institutions.
“Once we think in terms of successive waves of interrelated change, of the collision of these waves, we grasp the essential fact of our generation – that industrialism is dying away – and we can begin searching along signs of change for what is truly new, what is no longer industrial. We can identify the Third Wave.”
Below is a sampling of the change Toffler was referencing:
- Shopping Patterns
- Working Hours
- Loyalty (to religion, brand, location, home, workplace, etc. )
- Communication Technology
- Family values
- Travel & leisure time
- Agriculture & Agro-Business
Values being questioned include:
- Definition of Success
- Work Ethic
- Sexual Mores / Stereotypes
to name a few…
Obviously, modern society is undergoing radical change at every level and it will affect or has affected each of us. Below is a partial list of what appear to be Second Wave and Third Wave practices. Perusing the list reveals a hint of the radical differences evident between Second and Third Wave cultures and why the transition is so disruptive.
· Single Use Packaging
· Conventional Oven
· Central Distribution
· Union membership
· Energy from fossil fuels
· Mechanical Assembly Line
· Labor Intensive
· Technical/Graphic Designers
· Large Formats
· Economy Size
· 250,000 Printing Minimum Run
· 60,000 Printing Minimum Run
· Transistor Radio
· Television Console
· Network Broadcast
· TV Guide
· Rabbit Ears
· Vinyl Records
· 3-Week Turnaround Time
· 24-Hour Turnaround Time
· Telex machine
· 9 to 5 workday
· Manual Typewriter
· Slide Rule
· Contains Hexachlorophene
· Microwave Oven
· Employee Owned/Managed
· Renewable Energy (Solar, Hydro, Geo-thermal, Wind etc.)
· Robotic Assembly Line
· Single Serve products
· Self- Serve
· Computer Assisted Manufacturing
· Print-on-demand or Desktop publishing
· Design by Personal Computer
· CAD (Computer assisted design)
· Micro Chip
· Digital music player
· Video Monitor
· Network Narrowcast
· Video Club
· Satellite Dish
· Compact Disk
· 24-Hour Turnaround Time
· 1 Hour Turnaround Time
· Flex Time
· Computer Mouse and mouse pad
· Word Processor
· Does not Contain… or “Substance free”
LIVING IN THE PAST
It’s much easier to function by rote. Change is rarely welcome. The adage goes: “Everyone wants progress, but few want change.” Change is not only here to stay, it’s accelerating. The rate of change will feel to some like travelling in a vehicle in which the accelerator pedal is continually pressed to the floor, and there’s no letting up.
When the rate of change becomes too stressful, human nature is given to nostalgia.
- Those were the good old days
- But we’ve always done it this way.
- Things aren’t what they used to
Quoting Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage:
“The past went that-a -way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend to always attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future. Suburbia lies imaginatively in Bonanza-land.”
No wonder the growing interest in high school reunions, college reunions, family reunions, 60’s/70’s/80’s music, as well as a slew of films related to nostalgia or being young again: (i.e. Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married, Eighteen Again, Dirty Dancing, Good Morning Vietnam, etc.) We are obsessed with the past because the future is so frightening, so unpredictable. However, predictability is relative to its environment.
For instance, it will take longer to swim a distance of one mile than to run one mile, (given that an individual is in adequate physical condition to accomplish either of these activities). A body of water (environment or medium) requires more energy to swim it than the same distance traversed on foot on dry land. One can therefore roughly predict the length of time needed to traverse a distance if the environment or medium is a given. Predictability is compromised when that environment is in constant flux. This is the situation society is in today. To alleviate the frustration of not knowing what to expect, many, especially marketers and politicians, turn to pollsters, focus groups, surveys, consultants, etc.
One of prime-time TV’s favorite game shows – Family Feud – has no right or wrong answers to the questions asked of participants. Answers are displayed on a screen according to what the studio audience votes as most likely to be correct. “Survey says…” intones the show’s original moderator, the late Richard Dawson. He may as well have said “OPEN SESAME…”
Modern society is coming to the same realization – there are no right or wrong answers – only the most likely alternatives. After all, isn’t intelligence defined by some as “…the ability to choose the best alternative?” But one has to understand what those alternatives and respective consequences are. The Third Wave’s information explosion is bombarding decision makers with an ever growing number of alternatives, with their possible consequences also growing exponentially.
SINK OR SWIM
Feel it rising in the cities
Feel it sweeping over land
Over borders over frontiers
Nothing will its power withstand
There is no deeper wave than this.
The “wave” pop singer Sting was referencing when he sang these lyrics had more to do with passion than packaging. Nevertheless, the wave which is washing over us all will be difficult to withstand. At the source of the wave is electrical or micro-electronic energy, propelling it forward at a dizzying rate.
On electric energy, again quoting Marshall McLuhan:
“Since electric energy is independent of the place or kind of work-operation, it creates patterns of decentralism and diversity in the work place.. This is a logic that appears plainly enough in the difference between firelight and electric light, for example. Persons grouped around a fire or candle for warmth or light are less likely to pursue independent thoughts or even tasks, than people supplied with electric light. In the same way, the social and educational patterns latent in automation are those of self-employment and artistic autonomy.”
He wrote this in 1964, over 50 years ago, in a sense paving the way for Alvin Toffler’s re-definition of the shape of things to come after 1980, the shape of the Third Wave.
Already this wave has made us aware of the expectations of today’s increasingly demanding and fidgety consumer. “Service and quality are what the people want…” we are told repeatedly, and at a competitive price. Local marketing, end-user niche marketing, market segmentation, locavore foodies, craft micro-breweries, regional advertising, manager’s specials, entrepreneurial know-how; these and other catch phrases are now part of our lexicon, reflecting a deep shift away from centralized control to decentralized autonomy and responsibility.
CUTTING THE UMBILICAL CORD
Wireless communication devices are the ultimate manifestation of the decentralization of Third Wave society. Once the domain of shortwave radio and CB radio enthusiasts , law enforcement officers and taxi drivers, wireless communication is now within everyone’s grasp, literally and figuratively. Cell phones are now common place and nowhere is this more evident than in developing countries.
Electronic freedom translates into increased mobility and, in turn, higher productivity. Musicians on stage can amplify their instruments and voices with wireless devices. In this case, creative freedom is maximized, liberating the performer to his or her fullest potential.
DECENTRALIZATION AND MARKET SEGMENTATION
The influence of the Third Wave on marketing is increasingly evident each year and the packaging industry is at the forefront of the impact. Market segmentation and its inherent differences in taste have prompted several leading firms to diversify their equity-rich product lines and/or images in order to appeal to a broader client base. Campbell’s soup and McDonald’s are 2 examples of the creative use of segmented marketing.
- Campbell’s recently launched a family of creamy soups demographically-tailored to specific markets and tastes.
- McDonald’s is renowned for its plethora of advertising messages, consisting of both national image building ads as well as ads addressed to specific market segments. Its ads cater to children, of course, but also teens, pre-teens, senior citizens, Hispanics, Blacks, etc; In Quebec, its “Big Mac Tonight!” jingle, loosely based on the classic “Mack the Knife” theme, was replaced in its French-language version, by a theme by well-known Quebecois singer Claude Leveille, whose music was deemed more accessible to French-speaking consumers.
Decentralization makes people more interested in what is relevant to them. Therefore the messages they will pay most attention to must be contextualized according to regional, albeit local realities. Segmentation/diversity go hand in hand with consistency in a Third Wave society. The key is finding the right mix.
TV OR NOT TV? IS THAT THE QUESTION?
The ubiquitous nature of digital media in modern society inevitably influences man; this observation is repeatedly confirmed by scholars, anthropologists and sociologists. The instant turn-on, instant gratification we enjoy from our video screen, for example, is a quality we transfer to and expect from other modern conveniences – credit cards and fast-food restaurants are just two examples. Lining up for anything, least of all to pay for goods at a checkout counter, is a practice well on its way to obsolescence as the Third Wave crashes down upon us.
Man’s evolving relationship with the elements of modern life have paralleled his relationship with packaging. Packages thought avant-garde or revolutionary in a Second Wave society become inappropriate as we entered the Third Wave. The TV dinner is a case in point. Introduced on a mass scale during the 1960’s, the TV dinner gained popularity as a convenient way to enjoy a balanced meal without the fuss of actually preparing one from scratch. Ironically, it reached its zenith with the introduction of the microwave oven, a tool intended to further facilitate meal preparation. Indeed, the TV dinner has experienced a steady decline in popularity ever since. A number of reasons were attributed to this, perhaps the misconception of the microwave ovens’ incompatibility with the aluminum tray.
With the increasing diversification of the marketplace, the mass produced TV dinner no longer met the highly segmented tastes of its client base. The TV dinner concept originated on Second Wave principles, mass produced product intended to appeal to one and all, ideally requiring a conventional oven for its preparation and packaged in a non –biodegradable or recyclable tray. Perhaps “Radio Dinner” would have been a more appropriate name.
Incidentally, the microwave oven served to distort rather than reinforce the TV dinner’s identification with television. A TV set’s similarity to a microwave oven is more than coincidental:
- Both appliances are available in various sizes and can be connected into any wall outlet, in just about any room.
- Both can emit and receive wavelengths.
- Both are available with programmable
- Both are fascinating to watch in action, particularly when newly acquired.
The TV dinner’s relationship to TV became compromised when the “TV-like” food package was found to be incompatible with the “TV-like” oven. The mass-produced TV-like product and its aluminum tray were rendered useless by the microwave oven, its identification to television no longer valid. In an effort to make the TV dinner microwave compatible – more media friendly, we might say – Swanson /Campbell’s swapped out its aluminum tray with a PET one.
MEDIA FRIENDLY PACKAGING
Today’s product and package must be media-friendly to be assured some success in the marketplace. The 3 types of media referred to are:
- Electronic media – television, PCs, microwave ovens
- Environmental media – Earth, Air, Water, Outer-space
- And of course Man, the end-user, the medium through which we ultimately communicate and share information.
Our relationship with electronic/ digital media has evolved enormously since the early days of the telegraph, the radio and even television. Rarely do we hear of someone smashing or throwing a shoe at radio/TV sets upon hearing/watching some emotionally charged event i.e. football game.
In Montreal during the 60’s, a favorite local TV character was Johnny Jelly Bean, a zany comic portrayed by comedian Ted Ziegler. His Lunchtime Little Theater, a half-hour program broadcast live daily at noon, was highlighted by his predictable listening to and hammering of a wooden «squawk box», a radio-like device dangling precipitously from the ceiling of his “secret” club house. His relationship with this medium, the radi, was passive yet violent, nevertheless eliciting howls of laughter from his young, raptured audience.
During Pee Wee’s Clubhouse Saturday morning show, we can see our host Pee Wee Herman carrying on this tradition, interacting with “Magic Screen,” a video monitor with arms and a visage that propels itself around the clubhouse on a pair of tiny wheels. Pee Wee’s relationship with the Magic Screen is friendly, collaborative, and definitely non-violent. Pee Wee and Magic Screen actually talk to, and learn from, each other. Information is shared via a highly developed feedback loop inherent to both user and machine. To label Pee Wee’s magic screen user-friendly is an understatement.
This is the kind of relationship Third Wave society is developing with all 3 media mentioned earlier: integrated, interactive, interdependent, asynchronous, holistic, closure-inducing…
HOLD IT! What does all this mean in practical terms?
Packaging can become user or media friendly through several means, namely:
1) Feedback device –
Whether packaging ideas, soap or services, it becomes media friendly when a feedback mechanism is incorporated into the product’s lifecycle. For example, frozen entrees are currently being tested with an indicator on the packaging that changes color when microwave energy has optimally heated the food. Another example is a tamper-evident seal which, when broken, clearly displays a warning that the package has been infiltrated. Every article in the American trade magazine Packaging is accompanied by a scoring chart allowing the reader to rate the article, from Outstanding to Below Average, on an enclosed self-addressed scorecard. This allows the reader and the publisher the potential to respond to each other’s needs on an ongoing basis. The April 1988 issue of Canadian Grocer magazine reported a new type of supermarket which recently opened in Kitchener, featuring Customer Response Cards and a Consumer Action Committee. The committee could, for example, recommend the store carry a new or different product or suggest a more convenient design for a store department.
2) Media sensitive –
Briefly put – know your user. Understand the market or markets your package is addressing. Nothing new here, you might say. But it goes deeper than simply doing marketing research. The ever-growing fusion of man with electronics will increasingly place new restraints on your marketing plan, restraints which when viewed with a Third Wave perspective, open up wide vistas of possibilities and opportunities. Ask yourself, for example, can the product or representation of· the product be marketed digitally? Can the representation be visualized, digitized and stored electronically? Can your product be assigned an audio identification? (i.e. POP, POP, FIZZ, FIZZ) an audio/visual identification? (ex.Where’s the beef?) and is this identity media friendly? Can the image be adapted to communicate, with as much impact on TV as on the supermarket shelf or in a newspaper ad?
Media sensitivity also refers to our highly precarious environment, our planet Earth. Ask yourself – is the package/product environmentally safe? – is it bio-degradable? recyclable? reusable? – can it serve a secondary (and tertiary) purpose, perhaps different from its primary function?
3) Man the medium-
Lastly, there is the end-user, Man, the Medium to end all media. How well do we understand, or are sensitive to, his needs? Is our end-user predominantly of Second Wave or Third Wave culture (and everything each implies)?- is our end user still operating within a First Wave culture? (now there’s a twist)
**to be continued….