We were cruising through a conversation the other day, nodding and humming and holding our own quite well, we thought, as a listener. Listening is our game. Then an unfamiliar word dropped into the conversation. Clunk. It was like a missed shift in the gearbox, and suddenly there we were, chug-chugging over to the curb, just about stalled out on chitchat.
The subject of the conversation was the changing profile of the American consumer. The unfamiliar word was ''psychographics.''
''Psychographics?'' we asked politely enough. ''Surely you mean demographics.''
Better we had kept on playing the Good Listener.
''Demographics!'' the talking half of our conversation snorted. ''That's yesterday's language.''
Our companion, who happened to be an advertising executive, went on to explain. It seems that all the while we had naively assumed a consumer's profile still followed the old demographics style (''Male, professional, between 25 and 38 years old, median income $37,000 ...''), a new wave of market researchers had been inventing a different method for classifying us customers.
Preparing to fall back into our listening pose, we asked, ''What is - or maybe are - psychographics?''
But our ex-companion, as he turned out, had had all he could stand of our ignorance. ''Read the latest issues of Fortune and The Atlantic,'' he instructed us, spinning imperiously on a Gucci heel. ''Read any Wall Street Journal,'' he shouted over his shoulder, shaking his head at what Some People don't know.
All Good Listeners take their assignments seriously - that's the sort of patsies Good Listeners are. We did our homework, and this is what we learned.
Your ''psychographics'' researchers, as the word suggests, divide consumers according to ''personality types.'' The personality type they are all excited about these days comes from the mainstream of the old counterculture - and if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, bear with us.
The ''new target'' consumer has been called a Yuppie - we are now deep in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, a source that defines Yuppies as ''people who listen to National Public Radio while jogging.'' Yuppies also canoe in the wilderness and buy $3,000 stereo systems for their cars, which presumably still sport old ''Hart for President'' bumper stickers. In automobiles, and elsewhere, Yuppies ''worship quality.'' Furthermore, they're ''socially responsible'' about it. This means that they satisfy their taste for hot engines by purchasing turbocharger models, virtuously achieving the desired surge without wasteful fuel consumption or undue pollution.
Fortune, on the other hand, broadly describes the ''new target'' consumer as the ''baby-boomers,'' including every American born between 1946 and 1962 - all 68 million of them. The ''baby-boomers'' want to travel first class, though not as first class as the 17 million Yuppies the Wall Street Journal estimates are tucked among them. Led by the children of the '60s, the ''baby-boomers'' must rebel, of course, against the suburban station wagons and frozen TV dinners favored by their parents. And so they buy minivans and frozen ''entrees'' with French words in their brand names and idyllic pictures on the carton, showing couples in formal wear lighting the candles on their elegant dining-room tables with a lot of bon appetit. The ''baby-boomers'' love formal wear, Fortune reports. Also, personal computers.
But these analyses are only hors d'oeuvres for the hungry ''new target'' salesmen out there compared with the full-course ''psychographics'' spread in The Atlantic. Here we meet the ''new target'' consumer under the rich name of the ''Inner-Directeds.'' The ''Inner-Directeds'' are said to number 30 percent of the young, a figure that will double, we are assured, by 1990.
The ''Inner-Directeds'' like diet sodas and foreign products and do yoga. They are ''value sensitive,'' and advertisers will do well to pitch their spiels with ''genuine warmth'' and ''emotional content.''
As self-defined individualists, the ''Inner-Directeds'' are seen to be pushovers for advertisers like Merrill Lynch who appeal to ''A Breed Apart'' or Dr Pepper, who recommends his beverage to people that ''Hold Out for the Out of the Ordinary.''
What a sad and cynical conclusion, that the backpack, earth-shoe crowd who began as vocal antimaterialists should be singled out as the ''new target'' consumer! Call your products ''natural'' and ''ecologically sound,'' and you can make ''The Big Chill'' folks buy their fool heads off. That appears to be the credo of the manipulators of ''psychographics,'' mostly veterans of the counterculture themselves.
Can we really be coming to this? Are there to be no conformists as obedient as these former nonconformists, trotting to the nearest shopping mall in their designer jeans to ''do their thing''?
We just don't believe it. Some child still left in those '60s children - the ones who demanded that America be more than a ''consumer society'' - must be starting up another chant about now to protest. A very old-fashioned ''No sale!'' ought to do nicely.