From time to time, this column has brought news from the wilder shores of behavioural science. But not until now has it come up with a synthesis of two, apparently disparate, discoveries to create an original contribution of use to marketers everywhere.
More of that later. First the raw material from which our own thesis was fashioned. We start with a controversial theory that takes received opinion, empirical evidence and personal experience and turns each on its head.
An evolutionary psychologist at University College London, Geoffrey Miller, advances the extraordinary theory that men are natural shoppers. Forget all that nonsense about the natural male aversion to retailing. Discard the notion that most husbands, or partners of the male variety (this column’s antennae are ever tuned to modern mores and speech patterns), would rather have their toe nails pulled out with rusty pliers than accompany their spouses, or partner persons of the female variety, on a trip to Tesco. That’s all nonsense, says Miller. Men evolved the instinct to purchase in order to attract women.
Sports cars and other male status symbols, he argues, are the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail. “It started with body painting, ornaments and furs,” he says, adding that men took up the habit of decorating their bodies long before women.
So there you have it. Back in what the travelogues call the dawn of time, when man yodelled to his mate across the primeval swamp, the way to pull a bird, especially a fetching one, with her hair parted down her back and her nether jaw overlapping the upper, was to get across to the wodemonger and shell out, well, shells, for a bisonskinful of body paint. Splash it on a bit, add a necklace fashioned from a hyena’s body parts, complete the ensemble with a Sinatra hat wrought from a mastodon’s scrotum, and she was yours, bar the grunting.
To be fair to Miller, he concedes that because the male’s enthusiasm for shopping was part of the mating process, it lasted for only as long as the wooing itself. “Once the sexual relationship begins, the balance of power changes,” he explains. Showing off by spending is no longer important to the man. The woman, however, if she wants to keep her mate, must carry on “sending out those signals”, which could explain why women become the more enthusiastic shoppers.
Well, it’s a theory. An alternative, also from the dawn of time, suggests that man’s deeply rooted aversion to shopping goes back to ill-fated trips to the neighbourhood general store. The hunter-gatherer could trek for days across mosquito-infested bog to reach the trading cave, a fetid, unlit hole in the hillside. When at length he found the shop assistant, hidden behind a cobwebbed rock languorously painting her belly, and asked for one of those wossnames that you put on your head to attract members of the opposite wossname, she would idly pluck a flea from her ear hair and reply, without raising her head, that there was no call for them, but he could try Og’s Emporium, two alps and a swamp away.
The second piece of research was a combined effort by Ulrich MÃ¼ller, of the University of Marburg in Germany, and Allan Mazur, of the University of Syracuse in New York. Between them they discovered that tall men are more likely to divorce and remarry than short men. Moreover, tall men had more children than short men.
Studies of 322 men, who graduated from West Point military academy in 1950, showed that twice as many tall men as short men divorced and remarried. The reason, postulate the researchers, is that women find tall men attractive and choose them more often as mates and fathers. Short men might want to stray but had fewer opportunities, and so stayed put.
The conclusion is that women wanting a long and faithful marriage should wed a shorty. The same goes for female persons wanting an enduring, live-in relationship with a male person partner, who is a non-smoker and has a good sense of humour (see above).
Now the moment you have been waiting for, this column’s own theory, derived from the two outlined so far. It is that short men make bad shoppers, but stay faithful and married.
It is a little observed fact, because they are seldom seen in supermarkets, that short men have difficulty pushing trolleys. It is not that they lack the strength – after all, the weaker sex has no problem – but rather that the shorter man feels compelled to imitate the careless, insouciant swagger of the taller male, yet cannot carry it off without bumping into things. Rather than endure humiliation, the short man stays at home and remains faithful.
That is not all. Short men are unable to reach the top shelf in a newsagent. It being out of the question to ask for help – particularly from a young lady shop assistant and still less from an elderly female shopper – the short man buys a copy of Exchange & Mart, a packet of Polos and goes home to his wife, his mind clear of nubile alternatives.
The conclusion is that women wanting to rid themselves of a tiresome, short spouse should equip him with a false red beard and a pair of stepladders and send him off to the shops.