Iain Murray: We don’t care whether it’s necessary. Can we sell it?

It’s a truism that necessity is the mother of invention, but the only necessity behind most inventions is that of marketers making a living, says Iain Murray

Invention is the mother of marketing. Why else can we now buy a Remington razor whose head moves sideways? There is not a man alive incapable of moving his hand from side to side as he shaves, and such motion as is required is so slight as to render nugatory the labour saved by the special feature of this new razor.

It was the same with submarines in cornflakes. These tiny bathyshards, which sank like a stone when primed with bicarbonate of soda, were not invented in response to a necessity, as the proverb would have us believe (search the annals if you must, but you will find no demand, either spontaneous or pressing, for minuscule submersibles in breakfast cereals), but for the sole purpose of keeping marketing folk in work.

The story is repeated throughout history. When John Kay invented the flying shuttle in 1733 it was not, as schoolchildren are told, with the aim of accelerating the weaving process. No, it was to provide the then-nascent marketing industry with something more to do. Until that date, such marketers as were about were confined to extolling generic products such as candles and straw and, as you can imagine, were hard put to scratch a living. But given Kay’s invention they were at once able to promote raiment with an added extra – science. Soon it was impossible to hold one’s head up in a tavern, ale house, or at a public hanging in breeches through which a shuttle had not flown.

The 19th century was rich in marketing aids. In 1810 Peter Durand invented the tin can; it was left to marketing people to find something to put in it. George Stephenson’s steam locomotive would have got nowhere had it not been for the genius of the marketers who persuaded the good people of Stockton that Darlington was worth visiting, something that would not otherwise have occurred to them. In 1823 Charles Mackintosh invented the Mackintosh; in the following year Joseph Aspdin patented Portland cement; but it took a leap of marketing imagination to bring the two together in the Dirty Mac, a creation which has since acquired a following so large it is often described as a brigade.

By the 20th century, marketing was attracting inventions like iron filings to a magnet. In 1901, King Camp Gillette invented the double-edged safety razor, a product which lent itself well enough to promotion but nevertheless left marketing visionaries wishing they lived in a more liberal age, when the inventor’s name could have been lent with devastating aptness to the pink satin posing pouch.

The first decade of the century saw the creation, in rapid succession, of teabags, cornflakes, plastic, cellophane and instant coffee, all of which were designed with no other purpose than to enable marketing to flourish. It was the same story in subsequent decades: bubble gum, the yo-yo, Scotch tape, frozen food (Clarence Birdseye was a name born in a marketing Elysium), canned beer, the photocopier (how did Chester F Carson, admiring his prototype in 1937, know that one day there would be an insatiable requirement for the rapid and easy production of images of one’s naked buttocks?), the Frisbee, the Hula Hoop, the Post-it note, the Dyson, all grist to the marketing mill.

But then came the 21st Century and with it a sense of doubt, of faltering self-belief among the marketing fraternity. Where had all the inventions gone?

As uncertainty dissolves into despair, however, along comes Paulo Rais, an engineer from Lugano, Switzerland, with a creation to make the dream-makers’ hearts leap. He has invented a motorised table and chairs, which keeps guests at dinner parties moving so that no one spends more than ten minutes sitting opposite anybody else.

The chairs travel around the table at a breakneck three inches a minute, giving diners enough time to strike up a conversation and not moving so fast as to make them sick. He calls his invention the Dynamic Meetings Table and believes it will revolutionise (no word play intended) dinner parties. Rais has thought of everything: there are two chains driven by electric motors so that, although the guests move, their food is not left behind; the chairs move slowly enough to allow diners to leave or rejoin the table; the table has a fixed central top for communal items such as salt and pepper.

He has not, however, thought of the possibility (all too common in reality) that everyone at the table is a bore, or at least talks like one. Can you imagine yourself, rather the better for wine, as you gently circle the table, occasionally lifting your head from your soup to see a different face saying the same things… “worst-case scenario”, “window of opportunity”, “quality time”, “big time”, “no way”, “cutting-edge”, “pear-shaped”, “level playing field”, “at the end of the day”, “pushing the envelope”, “don’t even go there”, “holistic pro-active situation”?

Unlike inventions of gentler times, such as the machine gun, the Dynamic Meetings Table is not a marketing gift but a marketing challenge. It will take exceptional skill and imagination to persuade a sceptical public, already wary of dinner parties due to an outbreak of kitchen anxiety syndrome, to accept the idea of a slow and tiresome progress to nowhere. Besides, that’s already been perfected by the privatised railways.

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