Spoilt for choice since prehistoric age

Consumers unable to cope with an excess of choice are said to be suffering from ‘product claustrophobia’.

Whenever advertising comes under attack, it defends itself by arguing that, among other things, it aids consumer choice. But now it is suggested that it doesn’t do that very well and, even if it did, it wouldn’t be a good thing.

According to a recent survey (how I wish I had &£1 for every time I have read or written those five words), an increasing number of shoppers are suffering from “product claustrophobia”, a stressful condition brought on by having too many competing brands to choose from. And, far from being helpful, ads only make the task of choosing harder. Researchers in one supermarket counted 83 different shampoos, 68 shower gels, 42 deodorants, 77 washing powders and 87 breakfast cereals.

Though the study was confined to supermarkets, we all know that an excess of choice extends to almost every aspect of our lives. Why, only last week it was announced that female visitors to this year’s Glastonbury Festival will be able to use special pink, women-only lavatories rather than the unisex portable facilities available in previous years. So now the lady reveller wishing to refresh herself and powder her tattoos will face a taxing choice between using a pink “she-pee” urinal, or abiding by tradition and mucking in with the men.

That dilemma, however, is nothing compared to the problem confronting festival-goers at this year’s T in the Park pop concert in Kinross, where the organisers have installed the world’s longest urinal, measuring 676ft from one end to the other. The choice here will be whom should one stand next to? This may seem unimportant yet, as Ronnie Corbett once pointed out, you do not want to be in the facility adjacent to Shakin’ Stevens.

But, and not for the first time, I digress. To return to product claustrophobia, we owe its discovery to chartered psychologist and biologist Dr Aric Sigman, the author of said research. We learn from his biography on the Web that he has an impressive client list. Moreover, “his academic background in research, statistical analysis and interpretation coupled with his extensive broadcasting and journalistic experience give him a combination of abilities for planning and developing public relations, advertising and marketing communications”.

Strange that among these many accomplishments he fails to mention the most impressive, namely that he is not merely a right clever dick, he is also a virtuoso of the sound bite. Thus he sums up this latest research: “humans now have to make more decisions in a single day than a caveman did in a lifetime”.

Now, is that a telling phrase, or what? I believe, however, that, for all its snappiness, it is wrong.

Cavemen were confronted by choice every day and in ways far more challenging and stressful than picking out a shampoo. For example, pursued by a woolly mammoth, its hot breath fanning his neck, the caveman had to decide whether a) to keep running, b) to stand and fight, c) to drop to the ground and feign death or d) give up and put it all down to the mystery of creation.

Nor should we imagine that the process of hunting and gathering was simple. Come the morning, the caveman awakes, rubs his eyes, casts a fond glance at the still slumbering form of his hideous mate, and confronts the first big decision of the day: should he go hunting or gathering? Having worked that one out, what should he hunt – squirrels or buffalo (depending on how many mouths there are to feed), or what should he gather – berries or nuts, or, if neighbours are coming to tea, truffles?

Nor does it end there. How should he start a fire? Rub two sticks together, try the newly discovered invention of striking flints against each other, or sit and wait for 70,000 years for the safety match to be invented?

And, speaking of new technology, suppose our caveman decides to do something really big, such as inventing the wheel – can you imagine the problems he faces? Should it be square, which has the advantage of greatly enhanced stability and integral anti-thief protection, or should he choose some other, more daring configuration, such as the rhomboid?

As for interior design, should he go for some modern wall paintings of bison, then all the rage in southern France, or try the new minimalist style which favours just two or three fleas per mangy dog sleeping in the corner, and an artfully restrained number of half-gnawed drumsticks dotted about the place in ironic, premodern random?

And should his thoughts lightly turn to love and dalliance, what a choice confronts him! Female cave persons came in all shapes and sizes, some with hair all over, some with all their teeth, some bow-legged, some that walked in beauty like a night of cloudless climes and starlit skies, and others that didn’t. Which to favour with the courtship blow behind the ear with the hippo femur? Not easy, you will agree.

Even so, for all the bewildering choice that daily assailed the caveman as civilisation dawned around him, he was spared the multiple-choice questions of the market researcher. Had that not been the case, homo sapiens would have given up the unequal struggle and preferred extinction.

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