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The Ethnography of Chewing Gum Chewers?

Fast Company magazine, famous for its early coverage of corporate anthropology*, has a short piece this month (subscription may be required) on the research that went into Wrigley’s new gum ‘5’. The descriptions of the participant-observation research are fantastic:

The development of 5 came out of a management edict to make a splash among image-conscious teenagers and young adults (the most reliable gum consumers). The company sent 10 top scientists, engineers, and marketers to hang out with young people and figure out why they chew what they do. After tagging along on camping trips and club outings, they discovered that kids “don’t just want a functional gum that freshens breath,” says VP and global chief marketing officer Martin Schlatter. They also see a gum brand as an expression of who they are.

The probing questions of these gum scientists are also remarkable:

“What we’re performing are psych tests,” says sensory and consumer science director Michele Carrabotta. “How do young people chew gum? What emotions are evoked?” Early on, developers considered incorporating sound into 5’s packaging but were shot down by their young subjects. “They told us, in effect, ‘Don’t play in categories you don’t know,'” she says. “‘We have iPods for that.'”

And the results:

Engineers came up with a carton for 5 that slightly resembles a hip cigarette box: The top flips open to expose 15 sticks of gum in neat rows. The dark, sleek pack of gum, in short, masquerades as an accessory, aimed at demonstrating that the carrier chews gum that’s as stylish as she is. “When [consumers] take out their iPod,” Schlatter says, “we want them to feel like they can put their pack of 5 on the table next to it.” Ultimately, the most important innovation … might be the notion that Wrigley can produce a chewing gum whose appeal lies in its styling as much as in its chewing pleasure.

I just can’t shake the image of people in white lab coats hanging out in camp sites watching young people listen to their iPods and chew gum! (Maybe there’s an advertizing campaign in that.) My students couldn’t imagine this either — and they came up with the entirely reasonable suggestion that it is other young people who should be doing this research.

*See “Anthropologists Go Native in the Corporate Village” from October 1996.

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