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Hard to Swallow

I have tasted the future…and it's green apple.

Session two of Project Igloo is scheduled to begin any minute. My designated driver and I push through the wide glass doors of the Courtyard by Marriott in Superior at exactly 7:30 p.m. Although it could be from the chlorine wafting in from the hotel pool, we can already feel the throat-scratching thirst in the air.

The purveyors of public opinion wait in the lobby like housecats, with long, disinterested faces and glances that drift from side to side. The guys look like me: T-shirts, creative facial hair, cell phones, a tattoo or three. The girls wear sandals, toe rings, midriffs, highlights and suggestions of lip gloss; they all carry overflowing handbags. We are the jaded young consumers of Denver, all standing atop mountains of past purchases, teetering at the precipice of bad credit ratings. We've been recruited here not for our superior sense of style or sophisticated intelligence, but because our tastes are statistically similar to those of young buyers everywhere else.

In the great echo chamber of popular taste, the factory of cool where trends and brand identity are manufactured, all the noise -- the particular pitch, tone and volume -- begins here, in a turnpike hotel off Highway 36.

Natalie, a young woman with long brown hair and pink stretch pants, stands with her hands on her hips, chatting with a group of friends. Periodically, one of them turns and looks down the long hallway, to see if they can catch the eye of a ponytailed researcher who might permit them expedient entrance into the conference room, like some headset-wearing doorman at an uber-hip nightspot. Natalie works retail at Wilson's Leather at nearby FlatIron Crossing. She was pulling a shift not too long ago when some lady came up and asked how old she was.

"I was like, 'Excuse me?'" Natalie recalls, boggling her head for emphasis. "Who wants to know?"

The woman explained that she was with Cunningham Field & Research Services, and they were recruiting 21- to 29-year-olds to sample different types of alcoholic drinks for a marketing study. They would pay respondents for their troubles: thirty bucks for the drinker, ten bucks for the driver. Natalie quickly recruited a gaggle of friends to take advantage of this stunning opportunity. My designated driver and I stand behind them in line as the subjects of a just-completed session filter down the hallway with distant, smirking eyes.

"How was it?" I ask a young fellow in a red hooded sweatshirt. He looks at me like I've just asked him to describe what the rocks on Mars taste like.

"Uhhh," he says, and passes without answer.

Two weeks earlier, I'd spotted a plain white flier with the words "Alcohol Study" taped to a storefront at FlatIrons. When I went inside to investigate, I was informed by a fellow at the desk that while he couldn't reveal the specific inebriant that Cunningham would be testing, a "major brand" was trying out a new beverage geared toward twenty-somethings.

Cunningham, a Florida-based company, has fifty consumer-research facilities across the country. Along with testing more mundane products like crackers and tube socks, they conduct alcohol exams for all types of brands that are itching to get data on how new offerings will play across the demographic landscape. The client specifies the age of the respondents and what questions should be asked, and a Cunningham team does the research through one-on-one sessions, focus groups and large-scale surveys. Then the company ships the raw data back to the sometimes confidential client. One week Cunningham employees could be testing bourbon, the next week wine or beer.

"As long as it won't make me go permanently blind or impotent," I tell the research group's rep, "I'm totally in."

"We don't actually get people drunk anymore," he replied, as if to dampen my enthusiasm. But I was already out the door, information sheet in hand.

According to Veronica Burgos, local manager for Cunningham, Denver is a great area for market research because it's growing and has a good racial mix. Roughly a dozen companies specialize in ground-level market research in the area, and most are located in or near shopping malls. Before relocating to FlatIrons last year, Cunningham was based at the Aurora Mall for five years. It recruits respondents through "mall intercepts" and even by going door to door, Burgos says, and while there might be a few people who have no interest in being a consumer guinea pig, most are happy to help out with new products. "There might be a woman who makes $300,000 a year and wants $5 for no reason, or just wants to see what's coming up," she adds.

Alcohol studies are one of the company's staples. While they used to conduct huge taste tests with up to eighty respondents at one time in a hotel conference room, they opted for smaller sessions when those logistics grew too unwieldy. But Cunningham continues to use hotels, because the exam rooms must possess a liquor license.

"The first question people ask," Burgos notes, "is 'Am I going to get drunk?'" Although she contends that no one ever gets seriously trashed, participants are informed that they will be ingesting up to three ounces of alcohol over a one-hour period, depending on the drink. "That's why we have designated drivers," she says. "We don't know people's tolerance."

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