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Columns / Short Stories
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Last Update: 01-12-2012
October 2, 1957


Hi-Fi, Shepherd's Law, And the Witches' Brew

There have been a few fugitive straws seen already. Hi-Fi, which has been a sort of last frontier of INDIVIDUAL entertainment, culture, or what have you, has been showing unmistakable signs of going in the direction of the inevitable mass market. There of course, is nothing per se wrong with mass marketing except that there seems to be a law that goes into effect as soon as the mass is approached in any field. This law we shall call Shepherd's Law of Magic Ingredients, or The Secret for Success. It works this way: It has been found by laboratory tests that actual quality of product has little to do with sales even in an area where it is possible to secure accurate measurement of performance. What really affects the sales is the Secret Ingredient content of said product and its direct parallel: The Promise of Magical Aids to Buyer Ecstasy. Perhaps it would be better to state this law algebraically, as follows: M\/x + 2~f = Sm where x is equal to the quality built into the product, M equals the potency of the magical ingredient, f equals secret-formula content as aid and guarantee of buyer ecstasy, while Sm of course is the total appeal to mass market. From glancing at the formula it can readily be seen that sales are less dependent upon actual quality than on the promise of magic. For many years our law has worked resoundingly well in the sales of such items as toothpastes, automobiles, and Presidential candidates, but only recently has it begun to be applied in the field of high-fidelity sound reproduction. Engineers, a notably naive lot, for about 10 years past have faithfully adhered to strict graph-and-curve claims regarding the hi-fi components they had designed. Feeling that proof was ____________________________________________________________ Jean Shepherd, noted WOR commentator and pastor of the "Night People," is a regular Village Voice contributor ____________________________________________________________ Necessary when such-and-such a factor was being discussed in the unit under consideration, they provided it in abundance. They knew that in those days most buyers had the knowledge, and access to equipment, to enable them to spot a phony graph easily; hence they rarely hedged, and when they did, it was usually as the result of a memo from the sales department. All Changed But now all this has changed. The sales department discovered The Law, and at the same time realized that the term Hi-Fi itself had magical connotations to the mass public. What was merely an improvement over something that had existed basically since the early 30's now became something entirely new and tremendously saleable. Almost overnight, anything tht could reproduce any sort of sound became known as Hi-Fi. Guys who turned out cheapie plastic-bound kitchen radios found that they could triple sales merely by tagging "True Hi-Fi in a Small Package" to the current ad - and not only that, but the public would pay double the price for something it wouldn't look at before the magic phrase hit home. I know a record manufacturer who was stuck with 8,000 LP's of very ordinary quality and less than mediocre performance by a European orchestra. He hit it big by simply ordering up a batch of impressive silver gummed labels which stated: "Recorded in Europe using the new Exclusive Unlimited Fidelity System." He jacked up the price an extra buck, sold out in less than a week, and ran through three additional press runs in a month. The big manufacturers found that the mass knew the term Hi-Fi, but knew absolutely nothing about it. It was a simple thing to stick another cheesy $1.49 six-inch speaker on the side of the cabinet of a perfectly orthodox portable record player and advertise it as "Multiple-Speaker Hi-Fi," again raise the price, and wait for the flood of orders; the public has somehow gained the erroneous impression that more than one speaker meant hi-fi. Just another application of The Law. Today, right this minute the claims are getting more outrageous as each operator jostles the other in the rush for the bucks. I read an ad the other day that boldly stated something to this effect: Whatever hi-fi experts - a magic phrase - gather, arguments always rage, but there is one thing they all agree on, and that is that the Fignewton X-D7 with magic Expando-Tone is the finest hi-fi available." This sounds great except that exactly the opposite is true. And all the experts do agree. The resultant of all this hogwash has been a wholesale substitution of nonsensical phrases as "Example-Tone" for genuine technical advances and actual hi-fi research. The dollar that used to be spent by the manufacturers on lab work is now invested in public relations and upon market-data reports which long ago proved that magic is anything but dead. There is some talk that the X-D7 is actually powdered bats wings, but the label doesn't say.

Copyright: 1957, The Village Voice

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October 02,1957

October 02,1957

4263 (19571002C)