Educating the consumer is not the answer

My hackles rise when I hear people talk about needing to “educate the consumer,” whether I’m in a room full of science communication folk or listening to someone expound on how and why people don’t fully appreciate Their Favorite Wine Region. Some of my attitude is surely unjustified. Education is great, and if I didn’t think so, surely I wouldn’t have subjected myself to so much of it. But when the answer seems to be more education, I think that we have to step back and ask whether we’re looking at all of this the wrong way.

A very well-known sociologist named Dr. Michel Callon said that the strategies we use to bring someone into a relationship – or to keep them there – can be described as “prosthetic” or “habilitative.” Those terms come from him talking about people with disabilities being able to be a part of society, but they work just as well for talking about people we want to become wine-lovers, or lovers of Rioja, or people who understand German riesling. Prosthetic technologies fix the person so that they fit. They give the person with cerebral palsy leg braces or a wheelchair so that they’re more like normal people and can function around town. Habilitative technologies change the network of things and people and institutions around the person so that the person fits and can function. Instead of telling the kid with CP, “you’re broken and need to be fixed,” they say “let’s make society such that you fit.” You still give the kid leg braces or a wheelchair, but the assumptions underneath are different. You may have noticed that the “habilitative” approach to thinking about physical and (less so, but still) mental disabilities has become the way we do things now (at least in the US and Europe).

Here’s the thing: wine education can work the same way. What if we stopped saying that the deficient person needed to be fixed – by more education – and started thinking about how to change the environment? Callon puts it this way: “In one case, the injunction is, ‘Be like the others!’ In the other, it is ‘Be what you are!’” Instead of seeing the ignoramus clutching the bowl of his wine glass with all five fingers like a coffee mug and telling him that he’s holding his glass wrong, we’d use stemless glasses, or design glasses with stems that made the correct hand position obvious, or maybe relax the whole idea about how we hold the glass if we decide that being inclusive is more important than proper wine temperature (and let’s be honest; when we’re most concerned with inclusivity is also when we’re probably least concerned with wine temperature). We put an infographic on the back label of riesling to indicate how sweet it is. We “make wine more approachable.”

We’ve pretty much accepted the idea of wheelchair-accessible ramps* for public buildings. So why do these sorts of “habilitative” wine technologies make us (okay; me) uneasy? First, no one’s plopping a ramp in the middle of the steps at the Jefferson Memorial. There’s aesthetics to consider, whether you want to call upon some abstract idea of beauty or just insist upon not drastically altering a particular experience for everyone. Second there’s tradition: do we place a higher value on maintaining a tradition, or on opening up an experience to more people. But third, and most importantly: I don’t think we really want wine to be inclusive. Our wine culture is about exclusivity. It’s about having something special, and often something not everyone has. It’s about aspiring to a luxurious lifestyle that excludes a whole bunch of people by definition. I don’t want everyone to be able to love first-growth Burgundy. We have all manner of reasons for not wanting to “dumb down wine.”

Dumbing down wine” is only one really limiting angle in a world that gives us so many more options. What if we made it easier for people to appreciate the complex flavors in good wine by changing the foods they’re exposed to earlier in life? (Has anyone studied whether the British appreciation for tannic reds has anything to do with their habituation to lots of black tea from childhood?) What if we made wine-drinking a normal part of everyday food culture rather than a special-occasion beverage or a naughty indulgence, maybe first-off by changing the drinking age and putting wine in supermarkets next to the bread and cheese?

Even if the job description for wine marketers reads “change the world,” I doubt that’s really what anyone had in mind. But maybe we can start with changing the idea that if people need educating, it might be you as much as them that stands to change.

*It’s worth noting that Callon calls a wheelchair-accessible ramp and the whole idea of “accessibility” a compromise between prostheses and habilitation; in a sense, we’re just giving folks prostheses that sit on the building instead of on the person. Habilitation, in his sense, is more involved than that.


One thought on “Educating the consumer is not the answer

  1. Educating wine drinkers, rating systems, critics, social media, wine writers and laboratory assessments all fail when it comes to helping consumers find wine they like.

    Education doesn’t work because consumers just want a good bottle and not a Ph.D. They already realize they don’t need education or an expert to that they like (or don’t) Coke over Pepsi, IPA over lager, Cupcake over Lafite.

    (In-depth information on all of this – including published, peer-reviewed journal studies – are available at: Recommendation Insights

    Ratings don’t work because individual perceptions are affected by thousands of variations arising from genetic, cultural, educational, psychological and many other factors.

    Individual taste perceptions are subjective (not objective). Objective assessments of a wine do not exist.

    Rating systems with stars, numbers and funny cartoon characters are biased and inherently inaccurate.

    Critics are inconsistent and often impossible to comprehend.And can only describe their inherently individual taste perceptions.

    Laboratory methods don’t measure up because they can’t measure all of the compounds in wine responsible for individual taste perception.

    Social media is full of noise, rants, raves, friction, time commitment and no focus.

    Wine writing can be enjoyable but fails as a recommendation device because words and descriptions are full of opportunities for misinterpretation and can only describe personal perceptions.

    What to do?

    The solution is a method that groups people together who like the same wines the same way in a self-learning, anonymous system relying on action-oriented expressions, not words or rating systems.

    That system exists today. I invented it. It’s called Tribes.

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