January 21, 2014

The town that was a test-tube

It sounds like one of those 50s sci-fi movies that MST3K used to parody: a team of researchers dressed in white coats working secretly out of an garage, using the local television to control the minds of the unsuspecting townfolk, to fill their brains with all kinds of subliminal thoughts - well, you get the picture.

In this case, we're talking about an experiment conducted in the Delaware River Valley town of Port Jervis, New York.  Beginning in 1964, the television-watching citizens of Port Jervis were used as human guinea pigs by advertisers testing out commercials.  Such was the magnitude of the experiment that company advertising executives from all over the country would fly into the garage laboratory to witness the tests and view the results.

Port Jervis was an ideal location: nestled in the valley, with conventional television reception problematic, the town was serviced by a cable television system called Port Video, subscribed to by nearly everyone in the town of 9500.  Port Video was approached by the Center for Research in Marketing, a small marketing research firm in Peekskill, NY.  The Center's Executive Director, Ed Wallerstein, saw the advantages inherent in the television delivery method in Port Jervis, and came up with a proposition.  As detailed in an article by Richard Doan and Denis Govern in the December 10, 1966 issue of TV Guide,

It involved rewiring the CATV system - a network of coaxial cables strung through town on telephone poles - so the community would be divided into halves.  Thus, Side A, as one of half of Port Jervis would be coded, could be exposed to one test commercial while Side B was shown either the regular one or still another test spot.  The effectiveness of the test commercials would be ascertained by questioning families on Sides A and B, and by checking actual sales of the advertised products in stores on Side A and Side B.

From the garage headquarters, technicians would flip switches that would interrupt the network commercial feed and substitute a test commercial provided to the Center by one of their clients. Later on, surveyors would go door-to-door interviewing viewers to check commercial penetration.  Results would be tabulated and provided to the advertisers.  For this, the Center would subsidize the cost of rewiring Port Video's cable system and purchasing the necessary equipment, and would pay Port Video as much as $25 for each cut-in commercial.  The ads would only air on time that had already been purchased by the Center's clients - in other words, no commercials from non-participating companies would be preempted.

It was a tricky proposition, to say the least.  The citizens of Port Jervis had to remain in the dark, lest their perceptions be tainted by knowledge of their guinea pig status.  The networks, too, could not know that their feed was being tampered with, resulting in some amusing commercial cutaways.   ("And now here's some interesting news about a new cake flour" might be followed instead by "a man painting his bedroom with a new Du Pont mix, or a girl examining a stretch bra.")  Even the women conducting the door-to-door surveys were not told about what was actually happening. And when the New York Times got wind of an experiment being conducted in "a small town somewhere in the United States," the Center bought up every copy of the Times in Port Jervis lest citizens put two and two together and figure out they were the small town.

The Center's clients were impressive: General Mills, Bristol-Myers, Dow Chemical, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, and Du Pont were among advertisers providing commercials for products such as Viceroy and Kool cigarettes, Clarol hair preparations, Micrin mouthwash, and Vitalis hair oil.  During a test run, network commercials would be blocked out throughout the schedule, day and night, on shows like Mister Ed, Wagon Train, Father Knows Best, Jeopardy, Truth or Consequences, and Arrest and Trial.

If the test results for a new commercial on Side A of Port Jervis proved more effective than a new commercial tested on Side B of the town, the Side A commercials would later be used on television nationally.  Similarly the effectiveness of new commercials was tested against old ones already in use on the networks.

Everyone involved agreed that the data collected during the experiment was most valuable; "Wallerstein reported that the results had been so good he had had difficulty convincing his clients that the sales-test figures were genuine."  The differences in sales figures between Side A and Side B were "spectacular."

With the publication of this article, details of the experiment were being revealed for the first time. Presumably, although I don't know this for a fact, Port Jervis would have ceased to be Ground Zero for the testing, since its residents were now fully aware of their role in the testing.  There was no doubt at the time, though, that such testing would continue somewhere, in one form or another.

Today, of course, we're used to this kind of thing, what with focus groups of one kind or another helping determine everything from the programs we watch to the products we buy to the candidates we vote for. But I can imagine that this article might have caused quite a stir at the time.  Science fiction movies, as well as many of the more imaginative television shows, had long featured the citizens of small towns being subject to mind control through what they saw or heard on television or radio.  (I can especially see this on an episode of The Avengers.)  Although this experiment was a benign one, the fact that it had actually happened, as well as the secrecy involved, might well have raised alarm bells in some quarters.  Remember, fluoridated water was a topic of hot controversy in the era.  The idea that television could watch you, even unobtrusively, while you watched it - that must have been an interesting thought back then.  As it is today.

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