John Y’s Musings from the Middle: The Slinky Test

The economic way of thinking. (The Slinky Test)

There’s a sucker born every minute, PT Barnum famously said. Including the evening of June 2, 1963 (my birth date)

I saw a later version of this TV ad when I was a child of about 5. And I had to have a slinky. Had to. Watch the way it curiously flops hypnotically down a flight of stairs. Or flops itself along the declining platform.

It was the “sizzle” not the “steak” (so to speak) that mesmerized me and made me feel I had to have this shiny toy.

So I insisted and wheedled and cajoled (even though I didn’t know what those words meant at the time) until my grandmother broke down and got me one.

jyb_musingsAnd here’s the genius (or cunning) of good ole American marketing. The slinky did exactly as it was represented in the ad. If flopped down the stairs. And flipped down an incline.

So I did it again. And again the slinky flopped and flipped–just as it did in the ad. I didn’t want to admit it but, frankly, I was starting to get a little bored at this juncture. So

I ran the slinky down the stairs and incline one or two more times. And then I realized, “I think I’m done with this toy. Now what?” And shortly after that the economic agony of realizing you spent (or your grandmother spent) $4 in real money for about 50c in thrills sets in.

You can keep playing with the slinky until you get in about $6 worth of play, so your grandmother will remember your wise purchase the next time you want something you see advertised on TV. Or you can do as I did. Go in the basement and pretend to play with the slinky for about $7 or $8 dollars worth of fun to impress your sweet grandmother (who also warned you about the limits of a slinky).

And don’t we do that with many new purchases?

So the test for us should NOT be, “Does the product perform as represented?” But rather, “Does what the product claim to do —for personal or practical reasons—justify the cost?”

And if the answer is no, remind yourself how many hours you’ll have to spend in the basement pretending to be playing with a slinky to preserve your ability to make your next irresistible purchase.

(Note: I know the slinky is a lot more complicated than I make it sound and an ingenious toy. But mostly for ingenious kids. I just thought it looked cool going down the stairs and failed to calculate how much that was worth to me).


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