By Sam Simon
I met Dan Hill when he was a fellow panelist on a PBS show called "Mental Engineering". You've probably never heard of it, but Bill Moyers called it, "the most interesting half hour of social commentary on television."
On the show, they would screen commercials and the panel would analyze them for "larger meanings". I know that sounds kind of wide open, but the discussions often revealed political, sociological, or psychological messages in the ads that you would never have thought about unless you were a panelist on a national television show and were worried about looking stupid and not having anything to say. The panel was usually composed of three highly-educated intellectuals, such as Dan Hill, and some comic relief, usually a stand-up comedian that was on the road for a gig in Minneapolis, or, sometimes, me.
Most of the commercials were bad, even offensive. No surprise there. You've probably seen a few yourselves. Making fun of them was like shooting fish in a barrel. But Dan had a unique ability to identify the mistakes the advertisements – and the people that were paying for them – were making. He was insightful. He even had an answer to the big question: "Why do all these intelligent people with all their sophisticated testing waste so much money on these horrible commercials?"
I'm fond of saying that I never worked a day in my life, and I think that most coal miners would agree that comedy writing, which is basically sitting in a room with a bunch of funny people while you crack jokes and eat catered food, isn't really work, but we did have testing. Just like in the real business world. Networks would use it to help decide what pilots to pick up, and, just like with products and ads in the real business world, the testing process seemed wildly inaccurate. Every year it seemed that a truly funny pilot would test poorly and not get picked up, while a pilot that everyone hated would test "through the roof", only to get on the air and be cancelled after one showing. Sometimes a pilot would test badly, get on the air through a miracle, such as a network executive trusting his own judgment, and would go on to become one of the finest, longest-running shows in the history of television. I think "Cheers", a show I'm proud to have worked on, was one of those.
The show that will be in the first line of my obituary, "The Simpsons", tested through the roof. The scores were so crazy high that the guy who was interpreting the data for us didn't really know how to deal with it. One of the characters was an infant named Maggie. She didn't do anything. She couldn't even talk. All she did was make a sucking noise on a pacifier. Still, her test score was a 97, which meant that test audiences liked her better than 97% of all the characters from every pilot tested in the history of network television. Now, normally, the network would have asked us to dump the rest of the cast, revamp the show, and make this amazing Maggie character the star of the series, but they didn't. Because, at 97%, Maggie was still actually the lowest testing character on the show. So they advised us not to do a lot of stories about Maggie.
It's an exception that proves the rule, I think. "The Simpsons" was not only good, but it contained a lot of the stuff – fast pace, vulgarity, broad cartoony performances -- that allowed bad shows to get high scores. It was something so powerful the system couldn't screw it up.
Chocolate would probably have tested well, too. I doubt anyone would have tasted chocolate for the first time and wondered how such a God-awful tasting product ever got to market the way I did when I first tasted, for example, Tab energy drink. I'm sure anyone that watched "Emeril", the short-lived situation comedy starring chef Emeril LaGasse, wondered what NBC was thinking. Ever been to Disney's California Adventure?
It turns out that a lot of big companies are making a huge, fundamental mistake, and Dan Hill knows what it is. They don't know how to connect with their customers emotionally.
Dan also knows how they can, and it's all in this book.
As I said, I'm not a businessman, I don't work, but if I ever decided to give it a try, I think "Emotionomics" would be a very powerful weapon. For a recreational reader like me, it's fascinating and fun.
I've already worked the tidbit about the Red Bull can into the conversation at a couple of parties.
Pacific Palisades, California