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For any doubters, democracy thrives! Look at the flavored water industry.


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There was a time, not long ago, when every American had at least one fantastic job. There was your primary gig — factory worker, schoolteacher, administrative assistant, whatever — which, admittedly, probably was not that great. And then there was your unofficial gig as vice president of taste-testing at every food and beverage company in the land. This position didn’t pay anything, but the work was easy and satisfying. Just like a real vice president of new product development, you sat back on your couch and did nothing as armies of flavor scientists, copywriters, and graphic designers feverishly attempted to create products that would momentarily seduce your roving attention and please your notoriously fickle palate.

Now, thanks to that Web 2.0 scourge known as crowdsourcing, you’ve been demoted from the executive suite to a marketing department cubicle, and the pause that refreshes is preceded by some recreational slave labor. Crowdsourcing, if you’re not familiar with the term, got its start in 1876 when Tom Sawyer convinced a bunch of his pals to whitewash a fence for him. More recently, software companies, newspapers, pharmaceutical companies, and countless other concerns facing metaphorical fences they’d prefer not to paint themselves are taking advantage of the fact that millions of people are willing to work for free these days because they’re unemployed and TV is no longer as entertaining as it once was. An increasing number of food and beverage companies are getting into the act as a way to establish brand loyalty amongst their customers, reduce costs, and further diminish the quality of life in America. Case-in-point: Vitaminwater’s current effort to produce a crowdsourced flavor that can proudly take its place in the company’s ever-expanding portfolio of vaguely fruit-flavored liquids.

Vitaminwater kicked off the project in September. First, it auditioned potential flavors by monitoring Google, Twitter, Flickr, and Foodgawker.com to see what people were talking about most these days — ginger, mint, Robert Pattinson? Then, by means of a Facebook app, it presented the top 10 flavors and a “cloud” of understudies that could possibly crack that list if enough people starting talking about them. At the same time, it enlisted users to help the company solve the dilemma it must always address when creating a new product: What specific vitamins, minerals, and nutritional supplements should add to its new product to miraculously transform colorful tap water into scientifically enhanced Kool-Aid that costs more per ounce than gasoline?

Eventually, the crowd made its decision. The new flavor would be black-cherry lime, and it would be fortified by vitamins A through Zinc, plus caffeine. With that out of the way, Vitaminwater asked customers to name the product, create its label, and write the copy that would appear there. Currently, water designer/rapper 50 Cent and crowdsourced singing sensation Carrie Underwood are judging the entries. The winning label will be announced in December and hit store shelves in March 2010. The person or team who submitted it will be paid $5,000.

For companies engaging in crowdsourcing, the appeal is obvious. You don’t have to spend a lot of time searching for high-priced creatives to do all the work that normally must be done when you launch a new product. You don’t have to pay those high-priced creatives. Best of all, you are protected by a thick cocoon of disengagement if the product flops. Indeed, while you can always blame a botched launch on the market research consultant who misread your ideal customer, or the advertising agency that failed to sell your proverbial steak’s sizzle, you’re still the dummy who hired that market research consultant and that ad agency. But when you offload all product development and marketing responsibilities on your customers, well, whose fault is it really when they fail to buy enough of their new baby? Maybe theirs, maybe Tim Geithner’s, but certainly not yours. You gave them exactly what they said they wanted.

For consumers, the appeal of crowdsourcing is not always so apparent. Oh, sure, if you’re stoned and overconfident, it may seem like a cool proposition to design your own functional water beverage. But is that really where your true strengths lie?

By now, we all know that the Internet is a relentlessly disruptive technology, sometimes giving and sometimes taking away. Consider, for example, its well-documented impact on old-fashioned bookstores, record shops, department stores, and various other bricks-and-mortar palaces of commerce. All of these establishments practice a form of crowdsourcing, too. They depend on you to do much of their order fulfillment for them. You pick the goods you want from their shelves. You deliver your purchase to your home. By reclaiming such tasks from the consumer, companies and services like Amazon.com, iTunes, Macys.com, and a million others have turned shopping into an easier, more streamlined endeavor.

In other areas, however, the Internet increases the work companies expect you to do. Vitaminwater wants you to invent a new flavor for it. Mountain Dew has asked you to do the same. Since you have a lot more free time now than you did when it took a solid half hour at minimum to rent a movie at Blockbuster, it may seem like a fair trade.

But the jobs you as a consumer are no longer expected to do are most likely the ones you’re best equipped to do. For example, if you go to the Gap and decide you want a red sweater in size large, you probably rarely stick a blue one in size medium in your shopping bag. And you are far more efficient than FedEx at delivering goods to your home — you know exactly where you live and you’re always there when you show up with a recent purchase.

If you’re like most people, though, you probably have little experience inventing new varieties of functional water. And this isn’t stuff amateurs should be messing around with. Indeed, it’s one thing to hand over the news media and the entertainment industry to people with little professional experience. Journalism is an inexact art that tolerates a reasonable amount of sloppiness and error with no great consequences. Likewise, it is a strange but immutable fact of nature that one bored spinster and her crazy cat who loves trapping itself in boxes can inspire the same amount of laughter as a dozen Judd Apatows working at the height of his powers.

In contrast, the creation of new kinds of expensive water, soda, corn chips, and all forms of convenience store treats should remain the domain of trained professionals. The superior quality of such fare is a major reason for our national prosperity and optimistic outlook. Think how many times a Snickers bar is all that has stood between you and utter despair. Think how you use a bag of Doritos to insulate yourself against the indignities of your job. Think how even a lukewarm bottle of Vitaminwater b-relaxed can enhance an endless gray day with the faint calming taste of jackfruit and theanine. Think how crowdsourced food and beverage products can never equal those created by dedicated flavor geniuses who might otherwise be winning Nobel Prizes in chemistry if corporate behemoths weren’t paying them big bucks to invent the next Coca-Cola. In the short run, it may seem cool and innovative that Vitaminwater is letting you and all your Facebook taste buds in on such action. In the long run, no good can come of it. • 11 November 2009