So it was somewhat ironic that while sitting in the Heathrow departure lounge last week awaiting a flight home from London, I was approached by a uniformed woman. She had excellent posture and carried a clipboard.
“May I have a few minutes of your time?” she asked, and then sat down next to me without awaiting an answer.
What have I done? I worriedly wondered. Had I packed 5 oz. of shampoo? Was my passport expired? Did they know I’d inhaled in 1972?
“I’d like to ask you about your impressions of Heathrow Airport,” she said briskly, but with a tinge of desperation.
The light dawned. She was a market researcher! This was an airport lounge intercept!
My heart went out to her. “Ask away,” I said graciously.
She did, page after bloody page.
They’d unloaded the arriving flight by the time we finished with what was important to me in an airport. (“Fresh fruit” and “clean bathrooms with hundreds of stalls” weren’t answer options. If they had been, both would have scored a 5 – Very Important.)
By the time the plane was cleaned and I’d triumphantly recalled the name of that movie with Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman (Last Chance Harvey, where she plays a beleaguered market researcher who works at – wait for it – Heathrow!), we’d advanced through how I felt about my actual experience since arriving at the airport 90 minutes earlier. (It hadn’t been bad, actually, except for this entrapment. But that wasn’t an answer option either.)
I thought we were in the home stretch when she suddenly whipped out a laminated folding card containing lots of pictures of sunglasses advertisements.
“Do you recall seeing these adverts?” she asked, waving them in front of my face so quickly that I felt a welcome breeze.
In my mind’s eye, I started flipping through every poster I’d seen in the past five days. “Um, yeah, I think so.”
“Where did you see them?”
I thought back to riding the endless escalators in the London Underground. Were there ads for anything other than The Lion King? “In the Tube?” I answered hopefully.
“Was it a poster or an electronic sign?”
Think, Julie, think. Did they have electronic signs in the Tube? “Poster,” I answered, far more definitively than I actually felt. I was hoping my bravado would hide the fact that I had no frigging clue.
“Do you think this advertising is appropriate for Heathrow?” she asked, this time not even going through the motions of showing me the ads again.
Appropriate for Heathrow, I mused. What advertising would be inappropriate for Heathrow? Well, explosives, of course. Or anything with ex-Duchess Fergie. “Yes, I do.”
“Would it make you more likely to purchase sunglasses at Heathrow?” she demanded.
Only if there were sunlamps on the airplane, I thought gracelessly. “Hmm … I don’t know. Is that an answer option?”
By now, the volcanic ash cloud had moved from the skies over the North Atlantic to the skies over the South Pacific; Krakatoa had erupted, and sea levels in Europe and North America had risen by two feet, errr, meters. But amazingly, we were finally done.
It was only as I watched her still starchy but somehow defeated figure leave the lounge that I noticed, yes, a large, flashy electronic billboard advertising stylish sunglasses for sale at Heathrow. I’d been sitting opposite it for at least a half-hour before she came.
Exhausted, I slumped into my husband’s shoulder and pointed mutely at the billboard.
My husband’s a journalist, and when he’s training rookies, he always tells them, “Don’t ask people questions they don’t know how to answer.” He chuckled, not at all surprised by my obliviousness to the ad. “Clearly, she didn’t know who she was talking to.”
And that, dear reader, is the point of this little anecdote.
I might have been a random sample, eligible for this research largely because I was breathing and sentient, but the only time I buy anything other than earrings, food and books is when my feet are barefoot, my skin is scorched or I’m out of coffee.
I didn’t know how to answer the researcher’s questions about the efficacy of that sunglasses billboard. Her time and mine were completely wasted and her data completely lacking in validity because she didn’t know who she was talking to. Had she simply conversed with me, she might have learned that I actually buy sunglasses routinely because I lose them routinely, that if had they been for sale at a kiosk just outside the airport instead of wedged between two high-end stores I never go near, I would have bought them in a heartbeat. She might have learned that I value durability above appearance. And maybe, just maybe, I would remember her as a curious and empathetic person, not as an intrusive and indifferent one.
No offense, Emma.