A Hand for the Head

New directions in niche marketing
Ross MacDonald

"OUR aim is total peace of mind for you and your family." That is the motto of the Alibi Agency, a start-up company I learned about recently, whose purpose is to provide an insulating layer of verisimilitude between philanderers and their spouses. Based in Blackpool, England, the Alibi Agency establishes a plausible paper trail. It will furnish ticket stubs for the theater performance you were supposed to have been attending. It will print up dummy invitations to the social and business events that kept you away from home. It will hire official-sounding receptionists who will intercept phone calls to the putative locale of your out-of-town conference or golf game. "We can discuss individual requirements," the Alibi Agency's literature says, "and 'Tailor Make' an Alibi to your Specifications."

The Alibi Agency is but one small life-form amid a Cambrian Explosion of consumer services filling every commercial niche. A landscaping service in Illinois focuses exclusively on removing the droppings left by Canada geese. There are special housecleaning services used by realtors to tidy up after murders, and special automobile-cleaning services for those occasions when a body is found in the trunk. A new Internet company is prepared to act as your conscience: write out a list of things you want to change or accomplish and send it to the agency; the service will mail it back in a year as a reminder. In Iran, where Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses cannot be sold, a service provides copies for overnight rental.

Not surprisingly, the niche-service phenomenon has achieved its highest evolution in the United States. Alexis de Tocqueville took note of an American relish for generalization and of the fact that the business of American society "is conducted on a more or less uniform plan." Americans have a genius for lateral extension -- transferring principles like those of marketing and administration from one area of life to another. If "total quality management" becomes a catchphrase in the corporate world, then it is only a matter of time before it is heard at the National Council of Bishops. Academic philosophers, mindful of the success of their colleagues in psychology, have already begun to move into the marketplace, offering philosophical counseling for individuals; before long, philosophers employed by Legal Services will doubtless be testifying in court. The job of "ethicist" has become a significant occupational category in the health-care industry. Eventually there will be a role for such specialists in the Five Families and Hamas.

*  *  *

The service that my staff and I have begun to provide is inspired by Assisted Living -- a lifestyle option for older Americans that has been growing rapidly in popularity. In Assisted Living a person pays a fixed monthly sum to join a residential community that offers considerable independence but also therapeutic attention, household oversight, and around-the-clock emergency medical service. The brochures for such communities employ a common graphic imagery (sunsets, fall foliage) and a common descriptive language: "A continuum of planned care." "Daily trash removal." "Occupational therapies designed to maintain independence [and] self esteem." "Pull cord emergency response system."

Of course, not only older people need a specialized support system. The young and the middle-aged, faced with the mounting chaos of cognitive input, have a variety of unmet needs. The service we offer is called Assisted Thinking. For a modest monthly fee clients receive the following:

It is so easy to lose track of things. Did I read the newspaper today -- or was that yesterday? Under the Basic Plan, participants receive a daily wake-up briefing on a selection of ongoing issues -- for instance, the latest overnights on whether the universe now appears to be older or younger than we thought, whether new evidence from early hominids confirms or calls into question long-established theories, and which familiar foods and behaviors are now believed to be killing us quickly or adding years to our lives.

Ideas and facts are like household odds and ends. They accumulate. They gather dust. No wonder you can't think straight! Representatives of our staff will offer knowledgeable suggestions about what you can discard. The party-by-party makeup of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet. Throw it out! The number of Republicans in Congress who opposed impeachment. The names of the Spice Girls -- yes, even the married one. It can all go! Some clients, we have found, still remember the Laffer Curve or The Crash of '79. One man was discovered carrying around the names Bill Krywicki, Dominic Principe, and Steve Kazlo -- members of the 1937 Fordham backfield. Onto the trash heap they went, freeing up space for a new proof of the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture.

In this age of facile pundits and silver-tongued polymaths anyone can be forgiven for harboring feelings of vague inadequacy -- feelings that may spiral into self-loathing. Our clients, imperceptibly yet continually massaged, never experience this problem. Few suspect a setup when that "new friend" at the bar replies to a comment with the words "Gosh, I never thought about it that way before." No one has objected to the "casual phone call" that begins with the words "Listen, I need your advice." The particulars of a client's therapy are, of course, never divulged to the beneficiary. (The monthly statement refers discreetly to "Misc. charges.")

You are at an important social function, and you hear the words "So I guess the issue will be decided at the G-8 talks." All eyes turn to you, and someone says, "Well, do we prop up the ringgit or not?" This potentially awkward situation is easily finessed by Assisted Thinking clients. Your quiet electronic summons alerts a member of the roving rapid-response team -- perhaps Daphne, in a gown by Galliano and with a doctorate from the London School of Economics -- who shows up within seconds, hooks an arm around yours, and says, "Weren't you telling me just last night that the balance of trade shows a reassuring uptick?" Her elegant finger brushes an imaginary speck from your lapel as you confidently voice support for the efforts of the central bank.

*  *  *

With the successful launch of Assisted Thinking, the search for other ventures in lateral extension is under way. The most promising new possibilities, we believe, involve the "Covenant" model, derived from the idea of Covenant Marriage. Today a legal option in Louisiana -- one being considered by many other states -- Covenant Marriage is a form of marital bond in which a bride and groom, in order to show the strength of their commitment, agree in advance to erect formidable legal obstacles to their marriage's dissolution.

It is too early to say whether Covenant Marriage will bring a new sense of obligation to the state of matrimony, but surely the idea of enhanced commitment is applicable in a broader business arena. For instance, why not Covenant Restaurant Reservations? Why not Covenant Couch Delivery or Covenant Tax Preparation? Covenant Traffic Reports? Covenant Plumbing? Covenant Corn on the Cob? There is a bright future here, unless the Alibi Agency gets there first.

Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. His most recent book is (1998).

Illustration by Ross MacDonald.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; A Hand for the Head - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 26-28.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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