Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Whipping boy?

Randall Stross has had it with "buggy whip" as shorthand for an obsolete technology, he announced in Sunday's New York Times. The comparison, according to a Wharton management professor Stross quotes, is "an obscurity sitting on an anachronism." And Stross knows who to blame for the idiom's ubiquity. "It's unlikely that we would even refer metaphorically to buggy whip makers if it weren't for Theodore Levitt," he wrote.

Really?

In 1960, Ted Levitt, a Harvard B-school professor and marketing guru (whom I knew slightly), published a famous essay, "Marketing Myopia," in the Harvard Business Review. He looked at three industries he thought were in danger of misjudging the future (not including buggy whip makers.) The essay was immensely influential, and HBS has surely sold a gazillion reprints. But is it really what kept the buggy-whip image trotting along for another 50 years?

My Googling has left me dubious. The buggy whip was already widely used as the exemplar of a suddenly obsolete product in the 1940s and '50s:
"Of course, low prices could not save the buggy-whip industry." (Harold Bright Maynard, ed., "Effective Foremanship," 1941)

"The silent movie has vanished now more completely than the buggy whip." (New York Times, Aug. 28, 1944)

"The harsh fate that befell the buggy-whip industry is apparently threatening the pajama industry, though for less obvious reasons." (The New Yorker, July 30, 1949)

"After all, buggy-whip towns couldn't hold back Henry Ford's Model T. " (Changing Times magazine, August 1950)

"The 50-50 basis of operation in the coin machine business is as out-dated as the buggy whip." (Billboard magazine, July 1, 1957)

"Be sure not to invest in a buggy whip factory just when a new automobile industry is being born." (Life magazine, Sept. 15, 1958. In the same issue, a mattress advertiser urged readers, "Don't settle for a 'Horse-&-Buggy' bed!")

Just a year before Levitt's essay, another business writer used the buggy whip to make the same point he did:
"If buggy-whip people had realized that they were not in the business of making high-quality buggy whips, but rather in the business, fundamentally, of stimulating further output from the prime mover on the family conveyance, their factories would not now be gaunt skeletons upon the American industrial scene." (Eugene K. Von Fange, "Professional Creativity," 1959)
And Levitt himself mentioned the buggy whip industry only in passing, calling it "the classic example" of a business that failed to evolve.

I don't know if Stross (a business professor) is really overestimating Levitt's influence on the language, or just employing a bit of hyperbole. But I strongly suspect that the buggy-whip image would have fared just as well (or badly) over the past half-century even if Levitt had never mentioned it.

4 comments:

MelissaJane said...

Just how vast and influential WAS this buggy whip industry, anyway? Are there really a great many gaunt skeletons of once-thriving buggy-whip factories dotting the American landscape? It certainly seems to have captured the imagination of business pundits over the last century, but it's hard to imagine that the world really ever needed an enormous output of buggy whips. I mean, they aren't like tires or spark plugs that need to be replaced periodically (right? who knows? My buggy whip knowledge is admittedly limited).

Really, this enduring cliche would be more compelling if one could point to some myopic buggy-whip mogul who died penniless in a squalid hut next to his deserted factory still stacked to the gills with unsold whips.

jhm said...

I suppose a post at least tangentially mentioning Harvard is as good a place as any to mention, now that this blog's author is no longer connected so obviously with Boston, that the "Grammar" in the title might more properly be pronounced sans final its ultimate /r/.

Even though I am from the Commonwealth, I didn't make the connection immediately; allowing for my inordinate obtuseness, others with differing dialects might not fully appreciate this.

John Cowan said...

From an economic standpoint, it's entirely appropriate for buggy-whip companies to go out of business, since there is nothing to suggest that the people who ran them successfully (if any) would do as well running gasoline-additive factories (or whatever counts as "stimulating further output from the prime mover on the family conveyance"). Better for the companies to be unwound so that their investors, or indeed other investors, can reinvest in some companies now useful.

What is more, converting a whip factory to an additive factory would probably be much more expensive than building a new factory suitable to the manufacture of additives. Consequently, the gaunt skeletons would be there even if American Prime-Mover Improver, Inc. was still listed in the Fortune 500.

gg said...

Amusingly, That's the Press, Baby has a good post on the buggy whip industry.

Flint was the center of the buggy business in the 1890s, called the Vehicle City because more buggies and accompanying products were made there than anywhere else, and there was a company that made buggy-whip sockets -- places to put the whip when you were not using it on the horse. The wonderfully named Flint Specialty Co. was making up to one million whip sockets a year around 1900, according to my former colleague Larry Gustin in his book "Billy Durant: Creator of General Motors."