Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why listen to critics?

We love critics in our culture--whether they're pundits providing analysis, rating agencies giving advice, or pure criticism as in the newspaper, we're absolutely addicted to reading about and soliciting other people's opinions. If we weren't, then this blog frankly wouldn't have any reason to exist (yes, I'm a critic, but you already knew that). There's something comforting in knowing (or believing) that we're making informed decisions about the things that we do in this world, and there's always strength in numbers. Buying or watching or listening to something that somebody else knowledgeable has already signed off on gives us a huge (if intangible) sense of comfort.

But why do we assume that the critics whose opinions we solicit have similar tastes to ours? What if the people providing the ratings are in some way fundamentally different than the people who are following the advice they give? That's the main question behind this Bloomberg article, which focuses on wine critics.
The flavors described so effusively by top wine critics may not be shared by consumers who buy products based on their opinions, a researcher suggests. 
Winemakers and critics surveyed in Canada were found to be much better able to sense a test chemical as intensely bitter, compared with average consumers who weren’t bothered by the taste, according to a report in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture. 
The chemical is an indicator of oral sensitivity, the researchers wrote. The data suggest people born with a talent for identifying tiny differences in wine may have naturally gravitated to an industry where their abilities give them an edge, said John Hayes, director of the Pennsylvania State University’s sensory evaluation center. 
“Wine experts are more likely to have a very exquisite, acute sense of taste that the rest of us can’t sense,” said Hayes, one of the authors of the report, in a telephone interview. “Some of that is biology.”
In this case, we have scientific evidence that wine experts and general wine consumers are indeed two completely different types of people. That could explain why, when I take a sip of a Pinot Noir, I have just a little bit of trouble identifying the "hints of earthy cinnamon and honeysuckle", or whatever the hell the tasting notes say I'm supposed to taste. Why, then, should the wine experts' opinions be worth anything at all to us? If we can't appreciate what they can appreciate, is their "wisdom" at all helpful? Or is it perhaps even counter-productive?

I wonder how pervasive this is in other areas of criticism--do movie critics hold their movies to higher standards than the general public (yes, almost certainly)? Or are they simply looking for things that average people don't really pay much attention to?

The more I think about this kind of stuff, the more important I think word-of-mouth marketing becomes. Since we don't ever really know anything about the nameless, faceless people who provide reviews of the products we buy, we have no choice but to take their opinions on faith. That can defeat the whole point of relying on an outside opinion in the first place, so we instead have a tendency to lean on those closest to us--our friends and family whom we know have similar tastes to ours.

That's a difficult dynamic to capitalize on for many businesses and prospective marketers. It would be much easier for them (if more risky) if they only had to convince one critic that their product was high-quality, as opposed to thousands of unique customers. In the internet age, it just may be that traditional critics like the wine experts discussed in this Bloomberg article could become an endangered species. In my opinion, that's probably a good thing. But then... why are you listening to me?


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