Backlash: How Early Adopters React When the Mass Market Embraces a New Brand

A well-established principle of product development holds that a small group of early adopters can spur mass-market acceptance of a new product. What is less well understood is how those early adopters react when that product or its brand is accepted by the mass market. As Wharton marketing professors David Reibstein and John Zhang explain in this video, the company could experience a backlash as early adopters move on to other new products. A case in point: Porsche saw a decline in sports car sales after it entered the SUV mass market. Research by Reibstein and Zhang discusses reasons for the backlash and suggests a strategy for dealing with it.

Skip Down for the Cluetrain Moment

During the last few days, I was given a strong example of how far out of sync a retailer could be in the approach with loyal clients.

I have a supermarket close to my home where I am a frequent shopper. The store is close by. The selection is not huge, but certainly adequate for my needs. The clientele is not always of the noble variety, but there the market is innocent.

The parking situation has become atrocious in our neighborhood lately. After a certain time in the evening, it has become impossible to find a parking spot. One evening, out of pure desperation, I left my car in the store’s parking lot, knowing there was a risk tied to this decision.

I went out in the morning to find out that my car had been towed away. Certainly this is not a good way to start the morning, but I accepted the risk of leaving the car in this parking lot overnight. I called the city department responsible for towed cars to find out that my car had been towed by a private company and was promptly given the number of the business. The private towing service was very friendly mentioning they are open 24 hours a day and even gave me instructions on how to get to their establishment.

At that point in time, I started thinking this situation where a local supermarket hires a private business to tow people’s cars from an empty parking lot in the middle of the night (the car was towed at 1AM), knowing full well how desperate the situation is with parking and that a car overnight can only be from someone in the neighborhood. Isn’t it correct to assume that the owner of that vehicle could very well be a customer of the supermarket?

My next step was to enquire where the customer service for this supermarket chain is located with the objective of talking to them about the situation. I was clearly guilty and had no intention to hide this. My question to them concerned a perceived treatment a loyal client had received. What is more important for this supermarket, the receipt of a towing charge (which I’m sure they don’t see much. I actually found out through discussions with others that this actually a racket where I live. I wouldn’t be surprised if the towing company does not pay the supermarket for the privilege to tow cars from their property!) or the continued patronage of a loyal customer? The objective had nothing to do with the charge I paid to get my car back, but rather this ideal I have of customer service….and what is right. I have developed a theory which basically states that those who pride themselves on customer service are the most indignant clients you can ever have. They will not accept poor service and will let you know. They will also explain WHY the service is poor. This is all tied to an obsession we have about process improvement.

That evening, I went home and started going through my receipts to calculate how loyal a client I had been. I was surprised to uncover a spend of over $1100 over less than a 6 month time period conducted within 28 visits. My daughter was astute enough to note that the figures I had calculated did not even take into account the cash payments, where we save no receipts.

Now here comes the Cluetrain moment! I drove down to the customer service department of this supermarket and went to the reception. I mentioned to the receptionist that I would like to speak to someone in the ‘customer service’ department

Receptionist: Do you have an appointment?

Me: No. I assumed under the name ‘customer service’ that the intention is to help customers with issues.

Receptionist: Did you write an email?

Me: No. I made the effort to visit you with the intention of settling matters

The reservationist was perplexed but called the customer service department and handed me the phone.

‘Customer Service’: Sorry, I am the wrong contact for your query. Have a good day

Me: I have difficulty understanding this definition of ‘customer service’. I just wanted to let you know that I felt your supermarket should be aware of the perception certain loyal customers can get from that of what happened to me. The question is not of guilt or blame. I am guilty of the infraction but feel that your business should work with the community, not against it.

‘Customer Service’: Well, I’m sorry. I can’t help you. Have a good day.

Me: I brought my documents along to show you how loyal a customer I am. Can I please show them to you?

‘Customer Service’: I am alone, and besides I told you already I can’t help you. Will you please leave?

The receptionist noticed that the conversation was getting heated and tried to intervene, to her credit. Unfortunately, the best she could offer was to talk to a regional sales representative, who might be able to offer me a gift certificate.

They all didn’t get it!

The real problem was not with the receptionist, or even the bureaucratic ‘customer service’ employee, but the corporate culture that instills in their employees that the customer is the enemy. OK, I’m sure it’s not every day that you have some crazy customer who is actually trying to help you in improving the service. Instead of saying “terrible market. I won’t go back there again and will let everyone else know how bad it is”, I made the effort to visit them to explain matters. With that of what I experiences, they made a bad situation infinitely worse!

Cluetrain Revisited

Maybe it’s my search for my digital happy days, but I have just finished reading again one of the most seminal pieces of literature to come out of the go-go 90′s, The Cluetrain Manifesto. Looking at the contents 13 years after its first publication, three concepts immediately jump out:

  • Belletristic foretaste of our times
      • Clients are having conversations directly with employees and are finding out what is really going on within corporations. Some companies have even tried to take advantage of this dialogue to foster customer loyalty. Crowdsourcing has been applied by certain enterprises to create vastly more meaningful products and services for their clients. Applications such as Twitter enable companies to turn negative feedback into a vehicle by which a corporation can show they care about their customers.
      • Those companies who either do not conduct open and honest dialogue or do not see the importance of such conversation described in the book eventually learn to regret their stance. The examples are numerous and have become a daily occurance.
      • The transparency discussed in the book is more prevalent today. The combination of exponential growth within the technological realm with a universal use of social media has ensured that nothing is secret anymore. The ugly flip-side to this scenario does not require description.
  • Revolutionary zeal as a 90′s zeitgeist
    • The irreverence in Cluetrain’s writing style was partially representative of the time the book was written. Many of us felt the power of something new being created and took liberty in a certain bravado. Such cockiness was lost in the dot-com bust, and we are continuously reminded to be wary of such exuberance today. The Facebook IPO, in spite of the hope that Zuckerberg might be our economic white knight, is a good example of such caution.
    • The description of the primary means of communication back then such as eMail, mailing lists and websites seem very quaint today. Based on the current and future growth of mobile (here) in comparison to the computer (near), one can say that the bespoke had their better days behind them. eMail is actually viewed somewhat negatively today.
    • Unfortunately, one can question how open the web’s architecture is today. Big money has taken this technology over, which is a good segway to my third point.
  • We lost the war
    • What happened to the conversations? Yes, we do have social media to converse with the near and far, but are we really conversing? I see plenty of comments being made daily, but they are primarily asynchronous and are very often of the lowest common nominator variety.
    • Does the web imitate life, or is it the other way around? One can find a correlation between the constant need to profess ones opinion, a societal polarization based on ones individual stance, and the manifestation of this state through media moguls such as Fox News. This malady reminds me of how the Communists ruined a great architectural style (Bauhaus) through cheap mass-production
    • Neil Postman wrote about our attempts to amuse ourselves to death, and we see that we have just changed the media.
    • The biggest loss we have had with the development over the last 13 years is the lack of ability to consume any detailed analysis. Instead of a written document, reports are prepared exclusively within PowerPoint. All development is expected to be intuitive as accompanied material stays unread. Mood boards have replace concepts or strategies. Although I possibly run the risk of appearing to display Luddite characteristics in public, it has to be said. I find this development regrettable.

Does such a creature exist?

The strategy of the company will become a mantra where every employee will know the plan. Goals will be set and everyone will know their role. Results will be measured and performance pay will become a reality. There will be no surprises and communication will be consistent and constant. A seed of trust will be sown and it will quickly grow and flourish as each employee begins to believe that he and she is a valued member of the team.

Customer Service is Just a Conversation Under Another Name

Following my recent posting tied to the Cluetrain Manifesto, I have been thinking about the the concept of conversations and its various facets. Discourse is conducted between individuals, and one shouldn’t forget that service is also managed (for the most part) by human beings.

Maybe due to a pride I have in offering the same customer service I would expect myself, this has caused me to lament recent experiences where apparently others do not necessarily hold that same benchmark. Maybe such people expect no more than they offer themselves.

Here the intention is not to spell out why a customer is experiencing bad service, but what impressions a customer receives when being served improperly. After careful thought, these four categories below summarize my experience, and I welcome any suggestions to enhance the list below.

  • Intimidation – “How dare you ask for a refund”
  • Avoidance – After staring at a clerk for over 20 minutes behind his desk, the person finally acknowledges your presence and says “Is anyone helping you?” The only reason the clear responded at all is because he inadvertently looked up and mistakenly made eye-contact with you
  • Lethargy – How often have you been ‘serviced’ by an individual, where you know full well they could care less about you and/or your wishes. When I run across a situation like this, my biggest wish is restart the scenario like rebooting a computer, hoping that I land at any other counter that the one I’m at right now.
  • Lying – The worst is when you know more about the product than the employee, and that person tells you anything expecting you to believe it. I’ve noticed lying is rarely a singular act but comes in multiples.

I feel better already just by performing this cathartic exercise..

What a waste – Germany scandalously underuses immigrants and women

In spite of the title, a very positive look at how Germany is handling the subject…

What a waste – Germany scandalously underuses immigrants and women
Mar 11th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

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HEINZ BUSCHKOWSKY, the mayor of the Berlin district of Neukolln, is famous for being blunt. He is in charge of an ethnic goulash: 140,000 of his 305,000 constituents are Turks, Arabs, Yugoslavs or other migrants. The local unemployment rate is 26%, and probably twice that among the immigrants. Work disappeared when subsidies to industry were withdrawn after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But Neukollners are all too willing to live off Hartz IV social-security benefits, which provide a family with children with enough to get by. “Long-term welfare paralyses people,” Mr Buschkowsky observes, sounding more like an American Republican of the 1980s than a leading member of Berlin’s Social Democratic Party. Children grow up thinking “money comes from the state,” drop out of school and then raise children who repeat the cycle.

Neukolln’s problems loom large partly because it is in Berlin which, unlike Paris or London, is poorer than the country it governs. In Ulm, which has more factories, Hartz IV is a less appealing option. Still, Mr Buschkowsky’s message matters anywhere in Germany. He lambasts not only welfare dependency but also conservative shibboleths like the three-tier high-school system (“once at the bottom, always at the bottom”) and paying women to stay at home with their children (he thinks the money would be better spent on pre-school education so that immigrant children could learn proper German). He is equally impatient with liberal multiculturalism. Immigrants have a chance, he says, “when they not only live in Europe but become European”.

Neukolln may be untypical, but it raises questions that preoccupy the whole country. How much welfare is too much? When should the state assume responsibility for looking after children? How can an ageing society make the most of underemployed immigrants and women? Should immigrants become Germans, and if so, what sort? These questions are interconnected.

For different reasons, immigrants and women play a disproportionately small role in Germany’s labour force. Many immigrants never recover from their start in an “education-free monoculture”, as Mr Buschkowsky puts it: a home where family members and cartoon characters speak a language other than German, a spell in a Hauptschule followed by the transitional system and a life on the dole. Nearly one-third of Germany’s Turks, the largest group of immigrants other than ethnic Germans, have no secondary-school diploma, and just 14% qualify to go to university. Some 16% are dependent on welfare, twice the share of native Germans. In 2005, the last year for which data are available, the unemployment rate among Turks was 23%, compared with 10% for native Germans.

Underworked, underpaid

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Women take a different route to underemployment. Their problem is not education: they make up a majority of those who pass the Abitur as well as of university students. The trouble starts afterwards. The wage gap between men and women is 23%, among the widest in the EU. That is partly because though women’s participation rate is above average for Europe, many of those women work part-time (see chart 6). The “one breadwinner model” of family life now updated to 1 breadwinners remains the cultural norm in west Germany. In a 2006 survey 27% of women aged 15 to 39 in that part of the country agreed with the statement that “family life suffers when the woman has a full-time job.” In east Germany the figure was only 9%; in France 13%.

Institutions have not caught up with the majority of west German mothers who would contemplate full-time work. Child care remains scarce. Just 8% of German children aged two or younger are in croches for more than 30 hours a week; in France the proportion is 17%. For slightly older children the difference widens. Unsurprisingly, in Germany only 17% of mothers with two or more children work anything like full time, whereas in France more than half do.

Germany as a whole is underemployed. Germans in work put in an average of 1,430 hours in 2006, the third-lowest rate in the OECD. Even after the labour-market reforms, long-term unemployment remains well above the OECD average. More than half a million immigrants cannot do the jobs for which they trained because Germany does not recognise their qualifications, a case of credentialism gone wild. A country in demographic decline cannot afford such waste. By 2035 Germany’s GDP per person will fall by 8-15% relative to that in other rich European countries and in America, calculates Axel Borsch-Supan of the Mannheim Research Institute for the Economics of Ageing.

To head off such relative decline, Germany needs to re-engineer not only the welfare state but its attitudes towards immigrants, women and people over 60. Against its conservative instincts it has made a start. In the past ten years it has done more to integrate minorities than in the previous 40, says Klaus Bade, the immigration scholar. When “guest workers” from Turkey, Italy and Greece flooded in to alleviate labour shortages in the 1950s and 60s, Germans thought they would eventually leave again; during the 1980s the government tried to pay them to go. Now it accepts that Germany is an “immigration country”. A citizenship law passed in 2000 which said that people not born German could become so was followed in 2005 by an immigration law that inched open the doors for skilled foreigners.

The government has maintained a cautious momentum, balancing welcome with a demand that immigrants adapt to German ways. Under a “national integration plan” orchestrated by the grand coalition, language training for immigrants and their children is being expanded and businesses have promised to create extra training places for migrants. The coalition set up a standing “Islam Conference” to negotiate relations between the religion and the state. Its main successes, according to Mr Bade, were to establish that Muslims see no contradiction between their faith and Germany’s constitution, and to agree in principle to teach Islam in state schools, as Judaism and Christianity already are.

In 2008 Cem Ozdemir, a Swabian of Turkish origin, became co-chairman of the Greens, the first hyphenated German to lead a big party. The first Turkish-origin police inspector debuted on “Tatort” (crime scene), a popular television series, in the same year. When Mrs Merkel named Philipp Rosler, who was born in Vietnam, as health minister in her new government, there was little comment. Second-generation immigrants fare better than their parents. Ethnic Turks born in Germany are twice as likely to pass the Abitur as those born in Turkey itself, though still only half as likely as native Germans to do so. Those who manage to obtain professional qualifications generally prosper in their careers, but this progress is partially masked by new arrivals of unskilled immigrants, often for marriage.

Neither side is sure where all this is leading. Germany lacks the republican assertiveness of France, which bars schoolgirls from wearing headscarves, and the populist self-confidence of Switzerland, which voted to ban minarets in a referendum last November. But that does not mean that it is more relaxed about migrants. In some ways it is less so. For example, citizens of non-EU countries cannot hold dual citizenship, which they are able to do in France and the Netherlands. When Thilo Sarrazin, a former Berlin finance minister, last year put forward the claim, which many saw as bordering on racist, that most of the city’s Turks and Arabs were “neither willing to integrate nor capable of it”, polls found that a majority of Germans agreed with him.

If integration means a willingness to embrace German identity, he is right. Only a third of Turks have given up their passports to become German citizens, and even the most successful among them have reservations. Ufuk Topkara, a young naturalised German perfectly at home with his Turkish-German identity, maintains that “the moment you speak German you are German,” but explains that many of his Turkish friends disagree: “They go on about being Turks living in Germany.” If on the other hand integration means speaking German, belonging to the middle class and obeying the law, then his friends are already there. The problem is that too many do not recover from a poor start in life. About half of young children in Neukolln need remedial German classes before they go to school. There is no sanction if their parents refuse to take them.

Now the government wants to make it easier for mothers to go back to work after childbirth. The grand coalition introduced “parents’ pay”, a benefit linked to the new parents’ salaries that allows either of them to take up to 12 months off. This has started to make a difference to family life. The share of fathers taking paternity leave normally for an extra two monthsohas jumped from 3.5% to more than 20%; the most doting ones, surprisingly, are in conservative Bavaria, where more than a quarter of new fathers take the benefit.

By 2013 croche places will be available for a third of children younger than three, and children over one will be entitled to a place if the parents want it. That may be difficult to achieve in practice. Local governments, which foot part of the bill for day care, are in dire financial straits. The expansion in most states remains “grossly underfunded”, says Gisela Erler, owner of Familienservice, a company that operates croches. She reckons it will take 20 years before the promised number of decent-quality places can be provided. But what has been put in motion, she notes, is nonetheless “a huge step”.

No politician openly opposes that, but conservatives in Mrs Merkel’s CDU have persuaded her also to accept a benefit called Betreuungsgeld, made to mothers who prefer to stay home with their children. For people like Mr Buschkowsky, this is a disastrous departure from the progressive policy of encouraging women to work and young children to attend German-speaking pre-schools. The conservatives invoke freedom of choice. “People know what’s best for them,” says Stefan Mappus, the premier of Baden-Worttemberg. “It’s sad that when you want to strengthen the family people accuse you of defending an obsolete model.”

In business, pragmatism reigns. BMW supports four kindergartens in Bavaria and is trying to make the work culture more family-friendly. “The best worker isn’t always the one who stays till 8pm,” says Mr Kroger, the personnel chief. BMW now lets workers take sabbaticals and up to 20 days’ extra holiday a year in return for lower pay. He wants to arrange things so that working part-time does not mean dropping out of professional life. But family friendliness alone will not shield BMW from the coming demographic storm. By 2016, says Mr Kroger, “we won’t make it without engineers from other parts of the world.”

People and history

Burying myths, uncovering truth
Mar 11th 2010 | BELFAST, MADRID AND NAIROBI
From The Economist print edition

In the aftermath of fighting or repression, people are often told to forget things. But in free societies, selective memory cannot be imposed for ever.

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THE 15 boxes of bones were wrapped in the red, yellow and purple flag of the Second Republic. Each held the remains of a man whose support for a brief political experiment in the 1930s had proved fatal. At a ceremony in Madrid on March 6th the bones were given to descendants: mostly middle-aged grandchildren, but sometimes already aged sons or daughters.

They wept for men they had mostly never known. The victims had died of hunger and disease in one of the makeshift prison camps set up by General Francisco Franco in the early days of his 36-year dictatorship, established after the republic’s defeat in a bloody, three-year civil war.

It is only now, 34 years after Franco’s own death brought a rapid transition to democracy, that the bodies have been exhumed from a piece of wasteland near Burgos. “It was very, very moving,” said Jose Marca Gonzalez, who led the group that campaigned to have the bodies dug up. “I recovered my grandfather’s remains. It was something that, before he died, I had promised my own father I would do.”

This story is just one of hundreds of tales of Francoist repression that have emerged as the result of a citizens’ movement to disinter and identify victims. It started when a journalist, Emilio Silva, penned an article about his grandfather’s death at the hands of a Francoist death squad. He went to his grandfather’s home region of El Bierzo, in north-western Spain, in 2000. People pointed him to the spot where the body was buried. Mr Silva dug up a mass grave containing not just his grandfather but a dozen other victims.

News of the exhumations spread and imitators appeared. Suddenly Spaniards found that thousands, or tens of thousands, of Francoist victims lay in unmarked graves scattered around the countryside. Years of official silence, in Franco’s time, were followed by an unofficial pact of forgetting as Spain’s young democracy agreed to look forward, not back. The grave-diggers broke the silence. Their effort to find the truth has snowballed; now Mr Silva heads a group called the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, with branches all over Spain. Some 5,000 sets of remains have been recovered so far from 170 grave sites. The association has a list of 12,000 families who are now searching for the remains of lost relatives.

In places across the world whose recent past has been scarred by repression, war or both, attempts have been made by the authorities (from governments to warlords) to lay down rules about what must be remembered and what must be forgotten. Often, it seems too risky to give free rein to the investigation and commemoration of the past. But people’s patience has limits; sooner or later ordinary citizens will challenge the prevailing wisdom and demand a fuller account. And unearthing the past often means literally that: digging graves and studying the evidence.

The trouble with truth

In Northern Ireland more than a decade after the “Troubles” largely ended, peace activists say there are still huge obstacles to a search for the full facts. This may reflect the ambivalent nature of a “settlement”, based on a blanket amnesty and with the territory’s future wide-open. Given that hardliners have gained influence since the killing stopped, the constituency for real truth-telling (probing all dirty secrets) is weak. But Marie Breen-Smyth, co-founder of a truth recovery group called “Healing Through Remembering”, says the wish for full disclosure is strong among many of those worst affected by war.

Nor does the overthrow of a tyrannical order instantly make it easy to examine the past. Sometimes elements of the old regime remain influential, and threaten to make a comeback. That was the case in Argentina in the 1980s, recalls Mimi Doretti, a veteran of that country’s human-rights movement, who pioneered the use of forensic science to reveal the fate of Argentina’s 10,000 or more “disappeared”. Only in recent times, a quarter-century after the junta’s fall, have enough facts been gathered to enable hundreds of prosecutions. A similar pattern of gradual truth recovery has occurred in many Latin American countries that underwent tyranny.

In other cases the removal of one set of despots paves the way for another “received” truth which people question at their peril. In Rwanda the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide were replaced by the Rwandan Popular Front (RPF), whose own record is not spotless. But any Rwandan citizen who doubted the RPF’s version of the genocide could face jail. Zimbabwe, Uganda and Ethiopia are other examples of African states where ex-rebels have imposed new versions of history. But Kenya stands out as a country where the grass-roots demand for truth-telling (for example after the bloodshed of 2008) is strong.

Sometimes quite a lot of time has to pass before real truth-telling starts. But even in the most entrenched of conflicts, the passage of years emboldens people to question official stories. Take Cyprus, an island whose de facto partition in 1974 enabled the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot authorities to impose their respective versions of that year’s fighting and previous rounds of mayhem. For at least two decades after 1974 a key role in the Greek-Cypriot story was played by the 1,619 people said to be missing after the Turkish invasion of July 1974. The Turkish-Cypriots countered that 809 of their people were missing, mainly after the bloodshed of the 1960s. Each side played down killings that occurred in its own ranks, and blamed the “enemy” for its lost sons and daughters.

Neither tale was wholly false. But a subtler truth began emerging around 1998, when two Greek-Cypriot women went to a cemetery with pickaxes and hacked away at the marble slabs where they said their husbands were buried. When police stopped them, they summoned cameras: they had exposed the fact that the government knew the locations of some of the “missing”; indeed, they were on Greek-controlled land, so perfectly accessible.

Investigative journalism by a Greek-Cypriot, Andreas Paraschos, and a Turkish-Cypriot, Sevgul Uludag, helped establish that the sites of many mass or individual graves were in fact known to the authorities. Mrs Uludag got death threats from within her community, and was once assaulted by hard-line Greek-Cypriots, as she helped expose how some of the killings had been by extremists acting against their own respective sides. Partly thanks to a change of line by Greek-Cypriot diplomats, a bicommunal effort to recover and identify remains started in 2004; so far over 800 have been examined.

The parallels between Cyprus and Spain have been explored by two Belfast-based scholars, Iosif Kovras and Neophytos Loizides*, who say both cases highlight the same paradox. On one hand, there is an (often reasonable) sense in countries recovering from conflict (especially an internecine one where communities or even families were split) that opening tender wounds could reignite war. But “selective oblivion” and the peace it buys can’t last for ever. One day people start remembering and they demand the truth.

See “Delaying truth recovery for missing persons”, a paper by Iosif Kovras and Neophytos Loizides

In This Sterile Diorama, Life Is but a Theme

By Stephen Bayley – April 9, 1992

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LONDON, On his first trip to the United States, Charles Dickens was struck by the temporary nature of all that he saw. In Lowell, Massachusetts, he felt that most of the buildings had been erected the day before he arrived. This sense of urgency and immediacy struck other contemporary visitors, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Fanny Trollope, and still strikes people today. A rootless urgency characterizes American culture, which is why the nation has developed such a complicated modern heraldry: McDonald’s franchises, Hertz bureaus and Coke. In a vast continent with a shallow history, people crave and cling to symbols.

Twenty miles east of Paris may seem an odd place to start brooding on American national characteristics, but it is here that Euro Disney (provenance: California 1955, Florida 1971, Tokyo 1983) has landed, and the Old World is presented with all the confident, big ticket flimflam of painstaking fakery that this bizarre campaign of reverse-engineered cultural imperialism represents. Is Euro Disney a good thing?

Only if you enjoy pseudo-events and have a taste for phantasmagoric kitsch. Euro Disney exists because of two major schisms in contemporary culture. One between travel and tourism. The other, between education and entertainment. Caldern wrote a play “La Vida Es Sueo.” For Euro Disney life is not a dream, but a theme.

Disney stands for tourism and entertainment, which is to say it is not for the high-minded, but it is for people – of whatever nationality – who are pleased to demonstrate their trade or sporting affiliations by means of logos on trucker’s caps. There is a surprising number of these people about.

The statistics of Euro Disney are reminiscent, in their size and horrific suggestiveness, of the awful aggregate of numbers spat out by World War I. With a total projected size of 5,000 acres (about one-fifth the area of Paris), 5,200 hotel rooms already available and an anticipated attendance of 11 million in its first year, Euro Disney and its shows, rides, themed shops and themed restaurants threaten to shift Europe’s center of gravity. Anyway, it’s an ill wind. Maybe the Louvre will be empty after next Sunday.

There is no gainsaying the optimism, commitment and quality of Euro Disney, a brilliantly buffed-up exercise in professional leisure management, but equally the fastidious aesthete is lost for words at the grotesque vulgarity of it all, a vulgarity doubly damaging because it is so effortless to consume. Life is a theme: Camp Davy Crockett, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle (43 meters tall), a hotel got up to look like a Rhode Island clapboard mansion (architect: Robert A. M. Stern), Sequoia Lodge (“for a Rocky Mountain high without leaving Europe”) and Mainstreet USA (from an original idea by Charles Dickens) are demonstrations of the great Disney machine humming mightily on well-lubricated bearings, extruding seamless and inoffensive themes. It is all so undemandingly mindless, the Prince of Wales might have been the master architect. There is no grit in the mechanism, no flies in the soup, no truculent waiters, no exaltation, no boredom. Forget exploration or hazard; Euro Disney offers a version of culture with the effect of intravenous Valium and elevator music.

This is where the travel-tourism and education-entertainment distinction comes to light. The reason why travel is better than tourism andeducationbetter than entertainment is that, ultimately, they are more rewarding for everyone. Such pleasures as there may be in tourism and entertainment are in any case assumed by travel and education. Difficulty enhances pleasure; themed ease may be immediately gratifying, but progressively diminishes the potential for delight. The difference is hard work, risk, effort: the things that distinguish worthwhile experiences from the worthless ones. Euro Disney is kitsch; it is bad art. This is not to say that it will not be immensely popular because, as H. L. Mencken knew, no one ever went bust underestimating the public’s taste. With its roster of postmodern architects and its seductive catalogue of risk-free themes – no Liverpool dockside or Naples back alley here- Euro Disney takes underestimation to new heights.

But wait a minute. Maybe the synthetic and saccharine easy-listening experience will soon acquire a period charm. Euro Disney has plans through to 2017, but I wonder if new technology will make it redundant before then. You don’t have to be a happy-clappy Silicon Valley hippie to see that computer-driven virtual reality is set to upstage Euro Disney before the millennium. The first stage of the separation of tourism from travel may have been to jet in jumbos of credulous, uninquisitive proles to look at synthetic tableaux, board them for the night and jet them back again, but the crucial second stage will be to make them stay at home strapping on virtual-reality body stockings and having a Davy Crockett experience, complete with wood fires, mosquitoes and chipmunk droppingsin the easeful, unthemed comfort of home. All thanks to high definition television and some fiendishly powerful chips.

I like to think that by the turn of the century Euro Disney will have become a deserted city, similar to Angkor Wat or Arc-et-Senans:a haunting reminder of a knowing, but innocent, past age. Those hungry for the tourist experience or avid for entertainment will let the fingers of their virtual-reality gloves do the walking. The rest of us can get back to traveling, and here is Disney’s greatest opportunity yet. With eye-popping professionalism, Euro Disney turns the dirt and danger of the American frontier into a cloying, undemanding, perfectly safe, synthetic, valueless, themed sensation.

By about 2001 only real travelers will be moving around the globe. If only Disney’s nerveless, competent, entirely safe and thoroughly professional expertise could be applied to the dirt and danger of the world’s great airports, then a great service would be done for civilization. Alas, the same cannot be said for Euro Disney.

Stephen Bayley is the author, most recently, of “Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things.”