Learning to Love Globalization

In a climate-controlled conference room in Secaucus, New Jersey, G. Clothaire Rapaille is smoothly welcoming a handful of grateful corporate clients to his latest project. Rapaille has only recently become notorious. As the Jungian-archetype analyst of American business, his method of consumer research includes asking people to lie down on the floor on pillows and recall early childhood memories concerning consumer products. He convenes focus groups to unlock the codes of consumers' "cultural unconscious"--codes he says dictate their tastes and buying patterns--and then he hands the key to corporations, for a price. Rapaille has done menstruation in this way for Johnson & Johnson and barbecue sauce for Kraft.


This season, he's chosen something more challenging. Instead of a product analysis, the clients shaking his hand in Secaucus are here to watch Rapaille unlock "globalization"--on behalf of the globalizers. "The danger is real," his faxed communiqué warned them. "Are we going to see consumers around the world unify their forces with unions and activists of all sorts to attack companies ... even YOUR company?" For only $95,000 (a discount applies for repeat clients), a corporation can get some answers.


The clients settle down to a catered breakfast as Rapaille lays out plans for the morning's focus group. Two weeks earlier, these corporate executives observed the globalization study's first groups in San Francisco. After Secaucus, some will continue on to Seattle and to Boca Raton, Florida. Then others will replace them--in Paris, London, and the outposts of progress of lesser nations--until the archetypal code has been broken.


Rapaille is a handsome man, energetic, with wavy hair, wearing a gray polo shirt and gray trousers. A bottle of Perfect Body pills sits in his open briefcase. "I'm not sure åglobalization' is the right word," he ruminates in his lovely French-accented English. "I'm pretty sure it's not the right word."


The clients, eager for results, propose other words. What if they call the changing order a "global community"? Or use the adjective "world-class"? Rapaille shakes his head, concerned with the deep psychology: "There was no globalization when they were children... . Maybe it's Hitler? Maybe it's Dr. Strangelove? Is that why they hate it?"


We are about to find out why they hate it. Next door, on the opposite side of a silvered one-way mirror, "they" will shortly be trooped into a large session room: a group of perhaps 30 ordinary respondents, solicited to come discuss a topic as yet undisclosed to them.


Rapaille stands elegantly beside a giant easel inside the session room. "My name is Gil," he says, "and I just arrived from another planet." Here is his pitch: He is an alien; he knows nothing about the strangeness of human ways and wants to learn. Meanwhile, he and his clients have demographic sheets in their briefcases that spell out the occupation, status, and dollar income of each member of this new focus group. Old and young, men and women, all they have in common is that they are employed flexibly or unreliably enough to be available during work hours on a Monday.


The alien tells them to ignore their "five shifts" at work, their "three kids," their fatigue, and deliver to him their most basic associations. "Don't be too intelligent," he instructs. He flips a page on the easel. A single word is visible in Magic Marker capitals: GLOBALIZATION. "What is this?" Rapaille asks, pointing. "How do you feel about this?"


The response starts slowly. A few people offer hazy associations, as deferential as students in a classroom. An older woman in a yellow blazer speaks up with the first complaint. "It's less personal now," she says. "Nothing's personal. You used to talk to a person; now I talk to a button on a keyboard. It's all machines. Life's not fun anymore."


"No more privacy," a gruff voice offers.


Rapaille is pleased. He draws them out. Are other people dissatisfied?


They are. "The world is getting too small. There's no more mystery anymore... ."


Rapaille wants specifics. "Is there a moment in your life when you felt that it was happening?"


On my side of the room, a dignified, silver-haired grandfather straightens up to speak. "In the '70s," he suggests, "I felt there was a growing gap between employer and employee. You were just a widget."


But a woman who works in retail blames consumers instead: They're in a frenzy for possessions--driving fast, shouting into cell phones, shopping like maniacs.


"It's a fight for the dollar," the woman in the yellow blazer pipes up.


There is a kind of electricity in the room. The speakers are becoming eloquent. Their vague discomforts coalesce--they are finishing one another's sentences.


"Do you have a choice?" Rapaille asks. "If I come back to your planet in 20 years... . Do you feel good?"


"It doesn't matter how I feel about it!" a sweaty young man with long hair announces, cheerily nihilistic. "It's inevitable."


"There's a sense of powerlessness. You have to roll with it."


Rapaille is writing everything down. "Can you try to forecast the future?"


"If the haves would give something to the have-nots," a man with a mustache says. "If you could break that down and get people together, you'd have a much better chance."


"A study said the U.S. is number 37 in health care. Places I never heard of are ahead of us!"


"Maybe I should not come back to visit your planet," Rapaille jests as the conversation winds down.


"Maybe you've got something better to offer!"


That ends the more conscious portion of the session. We still have two hours to go. The respondents proceed through word association, then relaxation exercises. Finally, ready at last, they lie down on Rapaille's famous pillows. They are instructed to write down their earliest, most powerful, and most recent memories of globalization. People fill pages.


"I trust them," Rapaille tells me later, flipping through his notes. "I don't believe what they say. But I trust the unconscious. I listen to everything. Maybe I listen to them more than anyone else does."


Unfortunately, his corporate clients are still listening to their conscious. Gathered in the session room after the respondents have been excused, they are clearly wounded by the focus group's first-hour comments. So gloomy! So many naysayers!


An assistant dutifully records the executives' observations on a board full of "insights." "World Domination," he writes. "Globalization = Hitler = Romans = Corporations."


What ensues is a corporate therapy group over which Rapaille benevolently presides. The conversation comes back frequently, relievedly, to technology. This--not wages, jobs, or culture, but cell phones, world travel, and fast computers--is evidently what Rapaille might call the executive's "archetypal code" for globalization, and his clients bathe in its glow, irradiated by the promise of ease and speed.


"These people were saying, åI'm not connected!'" a man from a household-products corporation says, rolling his eyes at the impossibility of it. He boasts of his ability to reach his children's pediatrician whenever he's globetrotting on business.


Someone else remembers the network TV programming on millennium eve. "It was a world party. It makes me emotional thinking about it."


Their conviction seems entirely genuine. People don't realize how good they've got it. Corporations give money to charity! Though when the conversation turns to Nike's philanthropic giving--an effort to placate critics of the company's use of sweatshops--one banker suddenly recommends giving "them" nothing. "You have to say, åHow many people actually know about this stuff, and how many care?'" he declares. "I mean, these people don't buy running shoes anyway. Well, not the high-margin ones."


By this time, the execs have decamped again to the plush breakfast room behind the one-way mirror, where the countertops hold plates filled with candy. An assistant interrupts with piles of papers--xeroxed and collated copies of the stories the focus group respondents handwrote just a short while earlier. Everyone begins reading.


They are soon shaking their heads and murmuring. Something went wrong. Whether from confusion or recalcitrance, instead of writing down their earliest and most powerful memories of globalization, many of the respondents put down their earliest or most powerful memories--period.


Here is one: "When I was 2 or 3 years old, my father, out of love, put a hot match tip to my finger to stop my playing with matches--he had a niece who was burned to death that way."


And another: "In 1969 when I was a newly married person about 26 years old we bought a house. I needed someone to wait at the empty house for a carpet delivery... . No one could help me except my father. He had cancer... . He stayed at the cold empty house... . The delivery never came. He drove home got into bed and never was able to go out again. He died November 20th 1969. I have never forgiven myself."


Then again, some others did write about globalization: "My most recent experience with one planet is I haven't had one with things that are going on in my life like having 3 kids not being able to afford college for all of them."


"Don't worry," Rapaille's assistant tells the clients. "A lot of times we can take these stories that seem to be about nothing important and pick out some real gems."


Outside, the authors of the stories line up to receive their checks. For one session, $75. I stop a few of them on the steps. A woman who used to work in a factory describes to me how hard it is to get into a focus group like this. The others elaborate: It is a real opportunity--not only do you get paid, but somebody asks your opinion. The man with the mustache--he of the haves and have-nots--lights up a cigarette and agrees.


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