rollover: the hidden history of the suv
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interview: martin goldfarb
Chairman of the Toronto-based market research firm Goldfarb Consultants, which he founded in 1965, Goldfarb is an anthropologist by training and has specialized in the study of human behavior as it relates to the marketplace. A longtime marketing consultant to Ford, he started working on SUV campaigns in the early 1980s and was among the first to see their potential. Here, he shares his thoughts on the marketing history of SUVs and the relationship between safety concerns and market demands. This interview was conducted in June 2001.

Why is the sport utility vehicle so popular?

It filled a whole group of very important needs, both physical needs and psychological needs. First of all, it transported families in a sporty way that minivans did not do. Minivans became the alter ego for station wagons, which were suburban vehicles, and there was a whole group of people who really felt they wanted more zest for life. And sport utility vehicles had this robust, aggressive design; they were 4-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive vehicles. The first ones were all 4-wheel drive vehicles. They could take you anywhere; they were rugged. They did those kinds of things which reflected America's personality. ...

Congress, remember, passed legislation [Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (CAFE), in 1975] that downsized cars. After the downsizing of cars, you ended up with a minivan. But then minivans were like extensions of station wagons. And people had this sense that they didn't want to be soccer moms. Young families didn't want to move kids only in those vehicles. ... Kids go to college every year, and they wanted something that was a little more sporty, a little more aggressive. And it expressed a sense of individuality. I think sport utility vehicles were almost like John Wayne vehicles. It was the excitement of discovery, the excitement of America, the rugged individual. ...

The other thing you should understand, the whole love affair with trucks in the United States moved beyond trucks as work vehicles. Trucks became personal use vehicles. When they became personal use vehicles, people began to... They tricked them up, they painted them, they put leather seats in them, and they began to use them in a way that cars and minivans were not used. So out of the personal use of trucks grew the concept of a sport utility vehicle, higher off the ground, rugged, great visibility, because you felt you were in charge of the world. If anybody smaller than you got in front of you could kind of run them over -- even though you didn't want to do that -- but you had this feeling of personal power. ...

I also think these were vehicles that were uniquely American. These vehicles really said "America, we're risk takers, America, we're rugged." America could take the world on. Nowhere else were these vehicles sold except in America. ... America likes to do its own thing, and these vehicles allowed America to do its own thing. ...

You worked with Ford on this, so let's talk about Ford. Was Ford aware when it got into this game that there was this market for these kinds of vehicles? And take me back to when you first began doing work on this for Ford -- when was that?

I started working on these vehicles for Ford in the early 1980s. I think the genius of this was a man named Ed Hagenlocker, who ultimately became the president of Ford Motor Company. He was a physicist at Ford, but was in charge of the truck program. He evolved the truck program into SUVs, because he began to understand the personal use of trucks. And he transferred that, in my mind, into SUVs. I don't think anybody ever had the vision that this would be as big as it was. ...

The Bronco II is the first generation of these kinds of vehicles, a kind of preliminary generation to the so-called sport utility vehicles, like the Explorer. Explain that relationship to me.

[The Explorer] was a vehicle to replace the Bronco II, or to grow from the Bronco II, because the Bronco II had a limited audience. It was more a male, single, or young couple vehicle. Well, this was going to be a family vehicle, but gave you that same sport environment, that same outdoor feeling that a Bronco II did. ... The Bronco II was this 4-wheel drive vehicle that gave people the sense they could conquer anything, it could go anywhere. ... Explorer allowed the family to do that. It was bigger than a Bronco II. It sat five people comfortably and safely. So that was a huge difference between the Explorer and the Bronco II. ...

Was the Explorer a sort of next-generation Bronco II, was it just sort of a 4-door Bronco II, was it a whole new product line, or somewhere in between?

It was a whole new thing. ... It was a whole new category of vehicle. People began to move to Explorer from trucks. So instead of personalizing your truck with a bed on the back of it, you could go to an Explorer. Yet the Explorer could do many of the things that the truck can do. You moved your kid to college on the weekend. You could do that. You wanted to go up to a summer home or a cottage; you could load it up in the summertime. You wanted to go skiing, you could go skiing with it in the mountainous areas, because it was a 4-wheel drive vehicle.

Most people, remember, never use SUVs to go off-road. They drive them around cities. But there's this projection: 'I could if I want to, even though I don't.

So the Explorer really began to fulfill a desire to do physical activities in the United States. You know, skiing took off as well in the 1970s and 1980s, it became a family sport; it wasn't just a sport for wealthy people. Cars like Explorer exemplify the desire to do physical things that had a dangerous tonality to it, like skiing, and Explorer was part of that.

Was the Explorer market a new market for Ford? When you did your market research, what did you say to Ford about market opportunity? Where did you want to take the Explorer that the Bronco wasn't reaching?

... We were creating a whole new psyche about a vehicle. So with Explorer, you attracted people, consumers, from other American product. But you're also beginning to attract people who were gravitating very quickly to the Japanese product and the European product.

If you wanted to be part of a sport utility product, you had to come to America, because nobody else had one in those days. So if you had a Toyota or a Nissan and you wanted a sport utility vehicle, you saw many households would have a foreign car and an American sport utility vehicle. They wanted to participate in the culture that a sport utility vehicle implied you were partaking in.

Were women an important target of the Explorer, in your mind?

Very much so. Women love the idea of sitting up high and not driving a truck per se. So they did things to those vehicles that made them attractive to women, for example, assist straps in getting in, assist straps in closing the rear door. Things like leather seats and heated seats, and air conditioning in front and back. You began to do things with those vehicles that made them very car-like, yet you had this feeling that you were on top of the world because you were sitting above cars.

Why not just market to women a station wagon, as they've always driven?

Because women began to work, and the station wagon implied stay-at-home women. And as more and more women entered the work world and you had two-worker households in families, they didn't want to imply that they were just stay-home women. ... Explorer allowed them to be at work and to express this desire to be individuals, to succeed in the work world as well as being individuals at home. So Explorer expressed a whole new cultural experience, which was women were entering the work world. They were proud of it, and they didn't have to explain away the station wagon. ...

The sport utility vehicle, in essence, became a replacement for the station wagon -- on some psychological level, had the same function -- but it had a different psychological meaning?

I'd say yes, but it was more than that. Because the station wagon was really -- you surrendered that the family would dominate your behavior, while a sport utility vehicle allowed you to have family activity and still be an individual; that the family didn't supercede everything else in your life, you still had a little zest for life. There was still some tease with danger and tease with how you looked to the marketplace when you were in an SUV, which is very different than a station wagon.

You know, it's like Marilyn Monroe in all of her movies. There was this sensuous tease about life in general. Sport utility vehicles were a part of that conception that life in America was about having a good time, but there was a lot of tease in it. Because most people, remember, never use sport utility vehicles to go off road. They drive them around cities. But there's this projection, "I could if I want to, even though I don't."

Going back, you were there helping Ford with market research at a very difficult time, the late 1970s. I don't think people really remember how hard it was for Ford Motor Company. Take us back. Put me in the mindset of Ford Motor Company. Did you do any work for them during this time when they were -- 1980, I think -- they lost something like $2 billion? What was going on inside Ford during this very difficult time when they're getting clobbered by the Japanese imports and the fuel [economy standards]?

We had to survive. Ford Motor Company had to survive. And we did a huge exercise that said you had to do some things in general to survive. And the first thing we had to do is convince people that you made quality product. That was the time when you had the "Quality Is Job One" [advertising] campaign. ... Americans [had] lost confidence in American workers producing good product in a plant. ... What "Quality Is Job One" did, we convinced the company that the filming should be done on the assembly line, so that the guy in the assembly line looked like your next door neighbor; he was one of you. That campaign worked brilliantly, and they ran it for 12 or 13 years. So the "Quality Is Job One" campaign was not just about Ford; it was about convincing Americans to trust Americans in the auto industry, and it did. And that was the beginning, I believe, of the real turnaround for Ford in the auto industry.

We did a study in Marin County [California] and I'll never forget it. We convinced Ford executives to come and observe the respondents we were interviewing. We interviewed hundreds of people in Marin County, and not one had ever been in a Ford Motor Company product. It shocked them, because they thought Ford was one of the best known brands in the world. Here was California, life was evolving, and everybody thought if you can't make it in California, you're never going to make it anywhere. And we couldn't find people who, never mind owned a Ford product, but most of them had never been in a Ford product.

I think this was a huge shock to Ford management. ... These guys really took it to heart and said, "You know what, we've got to come to grips with this. We can't be in a position where nobody knows who we are."...

When you look at the 1980s and the 1990s, did the light truck market, and particularly the sport utility vehicle market, was it part of an American strategy to go this direction? Did this become a part of our performance that offset the penetration of small Japanese cars?

Absolutely. Remember, Toyota truck was the number one seller in America in the middle 1980s. When Ford Ranger became a personal use truck, we went right by them. That is, Ford introduced a conception of a truck vehicle that was never conceived before -- that is, you didn't use it for work. You used it for personal use. And you dressed it up for personal use. You painted it for personal use. You put leather seats in it, you put great sound in it. Once Ford began to build personal use trucks, Ranger became the number one seller in that category. It still is, by the way.

And Explorer?

Well, the platform [for the Explorer] came off the Ranger. And Explorer was introduced as a personal use, rugged vehicle that you could take anywhere in America and feel comfortable in with you or one other person or two other persons. It was a guy's vehicle; it was a family vehicle; or it was a vehicle you could go out for dinner with in a gown, in a tuxedo. So it was the all-purpose American vehicle. And it worked like a charm. ...

Why did the Explorer become such a big hit? It had competitors. Why did it come to dominate the market so suddenly and immediately?

Well, it had a better package. By package, I mean its features, interior, were better. Jeep had a product, but the Jeep, for example, the spare tire was in the way. It just took up half the space of the storage capacity. Ford packaged this vehicle where the tire was underneath. The storage capacity was full. Explorer had better ingress and egress for the vehicle. They organized it in a way that met the needs of consumers in getting in and getting out of the vehicle and fulfilling the storage capability.

I think they just did a better job. They packaged it better, they built it better, and I also think they marketed it better. Explorer became America's vehicle. It was America's response to the success of the Japanese and Europeans in other areas. ...

Explorer, and personal use trucks, really were leadership concepts, and the world followed. ... Everybody was talking about the Japanese taking over the world in terms of the auto industry. Ford introduced personal use trucks, Ford introduced the Explorer, and guess what happened, everybody began to follow. ... As The Wall Street Journal said at the time, "Ford is on a roll." Well, it was on a roll, and the world was imitating it. ...

Was Ford surprised by the Explorer's popularity?

I think so. I think everybody was surprised that they had captured the American psyche in a vehicle and it took off like it did. Certainly their intention was to do it. But there's no research that can predict how successful you're going to be. Most research will allow us to give you leverage in decision making, will prevent obvious failures, I believe, but will never predict great successes.

So even yourself, with all your market research, you were surprised.

You've got to be realistic about the potential of predicting the future. We're not soothsayers, we're not palm readers. We're trying to understand behavior and use that understanding in helping a client develop and market a product. ...

Marketing is a force for change. ... And the products you bring to the market change the perception of how the market uses those products. Explorer was really a force for change, as an example. You brought a product that changed the structure of the market. It moved to Explorer. Honda did it with Accord. It was a totally different conception of car, and a whole group of people -- because there was no such thing as that size car before -- yet it fulfilled a whole set of physical and psychological needs [in a way] that nobody else had done before. Explorer did it, really did it, big time. ...

How do companies deal with conflict between the product mission and the market mission? I'm sure that must happen. ... You have engineers and product designers over here, kind of coming up with a concept for a vehicle.

You have product designers, and they design a product against a platform that engineers designed. The physical product has to sit on a chassis. Then you have guys over here who are going to market the product, and then you have guys over here who are going to tell you whether you're spending too much money, finance guys. The finance guys are always pushing the PD guys about, "You spent too much money in that product," and the engineers are saying, "I want to do more with technology." And then the finance guys are saying, "We can't afford that technology." And the marketing guys want everything. The marketing guys always want everything, because they want to be out there in front with a product and an idea that others have to imitate.

The product development guys develop product against needs that market research or marketing would bring to the PD guys. There were some needs identified; let's design a product to fulfill these needs. The engineers are going to try to put that product into a platform that the finance guys are going to say we can afford. ... So you have this constant tension between finance, PD, engineering and marketing. And they're forever pushing each other. ...

The finance guys are forever challenging, "Why are you putting an extra buck into this?" or an extra 15 cents into that little feature. Because the question they always ask is, "Is it going to sell any more cars?" The truth of the matter is you don't know. But you know that you want to have content that makes people feel good about that product. ...

So the market research that you do is very sophisticated and very precise.

We do a lot of market research. We do all kinds of it. You do cultural research, you do product research, you do drive tests. Ford is not short of data; I don't think any car company is. Remember, you put a car out today, you're talking in the billions of dollars. When you start with a whole new platform, you're talking $3 billion, $4 billion with a totally brand-new vehicle. Even with the existing platform, you're talking billions of dollars. So the stakes are high. You can't make a lot of mistakes and stay in the car business.

Let me ask you about safety, because that's obviously hot on people's minds these days, surrounding the Explorer. Today you can barely watch a television commercial that doesn't mention something about the vehicle safety. Why are car makers putting that message in their vehicles today?

As society becomes more affluent, individuals think they have more to live for. ... As a result, as cars got more expensive, you saw more safety features first built into luxury cars, and then they swept down into less expensive cars.

Safety has become a given today. I mean, you've got to be there. There was a time when it was an exclusive privilege of the very wealthy. Now that privilege is declining to some extent ... it's gone into less expensive cars. It's like any piece of technology. ... Now the issue is what new safety devices can you put in there, whether it's safety curtains and six air bags and a whole bunch of other things you're going to see. So I think safety now has become an expectation, a given in the marketplace, and more and more companies are going to be screaming safety in order to satisfy consumer demand.

Did safety always sell?

No, it didn't. I mean, I remember Ford introduced airbags in the first Tempo. People wouldn't buy them; they had to give them away. They gave them to an insurance company. People would not buy airbags. They were afraid of them. Same as seat belts. It's more important than an airbag -- it's more important than anything you do in a vehicle -- and yet lots of people don't want to wear seat belts to this day. And seat belts are fundamental to your security in a vehicle, if you talk to any safety engineer. Yet we still have this fight about "My freedom. I don't have to wear it."...

The new 2002 Explorer -- have you been involved in that rollout in terms of market research?

We have, but I would prefer not to talk a lot about that.

Let's talk generally about it. The new 2002 Explorer, which is out now, is part of the same kind of things we've been talking about. It's been marketed with a heavy emphasis on safety, as have all the new generation SUVs.

Well, they've improved the safety of all those vehicles. Because the fact is ... as competitors stepped up safety content in vehicles, everybody else has jumped in and said, "We're going to." It's a given. The guys with the least safety are not going to sell their vehicles, no matter how much other stuff you got. So it's socially acceptable now to look for safety when you go to a dealership and look for a vehicle. You say, "What are the safety features, how many stars has it got, how many airbags, does it have side airbag curtains?"

What's really happened in the last three years that's changed the whole marketing strategy of all the companies is the Web. People go to a dealership armed with information. The average consumer walks into a dealership knowing a lot more about the product he wants to buy than the guy selling it.

So a good safety record has become a prerequisite to selling your vehicle?

Good safety features have become fundamental in going to the marketplace.

Let me talk about the crisis that Ford and Firestone have publicly been going through now, because it touches on the question of safety, and I'm curious what's at stake for these companies, given the climate you're describing. ... You're obviously an expert at public perception; that's what you do for a living. Ford has been reported as having said that they've done market research -- they may have used you to do it -- to measure peoples' perceptions about this problem. ... In this case, Ford didn't deny the problem. They came immediately out and said, "We have a problem; it's the tire." And Firestone sort of hemmed and hawed a little bit and now a year later have come around to say, "You know what, we do have a problem; it's the car." Where does the public think this problem is? Have you asked? Have you done work?

Yes, we've done a lot of work on this.

What's the public's point of view on this?

The public's point of view is that Ford is a reliable, responsible American icon, and they want to trust it. And they're less likely to trust Firestone on this. So the Ford oval is unique. It's a truly unique company. There's still a Ford who's the chairman. It's still has this conception of this royal industrialist family that can be trusted, that will do the right thing, because it's the right thing for America. ...

And there's a tremendous amount of good will. When we do tracking studies, people love the Ford Motor Company. ... It's a unique company, because it's a company that people want to win. They want Ford to succeed. Now, will they give them something if they don't deserve it? No way. They won't buy a Ford product if they think it's not as good as the competition. But deep down, emotionally, they want Ford to win, because when Ford wins, they think America wins. ...

You're describing a relationship that's incredibly deep between American consumers and the Ford Motor Company, that goes well beyond a product-marketplace exchange.

I think people in America look to Ford as being a company that embodies the American spirit -- the American spirit of "When you're down, you don't quit, you come back." It's like a football game. "The play is over. We didn't make it in that one, but we're going to come back for another play." Ford is like a quarterback for American industry. It's a unique company, absolutely unique. People expect Ford to think and lead them through good times and to challenge tough times.

With that kind of expectation, this kind of a scandal then is particularly damaging to the American psyche. It's not just about a product; it's about a trust relationship?

I think Ford will come out of it. Their product is a good product. In the end, branding is all about good product. People talk about the genius of marketing. Well, when you have lousy product, there are no marketing geniuses. If you have great product, there's a lot of marketing geniuses. So we were all smart when we marketed Explorer. But I could give you other things that we tried to market, and we weren't so smart. So great product is the precursor of brilliant marketing. I think that they've got a decent product, and they'll survive this little crisis. ...

I'm going to go back to this question of safety. ... I think that a lot of Americans, when they think about it at all, tend to think of auto safety in absolute terms. They sort of tend to think that auto companies are doing everything they can to make cars safe. We know that isn't true. We know that auto companies could put roll bars in their cars. They could build them like tanks if they wanted; the technology exists. What you were saying earlier is that, really, safety is a market consideration?

Car companies are in the business of producing product that consumers can buy. There are certain safety devices I assume cost so much money that the average consumer doesn't want to buy them. And as a result, there is no market for those products.

So safety that is affordable for the average consumer is built into vehicles. And you end up doing the same with any new technology, whether it's safety technology or drive train technology or sound technology -- you put it in your most expensive vehicles. And then when you start producing lots of it, you bring it down.

If you look at the vehicles today versus ten years ago, they've changed a lot. You've got ABS brakes, which allow you to keep control of the vehicle regardless of how you brake it. It allows you to steer through a slide. ... Most vehicles have ABS today. You look at the friction control today. The friction of your brake pads is much better today. They hold better than they ever did before. You don't use asbestos anymore in brake pads. It's not safe to use asbestos. It's against the law. You look at crumple zones, and you come out of a crash of 35-40 miles an hour today, head-on crash, you're going to be alive. You may be bruised a bit, you may be banged up a lot, but chances are you're going to come out of it alive.

So if you look at the safety features that are built into vehicles today, they're far greater than they were ten years ago. Now, I think if you project out ten years, there might be some stuff that are built in vehicles that we don't know today. And we may even know the technology today, but we may not know how to do it in a mass way that the collective consensus can buy it. There's no use putting a feature out there if people collectively say, "It's an interesting feature, but I can't afford it."

But what's interesting are not so much the absolutes, the black and whites, but the grays. And it must be the case that car companies deal with these grays all the time. "Do I put this feature in, or not?" When it comes to safety, is safety worked out like any other feature? It's a cost-benefit kind of consideration? In the end, it's a market consideration?

Yes, but you're implying by the question that there is a pejorative morality, and that's not true. There is a reality of staying in business. There's a reality of what the consumer is prepared to do. There's a reality about whether you can afford to bring certain features into the market.

I don't think that the car companies or the people I've worked with at Ford are immoral at all. I think they're trying to build the best product that consumers can buy. I can give you an example, on a $20,000 car, if you're $200 over the competition, you're not going to make the sale. You're just not going to make the sale. ...

Well, if you really look at the morality of this whole subject matter, there are some safety features that Congress has legislated because they think we should legislate. For example, the way doors open or don't open. In crash tests, what happens to doors -- do they fling open? In the minivans, if you remember, the rear door in a Chrysler product flinged open and a couple of children got thrown out the car. Then you have Congress saying those latches had to be re-engineered so that that doesn't happen.

The issue is the public doesn't want the legislators to get too involved so they can't afford to buy a vehicle. So you have this delicate balance and the legislators think they want something, the car companies are telling them what they can afford to do under the circumstances, and they're both doing consumer research. Don't assume that the legislators don't keep in touch with consumers.

Remember what our system is all about. It's about understanding the collective consensus. It is the genius of a democracy. This interplay between what happens with the legislators and what happens with the producers never goes away, and the consumers, because they're the adjudicators. ...

But in actuality, the [lawyers] who go after Ford on this particular story of the SUV, and the Explorer in particular -- they trot out these memos, for example, that say your own engineer said you could have done four things, and you only did two of them. Or, You should have done that, because you could have.

The integrity of Ford is that their own engineers wrote the letter, that is, they didn't not put it in writing, so some lawyer down the road would find it. The reality is there are choices to make. They wanted to produce a product that would sell to this segment of the market at this price point. You couldn't put everything in it that you want. Something had to come out. And it may have been two out of the four safety features that were in that letter. Management has to make those choices. But to assume that management is morally irresponsible because they don't put everything they know about safety in every vehicle is, I think, being unfair. ...

What I'm trying to get at is that safety is not an absolute here. ... Safety is about how you feel -- the consumer, what is the consumer's tolerance, what the consumer feels like in a car.

The consumers are demanding new and better safety features in their vehicles as their affluence increases. And the car companies are responding.

And if they weren't demanding it?

You wouldn't see it, in my opinion. You wouldn't see it. Because if consumers didn't demand it, then you're putting content costs in vehicles and somebody else might not, and guess what, you won't sell your vehicle.

So like everything else in a car, safety is a matter of satisfying the market.

Safety is a matter of satisfying consumer needs. Consumers have physical needs and perceptual needs. Sometimes perceptual needs have to catch up to physical needs. And I think you're in a psyche right now where the safety perceptual needs are becoming physical needs, because people are saying, "I want more."

Is it fair to ascribe morality to a big company like Ford? Big companies, we think, act according to rules and laws that aren't moral or immoral. Where does morality enter the picture in a company like Ford?

I think Ford, or any major corporation has a code of integrity. And for the most part, that code of integrity is no different than your own personal code of integrity. Individuals run companies. They have codes of integrity that drive their behavior. ...

You ascribe a certain kind of moral necessity, because people produce product. Well, individuals also have responsibility in their own choices. ... You make some choices, and you make them with reasonable intelligence. [There are] lots of opportunities to find out about everything you want. You go to the Web today, you'll know every nut and bolt that's in that car. And you'll know the nut and bolt in every other competitive product.

So the question is, when does the consumer have the responsibility to know? "Buyer beware" is still a concept that exists in a marketplace.

So if the Explorer is more tippy than other, not SUVs, but other cars (as we all know it is), and yet we still want it, why should Ford create a car that we don't want? As you said, there's a certain amount of risk in driving, we accept that risk. ... Is the story of this Explorer thing basically a story of a company meeting a consumer demand -- not compromising on safety -- but living within tolerated amounts of safety?

I would say that the company is forever measuring what's acceptable, and always trying to stay a step ahead in terms of safety features. So it's forever introducing new devices, new features in order to stay ahead of where the consumer psyche is going. And I think that they never stop studying it. That's part of being a great automotive producer.

Where does the obligation of Ford Motor Company start, and where does it end, on safety?

I'm not a lawyer. I'm an anthropologist who specialized in studying behavior as it relates to the marketplace. It seems that when you're in a marketplace, and you're producing product for the marketplace, whether it's cars or another product, you're obligated to stay in business. Otherwise, you don't play. ...

The reality is that you are forever judging the needs and desires and anxieties of consumers. And you're trying to fulfill those in a product that they can afford to buy. The fact is Congress has enormous power in a republic. If they feel that they wanted to legislate all those features into vehicles, they could. But I don't think they would get elected, because most of the people couldn't afford to buy [the vehicles] anymore.

Can good marketing do what an actual safety feature would do? In other words, can you lead people with marketing, make them feel safe and then not put all those real safety features in, but because they feel safe, it's OK?

No, I don't believe that. I think people are too smart. You know, you're ascribing soothsayer capability to marketers. Marketers are about understanding behavior and trying to influence behavior. Good marketing is about convincing people to drive safely, don't drink when you drive, don't use your phone when you drive. Good marketing is about trying to get people to put their seat belts on when they get in the car.

If you look at any vehicle manufactured in America, right on the window it says "Buckle up." Every time you get in that car you're reminded about buckling up. It's not that the manufacturers have not tried to inform the public about what's good for them. I think they will continue to do that.

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