Slinky : A Love Story -Misconceptions


Slinky: A Love Story

Consumer Behaviour- It’s just common sense!

In the early 1900’s department store owner John Wanamaker famously said,

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

What Wanamaker recognized is that advertising is not a simple matter. Despite what many people think, marketers are by no means as skilled at manipulating the public as many of us would believe. The fields of marketing and consumer behaviour are filled with misconceptions. It’s not uncommon for people to believe that we all know who we are and we know why we buy. Many believe that consumer behaviour is just about the buying process, and if we have the money we will buy the best product and that best product will be the one that succeeds. People also often believe that if they recognize they have made a poor decision in buying a product, they will readily acknowledge it. All the above are just a few of the many misconceptions about consumer behaviour.

Consumer Behaviour- Wait a minute it’s not so simple!

In reality, consumer behaviour is a complex process that includes what happens before, during and after a purchase. Humans are complex creatures and our self- knowledge varies from person to person. The best product is not always a winner and a poor or silly product can be successful. Although we can be manipulated by marketing pitches, we still have the ability to say no, but one thing is for sure-- thinking and challenging assumptions are required.

As a teacher of a college course called the Psychology of Consumer Behaviour, I have the task to teach the theories of consumer behaviour, stimulate students thinking processes and help them begin to challenge some of the assumptions they hold. Because my course is a general education elective course, I have students from a variety of programs. While some students are from marketing, others could be from graphic design, community service, accounting or any other college program. My approach to the subject has always been two sided. While I can admire a good marketing technique, it is just as important to help others understand how to defend themselves against that very technique.

Misconceptions, Concrete Examples, Discovery Methods and Inductive Reasoning to the Rescue!

In his book Learning and Instruction, Richard Mayer discusses the importance of breaking students’ misconceptions. He promotes the use of concrete examples, discovery methods and inductive reasoning to enable meaningful active learning. Although most of his examples relate to science or math, these same ideas can be used in any area, but specifically in teaching consumer behaviour.

Why I love my Slinky

“What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a slinkity sound?
A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing! Everyone knows- it's Slinky.”

By about week 6 in my course, I generally find that my students have a fair bit of knowledge about consumer behaviour. They have had a few opportunities to show that they understand concepts, but they don’t always recognize the depth of their own knowledge, and are not that confident in the area of problem solving. It is about that time that I bring my mini slinky to class. My slinky lesson uses a number of the concepts that Mayer discusses.

Student Mission: Discovery!

My purchase of the mini slinky pictured here has quite a story and it is my students’ mission to figure out all of the following:

· Where did I buy it?

· When did I buy it?

· What store, what location in the store?

· What was the first thing that came into my head when I saw it?

· What type of purchase was it-planned, unplanned?

· What are all the factors that motivated me to buy it?

· What do they know about me that might lead them to understand the purchase?

· Who did I buy it for? If I bought it for someone else, who was it for and why do I still have it?

· If I bought it for someone else how did I rationalize keeping it?

· What are all of the terms that we have talked about in class that explain this purchase?

What Happens when students set to the task: Action!

When students are first presented with the task, they immediately ask, “How do we know?” There are a few groans.

“Ah, but I’m sure by the end of class you will have discovered all the answers,” I say.

The first hint is that I bought it in walking distance of the school. As the students form themselves into groups, I promise that I will give them some hints as they go, but really I want them to question everything. If they want to use their computers to review notes, locate stores in the area or brainstorm in anyway that is all fair game in the pursuit of the slinky story. Technology may play a role, or it may not depending upon the groups’ own approach. Technology could enhance the result especially if they are reviewing course notes online. Students are allowed to ask me some small questions that may guide them. Mayer suggests that guided discovery is “more effective than pure discovery in helping students learn and transfer.” (Mayer, pg 317)

According to Bruner (1981) when students discover rules, they organize their ideas in meaningful ways that result in better learning. Discovery learning can encourage active engagement, promote motivation, autonomy and the development of creative problem solving. Once my students are in groups, I can see that they are really engaged in solving this problem. Immediately, brainstorming is taking place. The groups are active.

During the group discussions, students pass around the little slinky box, the slinky story booklet and the slinky. They examine all of the pieces of the object. I often play one or two of the original slinky commercials during the activity. (There are hints in that.) By using all of the senses students are able to really get into the task through a concrete example. They begin to envision me in the store being motivated by my surroundings while trying to use what they know about me and what they know about consumer behaviour, they transfer their knowledge to the task. The task appeals to Howard Gardners’ Multiple Intelligences. There is thinking, reflecting, spatial knowledge, kinesthetic involvement with the objects, music, pictures and words in the commercial, a group social experience and the use of logic.

The slinky lesson starts with no rules. This is an inductive process. There is the slinky, there is me and then there are only questions. It is not about one final answer-- the lesson involves many steps where the process is more valuable than the end goal. According to Polya, the emphasis should be on the process of problem solving rather than the final answer.” (Mayer, 434) Generally, all the groups answer the majority of the questions.

Reflection. Ah ha!

When we discuss the results and the potential answers, students become aware of other concepts they had not thought of and sometimes I too become aware of things I had not considered. Together the class comes to the conclusion that buying anything no matter how simple can be a complex process that can involve little thinking at times and a lot of thinking at other times. They realize too how questioning can uncover motivations and rationalizations in purchase behaviour. A simple buying process can be affected by people, places, prior experiences and more. Human nature is complex.

I’ve used the slinky lesson a number of times and it has been very successful in showing the students what they know and in reinforcing many of the basic concepts of consumer behaviour. It has also given students an opportunity to problem solve a simple scenario with complex concepts showing them what they know and what they can find out if they question assumptions. From a teacher’s point of view, it illustrates that students are able to transfer knowledge to explain novel situations.

Next time: Maybe a Little More Problem-Solving Process!

What I might do the next time around is outline the problem solving process more. Perhaps I would ask students to write up their process. For example, ask them to clearly define what the problem is. State what is known and unknown, and what are the constraints. I might give them a copy of Wood’s Problem Solving Model: Define the problem, think about it, plan a solution, carry out the plan, look back. (see more detail in Teaching Problem-Solving Skills, University of Waterloo)

Maybe a Little More History to Begin

Next time around, I may begin with a brief history of the slinky. Did you know that there have been over 250 million slinkies made and that if you stretched them out they would circle the earth 126 times? Or that a slinky has been in outer space? NASA crew members took a slinky to space to illustrate simple zero gravity physics. Did you know that the slinky was invented by Richard James as part of his WWII research into springs to stabilize instruments on ships while on rough seas? While James was working, he accidently knocked one of the springs off a bookshelf. Instead of falling to the ground, it stepped its way down a set of books.

And did you know that although it was invented by a man, it took a woman to realize its potential? James’ wife Betty named it “slinky” and pointed out how it could be used as a toy.

“A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing! Everyone knows it's Slinky.”

What concepts does the slinky story tell?

For those who want to know more about the slinky story, I can tell you that some of the concepts it involves are these: consumer behaviour definition, role theory, market segmentation: demographics, psychographics, nostalgic attachment, sensation, perception, vision-colour-graphics-layout, touch, sound, exposure, attention, stimulus selection factors, interpretation, schema, semiotics, positioning strategy, advertising, jingles, learning-classical conditioning, repetition, operant conditioning, cognitive learning, memory, retrieval, recognition, situational factors-environment, drive theory, expectancy theory, needs/wants-goals, motivation- motivational conflict, cognitive dissonance, maslow, involvement, the self, fantasy, self-image congruence model, the extended self, personality, brand personality-branding, point-of purchase displays, time, impulse/planned purchases, attitudes, ABC Model of Attitudes, emotional/rational appeal, theparadox ---> the less important the product is to consumers, the more important are the marketing stimuli.

Slinky Confessional Time!

I did buy the slinky for someone else, but I couldn’t bear to give it up, so I convinced myself I needed it. How did I resolve my cognitive dissonance?

Well, it took me a few minutes to come up with it, but my rational is a good one: It’s not just that I wanted the slinky, I actually need the slinky to teach Psychology of Consumer Behaviour.

And that is a short story of how a want became a need.



Mayer, R.E. (2008). Learning and instruction. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education

Barnes, Julian E. (Jan 26, 2001). Business DIARY: A Name, a name, destined for fame. New York Times. Retrieved from

Discovery learning (Bruner), Retieved from

Fashionable myths about advertising. (May 6, 2009) The Ad Contrarion. Retrieved from

Foshay, R., Kirkley, J. (1998). Principles for teaching problem solving.

Kapp, Karl. (June 2009) Teaching tips for problem solving skills, Kapp Notes. Retrieved from

Teaching problem-solving skills, Centre for Teaching Excellence University of Waterloo. Retrieved from

Toy time in space. (April 16, 1995) New York Times. Retrieved from

Zargaj-Reynolds, Paula. (Aug 8, 2007) Advertising is good for you: Advertising Myths. Retrieved from

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