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Preference profilers: 'We know what you bought last summer'

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By one estimate, the average American is videotaped 30 times a day doing ordinary tasks, such as taking money out of an automated teller machine or entering a grocery store. Security cameras follow us everywhere to prevent theft. Now, market researchers are training cameras on consumers to learn more about them, sometimes in the most private places.

Determined to figure out what people really wanted in a showerhead, Moen Inc. began in 1996 to look for ways to videotape people in the shower. It engaged QualiData Research, one of the pioneers of a growing field called "observational research" or "ethnography."

The immediate challenge was how to install a small moisture-proof camera next to a showerhead without it fogging up or electrocuting someone.

Geting volunteers was simpler. The company contacted nudists and others, offering money for the chance to videotape them lathering up in their own homes. Men and women stepped forward.

"Most people thought it was fun to be a part of," recalls Hy Mariampolski, managing director of QualiData. "It's the kind of thing you do on a dare."

So in 1996 and again in 2001, QualiData taped several dozen people of all shapes and sizes while a camera crew monitored the event from just outside the bathroom.

"We found ... the spray was too restricted to be really comfortable," says Dr. Mariampolski. On tape, the subjects used the water to relax or energize themselves. They lost track of time. One man prayed.

For many people, "it's more than a cleaning experience," Mariampolski explains. "They're looking for some psychic outcome." Based on Moen's research, its "Revolution" showerhead was born.

Launched last August and priced at the upper end of showerheads, the "Revolution" offers users a dial that can can be easily adjusted with one hand. The showerhead spins the droplets, which hit all points of the body with more force.

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