I just received a dollar bill in the mail.
The $1, an attached letter explained, was the down payment on $20 I could earn by filling out the Nielsen Consumer Survey. Also in the envelope was a question booklet as thick as a church directory.
It sat on the dining room table for a couple of days before I got around to it. Before I got started, I fired up my laptop. A Nielsen website said that my answers, if I decided to participate, would "represent thousands of other people who were not invited to take this important survey."
I immediately felt my head swelling. I had been asked to represent my community — all of it. It was an awesome feeling, like being named mayor for day.
If there's anything more intoxicating than free money, it's power. The $20 payday seemed inconsequential compared to the power trip I felt weighing in on such important matters as whether I prefer to eat breakfast or dinner at Waffle House.
I decided to dive right into the 55-page questionnaire and representing thousands of people turned out to be strangely satisfying. I am quite sure that some of them would be angry if they knew I was speaking for them. "Too bad," I thought. "Get your own survey."
Signal Mountain, I resolved, would go down in Nielsen Consumer Survey history as the little city where everybody, like me, watches car shows on television and vacations at Pigeon Forge.
Reading the instructions closely I discovered that I could choose to use pen or pencil "whatever you feel more comfortable using."
"Nice," I thought, "Nielsen respects my fingertip comfort."
Also, there were instructions about how to mark the boxes. Color in the square: No. Place an "X" in the middle of the square: Yes. This Nielsen guy is a stickler.
Armed with a comfy pen and a head full of important consumer information, I turned to page one of the survey. I started off humming to myself, but about five pages in it occurred to me that this was going to be a long slog. There were questions about shopping habits. Questions about leisure-time activities. I like grilling and Pilates, sometimes simultaneously, I noted.
If the survey had been specific to my little town, the list of leisure-time activities would have also included mulching, gossiping and Facebooking — which some of our townsfolk manage to do simultaneously.
You learn things about yourself doing surveys like this. For example, I discovered that, in the past 12 months, I have visited four sporting goods stores and no comedy clubs. I also noted that I visited five book stores and no home accessory stores, which explains why I have lots of good books and no sensible pillows.
I learned that, while we have over 300 cable TV channels, our family really, really watches three: ESPN, HGTV and Velocity. Getting more granular, I noted that our family watches lots of soccer and not much WWE wrestling, which probably makes us outliers in Dixie.
It took me about 30 minutes to complete the survey, but when I was about to lick the seal to mail it back — no postage required — I noticed an instruction hidden under the flap.
"To be completed by the adult (age 18 and over) in your household who has had the most recent birthday."
"That would be my wife," I thought.
I'm a rule follower, so I tossed the survey aside and instantly felt the power drain from my body. Suddenly, I was $20 poorer but much more self-aware.
And yes, I kept the buck and bought an iced tea at McDonald's, which is a useful bit of consumer information that Nielsen will, unfortunately, never uncover.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.