Bill Moyers talks with Shirley Young, an inspiring woman who survived the Japanese occupation of the Philippines to become a pioneer of market research with Grey Advertising. Later, as a vice president of General Motors, she helped launch GM’s operation in China.
BILL MOYERS: Shirley Young is a marketing superstar who knows what the consumer wants. As a young researcher working at Grey Advertising, Young pioneered something called “attitudinal studies.” The new technique went beyond simple demographics to look at the psychology of consumers. It was the birth of the now-familiar focus group research.
Young was then hired by General Motors, to help put the troubled giant back in touch with its markets. She now divides her time between New York and Shanghai, where she led GM’s successful effort to become the Chinese government’s American partner in developing an auto industry for the world’s biggest market. It’s been quite a personal journey, from the country of her birth…and back again.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: My first memories was being in France, which is where my younger sister was born. And it was 1938, ’39. I guess everybody was worried about war. And I remember hearing all these conversations about war.
BILL MOYERS: Your father was posted there?
SHIRLEY YOUNG:He was posted there, yes. Then we went to the Philippines. And-my father was posted there because he was the consul general.
When the Japanese came in, and they were all arrested. And-and then they were all subsequently executed.
BILL MOYERS: Your father among them…
SHIRLEY YOUNG: My father and the entire consulate. There’s seven of them. I remember we were sitting at breakfast, a late breakfast. And we had seen the Japanese soldiers come in. And they wore these- these-they had those kinda bandages around their legs to~ which to me, was very fascinating. They had these, you know, and the floors were marble. So, they walked— click, click, click, click, you know.
And I guess my father was expecting him. So, he went into the bedroom, got his suitcase and he left. And he went to prison.
BILL MOYERS: Your life had to change so dramatically from living the privileged life at the consulate general of China in Manila-
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: —and with what, servants and —
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Of course.
BILL MOYERS: —garden— gardens?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yes, yes, absolutely. Right.
BILL MOYERS: And then suddenly, what happened?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: All the women and children of the seven consuls— had no place to go because all the husbands were taken. They had no salaries left. So, they all moved into our house. We had a bungalow- of- of, you know, just a nice family home with three bedrooms. And we had 40 people there- as a result of this. So, that’s— that’s how I grew up. And- and it went from this very nice, suburban place with beautiful gardens and flowers.
And of course, the first thing that went was, there was no more gasoline. So, we had no more cars. So, we went to horse carts. And then pretty soon, the- the water supply was cut, so that we went to wells. And then we— and then- and then there was no more electricity, of course. And so, we went to candles and kerosene. And we just went back, back, back. And then the garden became a farm; we had chickens and ducks and pigs – all that. We used to make our own soy sauce, we had to take the husks of four own rice, we made our own shoes – we did everything.
BILL MOYERS: You had become self-sufficient?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Absolutely. The thing that I learned was that whatever the circumstance, you can be happy. Because actually, we had a very happy childhood. And somehow, my mother kept us all together. And I don’t remember, you know, suffering.
We were happy together. And I had lots of friends all of a sudden, ’cause we were ten kids all of a sudden instead of just three girls. Well, at the end of the war, my mother— we then discovered that my father was dead, because frankly, all through the war, we weren’t sure.
BILL MOYERS: How did you manage to come to America?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: We got onto this ship. And there was electric lights and there was food. And there was- I mean, it was like going to heaven, (LAUGHS) okay?
BILL MOYERS: What was your impression of America?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I thought we’d reached heaven. I mean, through various friends, I went to good private schools, and then I went to Abbot Academy – which is now parts of Phillips Academy, a great school.
BILL MOYERS: You were president of your class there?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: (LAUGHS) I-
BILL MOYERS: Age 13?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: —right. Right, right. Class—like-20 of us or something like that. But— and then I went to Wellesley College on scholarship. Why would they have done that for me? You could say, you know, I was this-I wasn’t a citizen. I was a foreigner. Therefore, I—I always felt, you know, I owe a great deal to this country.
BILL MOYERS: How did you choose advertising and-
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I didn’t.
BILL MOYERS: You didn’t?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: No, absolutely not. You know, I grew up this idealistic, you know, this— you know, idealistic young woman out of Wellesley College. I mean, anything commercial— is selling your soul, okay? (LAUGHS) No. Absolutely. I just assumed I’ve gotta go out and do work. The only problem is that when I got ready to go to work—nobody was particularly interested in me, ok? And so, I wrote 100 letters. And I must tell you, I was, you know, embarrassingly stupid, okay, naive. I wrote these letters and then I do this inter— and say, “Oh yes, young lady, you have a lovely record, very- you did very well.
“Great school you went to. And so, what do you want to do?” Said, “Well, I’d like to make a contribution to the world. I’d like to make the world (LAUGHTER) a better place.” And I’d like to be part of what kids the world go around, you know. Well, understandably, I didn’t get any- any offers.
So finally— a Wellesley— classmate of my— of my sister’s, worked for something called market research. Never heard of market research, okay. (CHUCKLES) So, out of desperation, I~ I went to go see her. But it turned out— it was very interesting. Because it was about understanding the way people think. And actually, when we started, it was more about what people do.
How many people blow their nose so many times, and how many tissues do they use at a time, (LAUGHS) and several things like that. But we started to look more about the way people think. Did they like it? Did they not like it? What would they wish it was more so or less so. Whatever it is. And it was a time when the advertising industry was changing from kind of the old school time, you know, gave your business to your roommate at— at prep school or college and that kind of business, to where people had real problems in selling in the marketplace, and they’d be looking for a company that could really help them. And through research, we would be able to discover what really needed to be done, and how they should change their products and things like that. So, that— that was how Grey Advertising advanced itself.
BILL MOYERS: What were you looking for when you went after people’s attitudes?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, you know how– how today, it’s very common when, you know, this polling about— presidential candidates-
BILL MOYERS: Focus groups—
SHIRLEY YOUNG: —focus groups, well, that’s what we were doing about products. You know, finding—
BILL MOYERS: But— but before anybody else had done it?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: That’s exactly right. And so, that became a- a really compelling advantage that we had. And we had this chance, suddenly, to work, you know, for the Ford Motor Company. And they had a product called Pinto, which was the first small car. And the way that they advertised it and presented it to the world was this little frisky little— little colt kind of, you know, dancing around. They said, “Oh, this car is going to be fun to drive and this is the new Pinto.” Well, the car was very unsuccessful. And- so they came to talk to us. And then we did research.
And what we found out was is that while the auto people might have thought this is a cute, fun little car, to the person who was going to buy a car at that price range, which I remember was $2,995, they were looking for— it was gonna be their only mode of transportation, reliable, fuel economics so they could afford it, take them to and from work and to all the important things they had to do. And so we completely changed the position from being this toy fun thing to a campaign that said, “When you get back to basics, you get back to Ford.” And repositioned this is as a serious but high quality small car. And it became an enormous success and sold ultimately over a million vehicles. So- but that was the big turning point and that was— that was how we actually discovered by going to the customer, finding out well, how did they view it. Not how did the expert view it.
BILL MOYERS: Were you recognized for your work at Gray?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I think so. I got to be number one. But that’s an interesting story. So when I went into business, I didn’t go in feeling, “Oh, I bet I’m gonna be discriminated against.” Except one day I got a telephone call from one of the officers at Gray, one of the vice presidents. He said, “Shirley,” he said, “I just recommended you to be the agency’s representative at some association. And he said, “And I told them that if you weren’t a woman you’d be the head of the department.”
But when he said that to me on the phone I was stunned. And he meant it as a compliment to me, okay? (LAUGHTER) So, then I decide well, I guess- you know, I guess there is discrimination. I guess I better leave pretty soon. So, I did leave for a while.
And about a year and a half later he called me to have lunch. He said, “Shirley,” he says, “I hate to say this. It’s taken us a long time to understand this. But we’ve decided you’d be the best head of the department.” So, I came back as the head of the department.
BILL MOYERS: General Motors brought you over to a top position there to sell more cars and what else?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: To help understand the consumer better. There was a tremendous amount of criticism of the company at the time. They were not oriented towards what does the market want. First of all they didn’t believe- they didn’t believe in research. People who would present research about a product clinic that showed that people didn’t like this new model nobody would believe it. They’d get very upset with the person who was presenting the results.
So, this was a whole period, fortunately now passed, where the company was convinced. It was kind of like the days of—I guess in fashion Dior, you know? I will tell them what length the ladies skirts should be, okay? And they will wear them. Well, I will them what they’re gonna want in their car and they will like it. They may not like it now but they will when it comes out, okay? I know.
BILL MOYERS: Here we are in a period of global warming. And there’s the battle going on over emissions. And all of this. And everyone’s concerned about the environment. What is- what do you think is the future of the automobile 100 years from now, when we will not be around?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I think General Motors and – all the major car companies really understand that you know—you know, you talk about sustainable success. (LAUGHTER) Okay?
Means if you want to be successful, you can’t ignore these problems. Environment is critical. Fuel efficiency is critical. You know? Reducing emissions and all these harmful things are critical. You may not feel the effect this moment. But if you want a sustainable success, you must address them.
So, they have huge resources going on on this, okay? But interestingly, take just China. When we went into China, China was not particularly environmentally concerned at the time. They have become much more so now. But they weren’t particularly concerned. So, they just wanted to get this auto industry going, you know?
When General Motors went in, it did take it’s best knowledge, and say, “You know- environmental protection for your workers when they’re spraying paint, you gotta put in the expensive, all those kinds of things that are necessary, emissions from the plant. You gotta do that.”
The Chinese were not requiring it. But we said, as a company, we gotta do that. what is gonna happen is— is that in– in— in kind of top down, command and control markets, which are not totally free markets yet, which China is not, it’s much easier to say, “All busses will have to be alternative fuels.” Actually China will be able to implement it a lot easier (LAUGHTER) than American can, where we’re much more free market.
You put it on the market. And nobody wants to buy it. You know? What do you do? Okay. (LAUGHTER) But over there, they can just say, “It’s the rule. And everybody does it.” (LAUGHTER)
BILL MOYERS: Well, here all these years later, you are a-an important factor in bridging both of your countries, China-
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Right.
BILL MOYERS: -and the United States.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: So, I really feel very grateful that I was able to do it. It really was going back to that stupid thing that I said while I was 20 years old, saying, “Gee, I hope that I can make- with my efforts, make a little difference in this world.” (LAUGHTER)
BILL MOYERS: Great story. Thank you, Shirley.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, I’ve enjoyed having a chance to do this.
This transcript was entered on April 1, 2015.