Will It Play in Tulsa?

July 31, 1992

In a 1947 Jimmy Stewart movie, "Magic Town," pollsters discovered that a Midwest town was exactly average. In the resulting bonanza, hucksters tested their wares, politicians sought to butter up the common man, and townspeople peddled opinions and interviews, commanding top dollar for their marketable mediocrity. Of course, it was no longer an average town and the bubble collapsed.

Tulsa, Okla., is today's "Magic Town." Donnelley Marketing Information Services, working from 1990 census data, says the erstwhile "oil capital of the world" -- population 337,000 and no longer dependent on oil rigs and cows -- is the city that most mirrors the national average for age distribution, racial mix and housing prices.

It was a repeat victory for Tulsa, which was also most-average in 1980. Other towns in the top 10 included Charleston, W.Va.; Midland, Texas; Springfield, Ill.; Lexington-Fayette, Ky.; Wichita, Kans.; Bloomington, Ill.; Oklahoma City, Okla.; Indianapolis, Ind., and Rockford, Ill. Peoria -- immortalized in the slogan, "Will it play in Peoria?" -- ranks only 29th. Some other traditional test-market cities -- Green Bay, Wis.; South Bend, Ind., and Rochester, N.Y. -- aren't even in the top 200.

What's interesting about Typical America is that it is so atypical of what we are told America is becoming. The Typical Ten cities are mostly in the Rust Belt or Midwest -- regions of declining population -- not in the Sun Belt or on the coasts, the places everyone is supposedly moving to. Only 14 of the 50 states have a majority population born in that state; the Typical Ten are mostly in or next-door to those states. They are also in the states with the fewest non-English-speaking citizens.

Thus, we wonder if averageness is worth much to test-marketers today. Some say that with America more a mosaic than a melting pot, the mass market is dead. But soft drinks, detergents, autos, headache remedies and all manner of products still are marketed across ethnic and racial lines.

Like the original "Magic Town," Tulsa is promoting itself as a test market and has signed up the distributor of the Anheuser-Busch beers. "Tulsa is America to the max," the distributor says. "But people haven't really discovered it yet."

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