So Many Choices It’s Not Fair
It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees.
They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
- Joni Mitchell
I may be the only one ready for a christmas sabbatical. But as the holiday advertising blitzkreig sweeps over us like a tsunami, it might be well to remember who benefits from all this superficial good will and generosity. As I understand it, holiday sales may constitute up to half the entire year’s gross income for many retailers — a curious way to keep our economy going. We are encouraged to buy more than we can afford, and mostly things that will be broken or tossed out in short order? We might also ask if our friends and families truly need more stuff in their lives and homes. I know a mother who takes a second job this time of year, so she can buy her son more gifts for christmas, even as she laments not having time to spend with him. With no trace of awareness or irony.
How soon will we see stand-your-ground laws used to justify Black Friday homicides? “That grabby little grandma knew that smartphone was morally mine — I totally saw it first! She was threatening my inalienable rights, my pursuit of happiness and bargains, my manifest destiny as a shopper!” It seems inevitable, simply a matter of time. But we do love those deals to die for.
We do enjoy things. Because things are fun … and useful. My theory (which I have) holds that we took to our hind legs primarily so we could carry more tools and trinkets with us as we overspread the planet. As a bonus, it also made it easy to throw rocks at each other along the way. Such venerable traditions make it difficult to fight the allure of material culture. It’s largely how Europeans conquered the world … with seductive stuff. And smallpox.
I Want It All, And I Want It Now!
Dr. Pepper commercial
Somehow I’d forgotten the product in this commercial. But I vividly remember watching it for the first time , and my immediate rueful reaction. My thought was, “Oh shit. Here’s the painfully perfect epitaph for our pernicious consumer culture of greed and self-indulgence!” We’ll leave nothing behind but a giant landfill — what a proud legacy.
“Dreams shouldn’t be about what you can buy — they should be about what mark you leave in the world.” –Claire Cross
How did we get to this point? Why are we Americans so prone to the compulsion to purchase more and more stuff, with debt as the norm, and no one saving any more? Are we irrationally exuberant or resigned and hopeless? I’ve wondered if some restless vestige of our pioneer origin keeps us seeking new frontiers, always expecting and craving new sensations. Perhaps Thoreau’s ‘quiet desperation’ explains it. Or some sense of deprivation drives us to acquire things to excess — much as some of us compulsively overeat. In his intriguing book on behavioral economics Predictably Irrational, author Dan Arielli says procrastination accounts for many of our bad financial habits. We mean to save money, but … not just yet. Like losing weight, we’ll start tomorrow. Without fail.
“Materialism is buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have,, to impress people who don’t matter and don’t care.” –Unknown
And whatever our weaknesses, they are being amplified and exploited by well-choreographed corporate capitalism. Banks don’t just accidentally crank out all those credit card offers, that is policy; and it must be profitable or they would stop doing it. We have also been lured into the stock market — easing us into ‘privatized’ (aka non-existent) pensions via IRA’s, 401-K’s and the like. The better to lipposuction what savings we might have in their market corrections — what they smugly call “washing out’ the small investors”. Free-market fundamentalists consider that a good thing. And now they insist that we should privatize Social Security too. For our own good, no doubt.
The mortgage bubble was the same sort of swindle, an elaborate way to render out a little more grease (money) from the poor — and then sneer and blame us for being greedy and irresponsible. They’ve also loudly blamed the ‘big government’ push to expand home ownership for this disaster. It does seem like magical thinking, reversing cause and effect; viewing owning a home as the cause of prosperity, not a result. But the banksters obviously promoted unsound loans for their own gain, not to accommodate the government, certainly not for the public’s sake.
“It’s especially hard to work for money we’ve already spent on things we didn’t even need.” –Unknown
Granted, our government has fostered over-consumption too, as it’s become almost indispensable for maintaining the economy and our accustomed standard of living, including all the luxuries we now regard as simple necessities. Thanks to globalization, we no longer manufacture all that much in this country. For the most part, we’re just buying and selling imported goods to one another. And consumer spending now constitutes about 70 percent of all economic activity in the United States. Seventy percent. If too many of us stopped buying things we don’t really need, the whole bouncy castle would collapse.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” –Edward Bernays
It wasn’t always quite like this. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Americans were exhorted to do everything we could for the country and the war effort, to buy bonds, and turn in useful metals and other strategic materials. Even children collected tinfoil. Many consumer goods were rationed — meat, butter, sugar, shoes, gasoline, overcoats, and more. Citizens were encouraged to grow victory gardens, to free our agricultural production for military use. All sound public policies , increasing our sense of community and shared sacrifice. But now we’ve absorbed decades of neoliberal rhetoric glorifying money, greed and selfishness. Following 9/11, we were urged to … go shopping. To defend our values and the American way of life. That will sure show those terrorists. Charge!
“Our economy is based on spending billions to persuade people that happiness is buying things, and then insisting that the only way to have a viable economy is to make things for people to buy, so they’ll have jobs, and get enough money to buy things.” –Philip E. Slater
Children are innocently obvious in their fascination with bright, shiny, noisy objects. When my stepdaughter’s girls come in with happy meals, the worthless toys occupy them far longer than the junky food does. There’s a tub full of the wretched things cluttering my house now — can you even recycle them?
While the younger girl was a toddler, spending fifty hours a week with her grandpa and me, we limited our television time. When we did watch, we took journeys on the exercise bike, played music and danced, or practiced piano during commercials. Miriam would get restless anyway, and I would growl, “They just want to sell us stuff. We don’t want to see that — we want more Max and Ruby!”
“Advertising is a valuable economic factor because it is the cheapest way of selling goods, particularly if the goods are worthless.” –Sinclair Lewis
But at six, Miriam now avidly watches the onslaught of ads interrupting her cartoons. After each pitch, she asks me to buy whatever it is for her next birthday. I make no promises. And somehow, I never do get them — inflicting boring stufff instead; books, crafts, stuffed animals, puzzles. If she’s had a really lucrative birthday or christmas, I don’t even do that; her mother regularly bundles toys and clothes for the thrift store, just to keep pace with the influx of new things.
“THERE must be more to life than having everything.” –Maurice Sendak
Of course we ‘adults’ are equally vulnerable to appealing crap. Even my homeless neighbors tote multiple bags and backpacks filled with things. And overflowing shopping carts. At least most of their posessions are useful, things they do need for survival. But the rest of us have vastly more, far beyond what is remotely necessary. Our closets could have their own zip codes, and we * NEED * houses visible from space, just to contain all our stuff. Most of it, anyway. We also rent millions of sstorage units – still more places for our extra things.
“You can’t have everything; where would you put it?” –Steven Wright
Behaviorist Ariely notes that we can track the runaway growth of consumerism if only through the ever-increasing size of our closets. Most houses didn’t even have them until the twentieth century, as the few posessions people typically owned would fit in a few cupboards and chests. Once the Industrial Revolution really kicked in, making consumer goods relatively cheap and abundant, we began to see built-in closets, but small ones, the size of phone booths. Now we demand walk-ins,as big as the living rooms of fifty years ago. What in hell will we ‘need’ in another hundred years?
“Every increased posession loads us with a new weariness.” –John Ruskin
We also have a frightening epidemic of compulsive hoarders, all but smothering in trash, but unwilling and unable to discard any of it –victims of materialism gone wild, carried to a logical, pathological extreme. I know a woman who not only obsessively buys and keeps mountains of things , but who’s convinced that people have stolen her precious collectables any time she’s unable to find her limited-edition Ohio State sweatshirts or Princess Diana statues in all the chaos. She’s called the police to report burglaries, time after time. It would be the greatest kindness if someone * WOULD * take all of her shit. Except she’d be inconsolable.
Help for hoarders, interventions
Just watching hoarder shows makes me claustrophobic, giving me the urge to hire a backhoe and dumpster and empty my damned house. — And maybe I should. I’m always reminded that in the 19th century, ‘consumption’ meant not only the acquisition of things to be used, or consumed, in a short period of time, but was also the word for the deadly and dreaded lung disease we know as tuberculosis. Because it ‘consumed’ and destroyed its victims’ lungs, strength and lives.
Actually, it’s little wonder we have and want so damned much. There is so much stuff available! We call it mass production for a reason — millions and billions and trillions of consumables are cranked out and marketed every year. Everything you can imagine, and things you’d never dream of. Things we need, and things no one needs. Everything from cradles to coffins, from chia pets to pet jewelry. Jewelry … for animals. How about pet makeup and perfume too? I’ll bet it’s out there. Why the hell not.
“The trouble with us in America isn’t that the poetry of life has turned to prose, but that it has turned to advertising copy.” –Louis Kronenberger
Of course, once all this stuff is on the shelf, we must be induced to buy it! As it happens, that part is not usually so tough. Because, again, we like things. We want things, so it’s fairly easy to persuade us that we should have them. Even objects not inherently attractive can be sold by appealing to our greed, fear or vanity in some way. Buy this doo-dad and you’ll be … taller, richer, prettier, happier. Buy that one or else you’ll be … embarrassed, ugly, laughed at, shunned. Oh sure, people will balk now and then – refusing to swallow the Edsel or New Coke. But not often, and marketers are constantly refining their measurement and advertising techniques as they seek to minimize such surprises. Data-mining ho!
And remember, there is so much stuff to sell, more of it every day. So we are subjected to a constant barrage of advertising. In his book 20 Ads That Shook the World, James Twitchell claims the average young person encounters 5000 advertisements every day. That sounds extreme to me, but we know that if we turn on radio or television, read periodicals, check the mail, do anything on the internet, or just drive down the street, advertising is always there, clamoring for attention.
“Advertising is eighty-five percent confusion, and fifteen percent commission.” –Fred Allen
I’m not sure what to call one technique that seems most prevalent — I think of it as ‘shock and aw’ advertising; loud, visually flashy, fast-paced, repetitive, relentless — over the top in every direction. We have learned that sensory deprivation is damaging and most traumatic for the human nervous system. And I feel that its opposite, sensory overload, may be equally unhealthy for us. Author Ariely suggests that we can be so reluctant to eliminate choices that we will even act against our bbest interests, just to keep all options open. A surfeit of apparent ‘choices’ may well short-circuit our ability to make rational decisions, if we are in fact capable of such to begin with.
“Man is not the rational animal; he is the rationalizing animal.” –Mark Twain
Maybe it’s just me, but I do feel overwhelmed, almost stupefied as I shop for anything these days – socks, tomatoes, a cup of coffee, anything! You want toothpicks? Okay … which of a dozen flavors, 8 or 9 colors, 3 shapes, 4 brands, in varying quantities and with numerous packaging options, would you like? They come in wooden or plastic, plain and fancy — topped with crinkly cellophane, shaped like little swords, or miniature bamboo skewers — in case you’re serving mini-kebobs, or busy with some enhanced interrogations. Do you want those in a simple box, individually wrapped, or in a gimmicky dispenser? I’m exaggerating, I hope. But not by much. And don’t get me started on bottled water– spring water, distilled water, sparkling water (domestic or imported), flavored water, do-it-yourself flavorings FOR water, water with fiber or protein — and who even wants to know how they make that! It sounds gross and gruesome … offering us unspeakably worse living through chemistry.
‘Always Saturday’ by Guadalcanal Diary
And then there’s product branding to deal with. Kellogg’s, Post or General Mills. Charmin or quilted Northern. Keebler, Nabisco or Pepperidge Farms. Honeysuckle White or Butterball. Coke or Pepsi. Oh please – each has dozens of permutations on the shelf. It’s all too much! Between market segmentation, product differentiation, product multiplication to grab more shelf space and customer attention, direct mail, broadcast, internet and email ads, telephone surveys and more, there’s barely time to breathe before facing yet another inconsequential decision we can’t easily avoid. Do you want fries with that? Paper or plastic? Ford or Chevy? Regular or decaf? low sodium, preservative free, Low-fat, sugar-free, low-carb, free-range, organic, gluten-free, or GMO?
“Advertising men and politicians are dangerous if they are separated. Together they are diabolical.” –Phillip Adams
Ah yes, GMO foods. If we notice, they seem less eager for us to know when we are making that choice. Which is odd. Or is it? In truth, the real decisions, the choices that would make a profound difference in our lives, are not encouraged. Can we get adequate food and shelter, decent education and health care? Will we leave a livable planet for our children? Can we attain freedom, justice, peace and dignity for everyone? Those seem to be the only goods routinely in short supply. Sometimes I wonder if we’re kept so busy with all these meaningless ‘choices’ in part so we won’t notice that we have no meaningful voice in deciding the big issues in our world.
You keep buying things, but you don’t need them.
Well as long as you’re comfortable, it feels like freedom.
- Billy Bragg
I’m weak, so I probably won’t throw out all my possessions. Hell, I’m three years behind even cleaning out the basement. But I am trying to spend less energy on stuff, in hopes that I may have more time and thought to spare for living — for friends and family, for love and laughter, for the struggle to make a better world.
“We will find fulfillment not in the goods that we have, but in the good we can do for each other.” –Robert F. Kennedy
For further reading -
George Monbiot – Spend, Don’t Mend – The Guardian, 26 November 2013
Dan Ariely – Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions – 2008
Annie Leonard – The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health – 2010
James B. Twitchell – 20 Ads That Shook the World: The Century’s Most Groundbreaking Advertising and How It Changed Us All – 2000