Mic check: l. l. frederick

So Many Choices It’s Not Fair

by l. l. frederick

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.

Wal-Mart Black Friday shopping frenzy, 2012

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!

– Queen

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


l. l. frederick can be found typing away furiously at her blog…Take Heart! This work is part of the Mic check guest blogger series.

This entry was posted in Social Justice and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Mic check: l. l. frederick

  1. As an outsider looking in I find the Black Friday event just mind blowing and perplexing, here in Ireland we just have nothing that could even come close to comparing to it. We have sales in January and some stores will be busy but it comes nowhere near what looks to me like retail hysteria, and I am judging it purely on some crazy videos I have seen on YouTube and posts I read from American bloggers.

    This is a great post because it is something I have been reading so much about. Very informative.


    • Thank you so much for your valuable outsider perspective. We so often accept our prevailing customs as “normal” without giving the matter much thought. But honestly, our holiday shopping madness is pretty “mind blowing and perplexing” even from a front-row seat. Possibly I simply lack the shopping-as-blood-sport gene, one reason I’m still trying to understand it. – Linda


  2. smilecalm says:

    deep reflections.
    I learned a lot
    about media influencing masses.
    as I’ve protected my consciousness
    from most media, esp tv and commercials
    I can see how I, too
    could easily fall into the endless cycle of desires
    and obtaining anything, everything
    at any cost.
    may you have an enjoyable
    violence free holiday 🙂


  3. Isn’t it wonderful? This ‘illusion’ we have of ‘freedom’ simply because we can buy, buy, buy? If there was nothing to buy, what would happen? Would we drop dead? Would we cope? Americans MUST have something to buy because if they didn’t then there goes their entire purpose in life. Can you believe it? An entire country is fueled by consumerism. That is why Americans are bombarded daily to spend, spend, spend. Get indebt and get into more debt so that you can buy more. Hoard more! You need more! Why? Because the advertisers say you need more. Don’t question! Just buy! The corporate bottom line is at stake. Stakeholders, stockholders, hockholders, they’re ALL counting on YOU to buy!! So, get out there Americans and keep them laughing and rich while you stay in debt! It’s the ONLY American way!

    Linda, you are so right on ‘Target’ with this one! There are SO many who should read this one and say, “OUCH, that hurt!!!”


    • Thanks for the kind words, Shelby. As a hobby or as a purpose in life, maybe consumerism beats being a serial killer. Maybe. But I’m not sure of that. At bottom, both are an anti-social, destructive activities. – Linda


  4. Very elegant piece of writing. I’m not sure if you meant to do this, but the way you depict it consumerism comes across as a classic addiction. With a few minor word changes, you could be describing amphetamine addiction. There are very strong similarities between amphetamine and consumerism addiction.

    There’s even a 12 step program (Consumers Anonymous) to help people who want to overcome their consumerism addiction. Check out http://springcreek.oregonstate.edu/consumersanonymous/create_ca_group.html

    I haven’t been through this specific program, but I have pretty successfully weaned myself off consumer goods with a similar approach.


    • Kind words indeed, thank you Stuart, it does seem very like addiction, and possibly quite as destructive to one’s character and personality. I’m not surprised there’s a program for dealing with this problem. But I wonder if many succeed in kicking the habit. So much of our culture fosters and all but demands that we buy, buy, buy. – Linda


  5. ileneonwords says:

    Thanks, always enjoy what l.l. frederick has to say!


  6. When people are camping out in front of stores in tents with their sleeping bags, you have to wonder.


  7. tubularsock says:

    Sell plastic shit, Buy plastic shit, Recycle plastic shit, Remold plastic shit, Sell plastic shit, Buy plastic shit, Recycle plastic shit, Remold plastic shit, Sell plastic shit, Sell plastic shit, Buy plastic shit, Recycle plastic shit, Remold plastic shit, Sell plastic shit, Sell plastic shit, Buy plastic shit, Recycle plastic shit, Remold plastic shit, Sell plastic shit ……… and the surprise to many is that all you have is plastic shit! It may be the new religion.


    • Religion, addiction, or psychosis. Or maybe all of the above. Good point, thanks. But did you have to get yet another song stuck in my head? – Linda

      I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
      As long as I’ve got my plastic jesus (or Visa?)


  8. Jeff Nguyen says:

    A sincere and heartfelt thank you to l. l. frederick for this deep dive into the psychology behind advertising and mass marketing. It’s not hard to make the cognitive leap from using these well honed tools of behavioral psychology in the propagation of consumerism to other areas of the public and political sphere. I’ll leave it to your imaginations to figure out what those spheres could be. I’m continually impressed by the top shelf contributions from guest bloggers to the Mic check series. Again, thank you l. l. frederick.


  9. Jeff, I believe a large part of this unnecessary consumption and spending is simply due to people having jobs that mean nothing to them, and too much free time on meaningless jobs. Also, as one ages, (if one is gaining any wisdom) the baubles have less appeal. I for one, was blessed to grow up in a family that was too economically challenged to go into debt for Christmas and to have a mother who was very creative with gifts. And never fell into the spending spree when I left home. Even more fortunate to marry a husband who thinks like me and do not understand the insanity. My question is, when will this economy find another means of support?


    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      Skywalker, just to clarify…all credit goes to l. l. frederick for this insightful piece. 🙂


    • Thank you for your perceptive comment. Meaningless jobs? Quite possibly, which can also make us feel our lives are rather meaningless as well. I’ve wondered if most of us have lost any expectations of ‘heaven’ — or ‘hell’ — so we try for an immediate ‘paradise’ of material gratification.

      As for the economy, I wish we knew when — and how! — we will work towards a more sane way of living and acquiring what we need to live decently. Many of us have good ideas, but it will take collective effort, I believe, to turn this ungainly rig around, to fight the short-term, short-sighted drive for immediate profit regardless of consequences. As long as we put so much time and effort into over-consumption, it’s hard to see how we can achieve constructive change, especially since our lavish spending and debt just concentrate wealth and power more all the time. We must stop playing games only corporate capitalism can win! – Linda


  10. Thanks Jeff. Shared. Just after Christmas, we have a “Boxing Day”, not about boxing, but big discount year-end sale shopping.


  11. Shainbird says:

    It is all about ‘me’ nowadays, me and mine. The ploy of advertising has gotten lodged into the American psyche. I am struck when I watch old movies where rationing was utilized, we are so far removed from those days. Aside from the need to possess, we are possessed. Black Friday is a stain on American humanity. We had an ice storm earlier this month and things were flying off the shelves like it was Armageddon and it made me realize that there is fear in not having and it put in actuality the need for greed. Thank you I.I. for this great read. And thanks Jeff for the connection.


    • You’re very kind, Shainbird, thank you. And you bring up another good point — do we possess things, or do they possess us? Do we need economic ‘exorcists’ now, to free us from the twin ‘demons’ of Greed and Debt — or Cause and Effect? (How would that work, anyway? Maybe we poke our credit cards full of pins, and wave gold dollar signs while chanting “Hell no, we won’t owe!”) But seriously, I don’t think we can claim the devils make us spend like maniacs. It’s mostly just us, with our selfishness and obsessions. Yet obviously there are also massive efforts to persuade, encourage and tempt us to buy, buy, buy because it’s so good for business, because those with money and power have so much to gain by our loss. – Linda


  12. That Dr Pepper commercial kills me. People stampeding over each other for $5 off a giant screen tv is indeed nutty. Hope you have a great 2014 ahead.


  13. Jeff, Your piece is written exceedingly well…I could not help but thing how 80% of the world’s natural resources are consumed by the USA and Europe—and I would venture to say, the greater share by us. It sickens my heart to know that people in other countries have no food to eat, to water to drink, and we sit here in luxury. My daughter is now teaching in Togo—I have mixed emotions–she is in the Peace Corps—however, our country send drones…She tells me they call this season of dry weather the “Starving Season”……
    Your words are so important!
    We are listening…..and reacting…..I shared your site on my FB page…..


    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      Just wanted to let you know that l. l. frederick wrote this piece. Her blog is found at: http://llfrederick.wordpress.com.


    • I fully share your appreciation of Jeff’s clear voice and vision, and recommend his writing to everyone. Thank you so much for your comment, which adds an important point, one I didn’t cover as I was so long-winded anyway. As a society, we Americans are consuming far more than our share of the planet’s resources, which is both unsustainable and unfair. My focus here was on the fact that we naturally want more things, and how that desire is encouraged and exploited, because it makes money . We’re never encouraged to think what all this costs, truly costs, or maybe we wouldn’t be such pigs. Surely we still have some sense of shame or proportion — if only we stop to consider what we do before we act. We must find some way to restrain our self-indulgent habits, or in time history (and the justifiable rage and contempt of most of our neighbors) will impose solutions we won’t like. – Linda


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