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Consumer Angst

— Copyright © 2007, P. LutusMessage Page

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In this story there are no heroes or villains, just people who believe they can buy happiness, and advertisers who support this belief. Consumerism is one of religion's modern replacements, and, like religion, it actively encourages, then exploits, dissatisfaction with everyday reality.

Index to article sections:
It is possible to examine nearly any aspect of modern society — the conduct of war, government, marriage, education — and find a similar practice, an earlier version, in history. In most cases, the seeds of the present can be seen in the past. But this is not true for consumerism, for consumerism has no parallel in early human societies.

The closest thing to consumerism — and this is offered only as a point of reference, not comparison — is the practice of barter. In barter, two or more individuals met and exchanged what they had for what they didn't have. Advertising either didn't exist or was very primitive, and there was no hierarchy — no natural division between producers and consumers, because everyone was both a producer and a consumer.

The motivation for barter was also much more basic — the point was to avoid being dead. It was very straightforward — you could trade your surplus of corn for some arrowheads, or for the services of a mercenary to guard your cornfield, or simply to avoid an untimely death. You could instead keep the corn and hope no one attacked your field, but over time it may have come to you that hiring a mercenary, or owning some arrowheads, would increase the amount of corn you actually kept for more than a few days.

The Role of Surplus
The key change that separates modern from traditional societies is the concept of surplus, a condition in which there is more than enough of everything to sustain the lives of all the members of a society. As it happens, people are not designed to cope with surplus. We have many, many strategies to deal with perpetual deficit, some learned, some congenital, but surplus bewilders us.

As just one example, many Americans are overweight because we sit down to eat and — for reasons buried in our collective past — expect to see no more food for a week or more. Therefore, we eat much more than we should, if only our perceptions were based on current reality. Three hours later, we sit down and repeat the performance. But we never adjust to the surplus, leading many researchers to the conclusion that deficit behaviors are very deeply rooted in our characters and are not easily modified by experience.

This condition — a world of surplus, occupied by people programmed for deficit — is a perfect setting for modern consumerism. Modern consumerism is based on the triple premise that:

  • luxuries are actually needs,
  • what you already have is not satisfactory, and
  • no product is so basic that advertising is superfluous.
Reactive and Proactive Consumerism
I define consumerism as the voluntary suspension of disbelief in the value of material goods . Suspension of disbelief is desirable when viewing a fantasy world such as a stage play or motion picture, and it is also necessary in modern shopping, and for exactly the same reason — the things on display cannot meaningfully be compared with reality.

Consumerism is itself divided into two subcategories, reactive consumerism and proactive consumerism. Reactive consumerism (hereinafter RC) awaits a public demand for a product and, no matter how absurd the demand, fills it. Proactive consumerism (hereinafter PC) uses advertising to create markets for products that have no natural market.

Before going on, I must add that PC isn't always as parasitic as it might sound on first hearing. Sometimes a perceived need is created out of nowhere, and this engineered need leads to a societal advance — a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will. For example, education is a form of PC — it appears to convey knowledge, when in fact its real purpose is to create a lifelong taste for knowledge. But to the original target audience of young people (and, sadly, to some of their parents), the "product" being offered has no obvious purpose — an acquired taste for ideas makes young people nearly uncontrollable, rebellious, doubtful of received wisdom. Only later in life does this fondness for ideas bear fruit, at a time (in the brief and brittle lifecycle of the average human brain) when it would be nearly impossible to instill the taste anew.

RC can exist in times of deficit, because it only springs to life in response to voiced demand. But PC, the practice of creating a market and then serving it, can only exist in times of surplus. In RC, advertising is an adjunct, a facilitation of the basic process of producing and distributing goods. In PC, advertising is the process — everything else depends on it.
The Big Lie
There is one thing you absolutely must know about modern advertising. No matter how true any single advertisement is, modern advertising itself, taken as a whole, tells a lie — that you need the thing being advertised. It is a lie because consumer goods of real value do not need to be advertised — such goods are part of a natural market that flows "beneath" the PC marketplace, although as time passes these basic necessities represent a shrinking percentage of the total flow of goods.

When I was young, if you wanted a candy bar and you could afford a good one, you bought a Hershey's Bar (as they were called when I was a child), because they were known to be the best. But, whatever the source of this perception of quality, it certainly was not because of advertising, because Hershey Chocolate Company did not advertise before 1970. They were the best, everyone knew it, why waste the company's money asserting the obvious? Founder Milton Hershey said, "Give them quality. That's the best advertising in the world."

By 1970, the world had changed, and products of obvious value were being advertised alongside goods of no intrinsic worth, thus leveling the playing field and making it difficult to distinguish goods of actual worth from make-believe goods designed to fill make-believe needs. And in that year the Hershey Company began to advertise.

To put this another way, modern advertising spends vast sums trying to make the buying public aware of products that it also portrays as a necessity of life — an obvious contradiction. After all, how could our loyal consumer have survived to the present moment without this crucial product, to be in a position to witness its advertising?

The truth is, by the time an advertisement fills a time slot on your television set, or plays on the radio, or appears in print in your newspaper, chances are you already have all you need to live comfortably . The global purpose of modern advertising is to make you forget this fact. Advertising does this in two ways:

  • By creating an atmosphere of dissatisfaction with everything not purchasable, or already purchased. More on dissatisfaction here .
  • By telling lies, appealing lies, lies nearly everyone wants to hear.
All the little lies support the big lie — that no product is so valuable that advertising has no purpose.
The Little Lies
Here are some examples of the minor lies that are included in advertising to support the big lie:

  • "New!" How can something be simultaneously new and absolutely essential to survival? Or, given the thesis that new is better, the advertiser should honestly list the ways that the old new product failed us, thus setting the stage for inevitable disenchantment with the new new product.
  • "An exclusive offer!" This nationally televised, prime-time advertisement excludes only the dead, and those too penniless from responding to previous exclusive offers.
  • "It costs more, but it is worth it." By implication, things that cost more are worth more, and by negation, things that have no price also have no value. This is an appeal to reject the entire natural world out of hand.
  • "You deserve the best." A questionable premise, one intended to cloud your mind and distract you from the more practical question of whether you can afford the best, or whether the product is in fact the best.
  • "Everybody has one of these." Except you. Yes — we spent 30 million dollars on a national advertising campaign to reach the last holdout — you. Now buy our $5.95 product and redeem our investment.
  • "Protect your children with …" A pitch often seen on television. Ironically, television itself threatens your children in ways too numerous to list. There is no advertisement telling you to protect your children from TV itself. I should add that, taken as a whole, the Internet is probably worse.
  • "Want to know what women really like?" ad infinitum. This class of advertising exploits the fact that men and women either do not talk to each other, or, if they do, do not understand what the other person is saying. As to the latter, when a man says, "I love your youthful appearance and spirit," he does not add, "When your youthful appearance wears off, your spirit by itself won't be able to sustain our relationship." When a woman says, "I treasure your moments of sensitivity and vulnerability," she does not add, "but you must never appear weak or indecisive. You sort it out — you're a man." These examples show we are so completely saturated by the language of advertising with a sexual angle, that we no longer remember how to speak to each other in a way that doesn't mimic advertising. And we are progressively less likely to talk to each other to sort out reality — we expect the advertisers to tell us what the other sex wants. Instead, and inevitably, we only discover what the advertiser wants.
  • "This car is not for everyone." But it certainly is for the 98% of the male car-buying public our team of psychologists has identified as possessing the conceit that they are unique. You are entirely unique in the world, yet you are going to line up and choose one of the three colors this car is available in, then drive this cookie-cutter symbol of your uniqueness off into the sunset.
  • "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on television." I didn't make this up. This opening pitch was followed by an endorsement for a patent medicine. This particular example shows the advertisers' contempt for the consumer's intelligence, a contempt almost always justified by subsequent events.
Products that require Products of Their Own
Once advertising has delivered the product into your hands, other aspects of consumerism then come into play. These aspects rely on connections between products, real and imagined. Here are some examples:

"Protect your investment in A with B."
Examples abound — I will use insurance. The entire insurance industry is based on a lie — that purchasing insurance is a better strategy than keeping your money and personally replacing the insured item in the event of loss. The insurance schema on its surface is very simple — you pay premiums to the insurance company, in exchange for which the insurance company agrees to replace your property in the event of loss.

The dirty secret of the insurance business is that, on average, the insurance company has collected much more than the value of the insured property by the time it pays a claim. This is called "making a profit," a trait considered desirable in a company, and insurance companies are very profitable. The profit comes from two sources:
  • Your premium payments, and
  • The return on the investments made, with your money, by the insurance company.
Instead of paying the insurance premiums, you could invest the money as the insurance company does, and simply pay to replace the valued item in the event of a loss. On average, you would come out very far ahead using this strategy. There are two categories of consumers for which this strategy won't work:
  • People who can't actually afford the insured item, who are purchasing with borrowed money (these individuals are usually required by the lender to carry insurance), and
  • People who slept through economics in school.
But most consumers don't know this basic truth about the insurance business. Most people think buying insurance is a smart investment, the action of a mature, responsible person. It isn't — the only time insurance can be justified is if you are buying something you can't afford to replace, and then only when it is required of you. This discussion doesn't apply to liability insurance, where the potential losses are quite beyond imagining, and only the wealthiest individuals can afford to pay direct costs.
"A implies B."
Virtually all consumer products, above a rudimentary level of complexity, have accessories and "enhancements." One can easily imagine a graph of products with the simplest (fewest accessories) on the left and the most complex (most accessories) at the right.

At the very left of our imaginary graph is a screwdriver. Not a Phillips screwdriver, just a plain old-fashioned straight-slot screwdriver. If you buy one of these carefully, you will have it decades from now. Your children will inherit it from you. From the standpoint of marketing, this is a nightmare — any number of advertising executives start up from their pillows in terror, having just imagined that screwdriver in reliable service over years and years, its original brand name slowly wearing off.

The reason I didn't choose a Phillips screwdriver for my example is because as time passes there are more and more "standard" Phillips screw head sizes, so even though a screwdriver is very basic, in this case you can find yourself looking for a perfect fit for a Phillips screw virtually forever. This assures our ad executive a sound sleep. By contrast, even if you wear out the tip of a standard screwdriver, you can recreate it at home with a file (okay, one possible accessory).

At the middle of our graph, let's put a car. A car is a virtual playground for accessories. There is nothing that someone, somewhere, hasn't considered adding to a car. Wet bars. Saunas and hot tubs. There is even a car product whose purpose I haven't been able to figure out. I don't dare name it (since I intend to ridicule it), but it is described as "satisfying" and it comes in a spray can. It has something to do with pretending your car is shinier and newer than it is. In any event, I am always suspicious of advertising where the purpose of the product is left out and the emotional effect of its use is described instead.

Even the most basic car, a car you might try to hide from your friends, has some accessories — certainly plastic floor protectors. Once I looked into a car at a dealership and saw the usual floor protectors, and over the protectors I spied a plastic sheet. As I gazed, I wondered if some demented consumer might allow the sheet to wear completely through, thus jeopardizing the plastic floor protectors — for shame!

At the right of our graph — remember, this is supposed to be the most accessorizable thing imaginable — let's put marriage. Some may object that marriage, strictly speaking, isn't a consumer item in the same sense as a house or car. But it is! Modern marriage is a packaged, advertised, promoted consumer item, in fact in some ways it is the prototype for all other consumer items, also it has the largest "tree" of dependent accessories and potential replacement items — including the marriage partner — of any product.

Marriage has the advantage that there is an innate desire for the product built into the buying public, therefore promoting it only makes people go crazier. And if a particular marriage fails to please, the average consumer will gullibly listen to promoters' claims that it was that particular marriage, not marriage itself, that was at fault. This degree of gullibility is present to a degree not seen in any other product except religion.

Now imagine our completed graph, which even the Internet cannot meaningfully contain. Product complexity and accessorizability increases from left to right. The "trees" of dependent accessories stretch upward from the baseline of the graph. At the left is our lowly screwdriver, with no essential accessories above it. At the middle is a car, with a rather impressive tree of accessories growing out of it. At the right is marriage, with a vast tree of dependent products reaching up higher than any practical finite paper size or computer graph could contain, including nearly all the items to the left of it on the graph itself. Thinking about this graph, you will realize why you almost never see an advertisement for screwdrivers.
"A is replaced by B."
This is a very common pitch. A trivial change is made in the formulation of laundry soap, and suddenly you are the last holdout with a clearly inferior product. Your children will be roundly jeered from the playground. But there are more robust versions of this pitch, guaranteed to drag the majority of consumers, kicking and screaming (but still buying) into the advertiser's future, if not their own.

One very effective method is to tie several products together in a dependent relationship, so that, if any one of the products changes, all of them require replacement. Example: the personal computer. As time passes, incremental changes in computer hardware can be accommodated without starting over, but from time to time an irresistible technological breakthrough comes along that sweeps all prior hardware out the door.

There have been two such sweeping changes so far. One was IBM's decision to introduce an "entry system" that it hoped would be a steppingstone into that company's principal business, large systems. But IBM cast such a long shadow on the computing landscape (in those bygone days) that even their deliberately crippled design became the de facto standard personal computer and eclipsed several other contenders.

The second change was the introduction of graphical environments such as Windows, which first required a great deal more computer power than its predecessors, and eventually obsoleted all but the most powerful systems.

The reason these changes swept away entire architectures was partly fashion, a theme in all of consumerism, but also because of the interdependent nature of individual computers and networks of computers. To a marketer, this gives computers a mixture of attractive and terrifying qualities. Attractive because a single change can create a huge wave of system replacements — all you have to do is figure out how to ride the wave. Terrifying because no individual — not even Bill Gates — can foresee the technological breakthrough that will trigger the next wave, or its timing.

Sweeping changes like this are so attractive that one sees valiant attempts to create them out of nothing. Quadraphonic sound is an example. Unfortunately, the American public rejected the thesis that they needed four speakers instead of two, and the idea died.

The next visible change of this kind, one supported and encouraged by the American government, is called "High-Definition Television" (HDTV). Basically it constitutes a technological scheme that will improve picture quality and flexibility, and finally replace the oldest and least satisfactory method for encoding a television picture still in use, NTSC (supposedly this stands for "Never Twice the Same Color").

Unfortunately for consumers and fortunately for TV manufacturers, this change will eventually require the complete replacement of every TV set, every TV camera and studio, TV transmitters, cable networks, everything. Even more interesting is that the schedule of changes is mandated by the government — beginning with a mixture of old-style and new-style broadcasting, ending with a complete replacement of NTSC programs with HDTV programs, in the communication pathways that are administered by the government. According to this schedule, about ten years from now, barring unforeseen events, the transition will be complete — all commercial broadcasting will be based on the HDTV standard. Consumers will either have new receivers or will have some sort of converter box that will allow them to see some fraction of the size and quality of the new standard's TV image.

With all the committees meeting around this issue, it is surprising that no one has asked if the content of TV will be improved along with the image. I think I know the answer.
"B shows the folly of A."
This is a marketing position dearly to be wished for, and it doesn't happen very often. But the examples are memorable: FM radio compared to AM radio. Personal computers compared to typewriters. Calculators compared to slide rules. Transistor radios compared to tube radios (an older example). But the majority of real-world examples are an illusory, not real, replacement of a prior product on the basis of overwhelming merit: Electric toothbrushes. Anti-lock brakes. Automotive Air bags. Electric bug zappers (they don't work against mosquitoes). Sonic bug repellers (they don't work at all).
The Role of Dissatisfaction
I earnestly believe that some degree of dissatisfaction is innate in people, and absent our modern society, the chance that someone would fall to his knees in wonder at the sight of a wildflower is marginal. But I can say with assurance that modern advertising makes this possibility disappear entirely, for most people in most places, because in order to consume as we do, we must first be programmed to regard everyday experiences as completely unsatisfactory.

This aspect of marketing has a lot in common with traditional religious practices:

  • The truth is hidden from view.
  • Your reward lies in the hereafter.
  • True happiness is only available to the initiated, the "insiders."
  • Everyday reality is a sham, a waste of time, an illusion.
  • We are all defective, our personal experiences have no legitimacy without the validation of priests.
When I was young, this kind of talk was perfect — I already held everyday experience in contempt (meaning I was already a trained consumer). Each new belief system that came along seemed more sophisticated and promising than the last, certain to show how the seemingly random events around me actually fit together into a coherent whole, a whole that I could perceive if only I underwent an initiation ritual.

Finally I realized that each of the belief systems I sampled were simply examples of modern product packaging and marketing: Your individual, direct experience means nothing. Join up. Get with the program. Oh, by the way, we are going to need some funds to cover our legitimate expenses in showing you the True Path to Enlightenment.

This doesn't mean I suddenly saw the value of direct, personal experience, but I certainly did see that the packaged version was not innately superior. For me, this was a big step forward.

But for most Americans, rich and poor, the packaged version is still innately superior, and this is tangible evidence of the triumph of marketing. For us, a personal view of a field of sunflowers is quite ordinary, but a painting of that same view can fetch millions. Even the paintings of sunflowers rejected by the artist, then used by his maid as rags to clean up his studio, are prized beyond any imaginable real-life scene of sunflowers. Why? Simple: the real scene cannot be packaged and marketed — it can never be "more" than an individual experience.

Pablo Picasso realized the importance of marketing, late in his career. At that time, he began churning out works that had as their only distinguishing characteristic a resemblance to the works of an artist named Picasso. The subject meant nothing, the style meant everything. Pure marketing.

We distrust our direct experiences, and require a commentator — an authority — to interpret our experiences for us. This is why Americans believe nothing is real until it has been on television. In this sense, television is the product package, as well as a vehicle for the ultimate comment on all contemporary reality — advertising.

When the "pet rock" was first introduced, when a completely ordinary rock became valuable by virtue of its package and advertising, I imagine some advertiser on Madison Avenue saying, "Yes! Now we have them! They will buy absolutely anything!"
Coping Skills
Here are some common-sense suggestions to minimize the negative effects of consumerism in your life:

  • It is very likely that most of your dissatisfactions are a carefully engineered preparation for consumerism. So examine your dissatisfactions — keep only those that, if discarded, might kill you. Toss the rest.
  • The first rule of advertising: if it is advertised, it is not a necessity. So start out by saying "I don't need this product. Now, do I want it?"
  • Ask yourself how much of an advertisement appeals to reason, and how much appeals to emotion. If the primary appeal is to emotion, you should expect to feel another, stronger emotion after the purchase: disappointment.
  • Ask yourself if the advertisement describes a product, or instead describes you in unrealistic ways. After all, it is the real you that will be paying for the product, not the fantasy you that "deserves the very best."
  • Apply common sense to advertising. If you are being offered a book that is guaranteed to make you millions and costs $39.95, you should wonder why it didn't work for the author. Real millionaires don't promote get-rich-quick schemes on late-night TV unless the actual get-rich-quick scheme is to sell millions of copies of a worthless book.
  • Above all, recapture an appreciation for ordinary reality. Two reasons quickly come to mind:
    • Fields of flowers don't lie, and
    • If you postpone a walk in the flowers for long enough, the next time you check, they will be gone.
In my view, if a person can't sit down in a forest, look between the trees at a sunlit meadow and say, "This is all I really need," then that person is more than slightly bent. But that's only my opinion — I could be wrong.
A Closing Comment
In your life, how many print articles have you read that portray consumerism and advertising in this way? Chances are, very few or none. Why? Is it because the author is spectacularly original, possibly inspired by genius? Or is it simply because television, magazines and newspapers reject this kind of writing out of hand, for fear of offending advertisers? Even though I am the author and would like you to believe the first premise, the second is actually correct — articles like this are almost never seen in print, and ideas like these are almost never aired on TV. They are deliberately excluded.

In the commercial publishing business and in television network programming, articles like this are tantamount to treason or suicide. Small-circulation scholarly journals are another story, but their readership is so small and specialized that they do not represent a threat to mass marketing. For various reasons the Internet, although increasingly commercial in content, is also the best source for anti-consumerist sentiment.

To access some of these resources, submit the search string "anti-consumer" to your favorite search engine.
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