Around the County

Squandering it on stuff: Our consumer economy

By Pat Stuart
Posted 3/4/21

Oh, they are so clever.

Those ad mongers and their pitches can make almost anyone believe themselves to be total cretins ... inadequate, and unhappy without PRODUCT X in their home/garage/yard. …

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Around the County

Squandering it on stuff: Our consumer economy

Posted

Oh, they are so clever.

Those ad mongers and their pitches can make almost anyone believe themselves to be total cretins ... inadequate, and unhappy without PRODUCT X in their home/garage/yard. Slick and entertaining ads barrage us from all media fronts, keeping us glued to the screens of our devices — also keeping us buying, wiping out our savings and maxing out our credit cards.

Thanks to artificial intelligence, the means to manipulate and maneuver us into parting with our hard-earned cash and buying “stuff” has become egregious. If you don’t believe that, look at Amazon profits.

This year, while millions of Americans lost their jobs and their income and while millions more reported hunger and empty pantries, Amazon’s revenue “increased 37.4% to a record $96.15 billion. Its net income also set a quarterly record at $6.33 billion, an increase of 196.7% over the third quarter of 2019.” (So says a Google headline.)

Clearly, we are buy, buy, buying. But things we need, need, need?

Yeah …

Oh, for the days of the “Mad Men,” when the appearance of an ad on the screen had us escaping to the kitchen to pop popcorn or pour a glass of wine. I’ll admit, though, I was vulnerable to print ads. You know. The ones in glossy magazines with gorgeous models showed the good life which clearly sprang from the use of Revlon lipstick or a dab of Chanel V.

Now? Ads are invidious and insidious, appearing just about everywhere you might click a button, worming their way into our minds and the fingers that do the buying for us. Thanks to Google and YouTube and Facebook and social media everywhere, it’s impossible to escape. Except now the drive to buy is dressed up as not just important to our image or “keeping up with the Smiths” or giving us an irresistible smile.

No, now, ads are so integrated into the shows we watch and so sly that they first lead us to think that we’re simply and inescapably deprived (or maybe it’s depraved). But if only we buy PRODUCT X, we’ll miraculously find ourselves dancing on air. And, it’s so easy: Just click the button and we’ll no longer be ugly or unhappy or despondent.

So, we buy, buy, buy. As long as we do, the giants among corporations, the Amazons of this world, keep getting richer. 

     

Less is Now

So much so that Netflix is featuring a semi-reality show called The Minimalists: Less is Now. Another show about not hoarding, I thought. Probably, yet one more “how to” program on getting rid of our stuff.

There’s a little bit of both in it ... not enough of anything, though, to keep me watching. Nonetheless, the writers have a point. We are being brainwashed not just daily but hourly. We’re having our egos undercut in strange and powerful ways, making us less confident and happy humans, but better consumers.

We’re being studied, our habits, desires and thinking dissected in the most minute detail. Our movements are tracked. Our every online activity feeds into algorithms that use these to grow their intellect and their ability to manipulate us.

The goal? Actually, when you stop to think about it, the goal is fairly benign: to turn us into buying machines. I say “benign” because the same algorithms could just as easily be creating millions of “Manchurian Candidates.”

Which, of course, is going on, too. Just not so obviously or on such a scale. At least I hope not.

Leaving aside the political implications, think about what this is doing to us. It’s certainly impossible to escape. For example, I just got online to buy filters for my humidifier and was bombarded with suggestions for a multitude of other stuff I really should purchase like a beautiful Norwegian sweater that is “recommended” just for me ... a 98% match!

“Ships within 12 hours,” they say and, “Discounted price,” and ... with three clicks of the button, I can have both filters and a sweater on my doorstep early next week.

And, so, I clicked the buttons for the filters and managed to resist that lovely sweater, regretting the loss of a possibility that I might become a Norwegian beauty if only I could have that sweater. On another day, when I’m not writing about the evils of our consumer economy, I might succumb and spend that $199.99, thereby gaining one more bit of clothing to stuff into a drawer while reducing the amount I have available to guard against a rainy day.

And, so, our homes fill with products, both “needed” and not.

      

Future generations

And, so, we support the consumer economy, making the rich richer while we struggle along trying our best to protect ourselves and our “stuff.” And, I haven’t even touched on how that stuff goes from an Amazon box into the house and then to a landfill. 

While it’s probably too late to protect ourselves or our landfills from the onslaught, it may be that with education our children may develop consumer resistance. They can learn the lessons of frugality, the pleasures of quality rather than quantity, and the satisfaction that comes from using their savings to make a difference. Not squandering it on stuff.

My first prediction of 2021? Mandatory middle school classes on escaping algorithms. 

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