When painting, I listen to one of three things. I tune in to National Public Radio, shuffle the tunes on my iPod or, during the summer months, turn on the television and “half-watch” baseball games. This Fourth of July long weekend, I have been doing the latter, enjoying meetings of the New York Mets and Florida Marlins (loss) and, today, the Mets and the Washington Nationals (win). Unfortunately, I must suffer through the commercials; by the end of your average ballgame I've reached the saturation point. The various corporate slogans – “I’m Lovin’ It.” – are stuck in my head and, in some cases, I can recite the commercial voiceovers long after the television is been turned off.
This holiday weekend, the commercials were especially irritating. “Hurry to IKEA for the Summer Sale, ending July 4th!” “Come to P.C. Richard & Son by the 4th to receive big discounts!” “Buy a new Verizon phone by Independence Day and save big!” If I judged the holiday by the television commercials, I would be forced to conclude that the Fourth of July, like Memorial Day, is just another national spending day, or “Freedom Sale,” as one particularly shameless company puts it.
Taking in the commercial frenzy, I feel fortunate that my idea of a good weekend is confined to the studio or a day-trip somewhere relatively unsettled; this way I can avoid the crowds and the angry frustration that sweeps over me when I watch people excessively consume.
A month or so ago, I purchased a scanner at a mid-town Best Buy. While standing in line to swipe my credit card, I watched music videos on televisions hung tactically above the switchback checkout line. Some angry young rockers dressed in grotesque costumes thrashed around on screen – I think this was Slipknot – and I found myself considering our culture's disillusionment. It occurred to me that it wasn’t so very long ago that I stomped around a college campus in combat boots, pierced and angry, listening to Tool and Nine Inch Nails on over-sized headphones.
My gaze drifted from the televisions. On a nearby rack of video games, a display intended to provoke impulse buys, there were more options than I'd had in the early days of Nintendo. Roses, the rural department store near my hometown, usually presented me with four or five gaming options and I would carefully compare each before deciding how to spend my lawn mowing money. Today, by contrast, I’m overwhelmed by the array of choices.
I looked back up at the screaming rock band. Too many options, I thought, have resulted in existential dissatisfaction. The man-children acting out above my head were representative products of the consumer culture. There was a term for this, something I’d learned in Macroeconomics 101, but it escaped me. “Next on line, please.”
The term I had in mind remains a mystery to me, even after many Google searches. What I did find instead was a wealth of similar phrases or terms, such as “the tyranny of choice” or the “choice paradox.” Swathmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that society is sick as a result of the expanding choices.
Whereas the average super-market in the 1950s had around 3,000 items in stock, today the average number is 30,000 items. Ultimately, more choices lead to lost time and confusion for the consumer, as well as impatience and a lack of brand loyalty. These days, video games have limited lasting power and we change toothpaste and fabric softener brands every few months.
Some companies defend themselves by pointing out that “American consumers love to try new things.” The spokespeople use this “fact” to justify the creation of new product lines. Actually, the American “taste test” approach is a result of the plethora of products, not the reverse. Given only three options, consumers will typically pick one and stick with it. Given one hundred options, we’re bound to “try out” different products and we're less likely to stick with any one in particular. Our satisfaction is more difficult to measure. Yet most Americans still believe variety is a good thing, mistaking more choices for better choices and more price points for savings.
I recently requested a free trial subscription to Vitals magazine, just to see what it was all about – I can always use style help – and was horrified by what I found in my mailbox. At once pretentious and superficial, the magazine is a condemnation of both consumer culture and the American upper middle class (the apparent target audience).
In the summer 2005 issue, Daniel Chun, a “humor writer,” includes a silly piece about online shopping, entitled “Shipping & Handling is Stupid and Horrible.” The editorial is meant to be funny, so I won’t suggest that Chun is, in fact, a stupid and horrible man, but one line jumped out at me.
“I’ve gladly forgotten the days when ‘Amazon’ meant a river teeming with wildlife and not a website teeming with value.”Chun intends to poke fun at the consumer mentality, but his line is only funny because it’s true for most people, if not also for him!
Harper’s Magazine published a round-table discussion between several leading economists in the June 2005 issue. (“The Iceberg Cometh: Can a Nation of Spenders Be Saved?”) Peter Peterson, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce and the current chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, had this to say of American consumer obliviousness and the corporate atmosphere of the day.
“We’re somehow in a political system that is all gain and no pain, all get and no give. Anybody who suggests that we should give up something is immediately attacked. So first, the American people must be told a lot of hard truths so that they understand what the problem is.”His recipe for successful change? Higher taxation, less corporate control and “major cuts in entitlement spending.” Of course, mere mention of such “fixes” will see you branded an unpatriotic socialist. Paul Krugman, economist at Princeton University, called for a politician brave enough to take the heat, one willing to tell Americans what their rampant consumerism and willful political ignorance portends.
“[...] To solve our deficit problems, there would have to be a politician grown-up enough to sacrifice something.”One day...maybe?
Photo credit: www.jimsbigthings.com