Tuesday, June 26, 2007

How Public, Like a Frog

One of Emily Dickenson's most famous poems reads as follows:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Clearly, as any self-respecting advertising executive might say today, poor dear Emily didn't understand the concept of branding.

We live in a consumer paradise, here in America. We can buy almost anything we want, whenever we want it (thanks to "Twelve Months Same As Cash!" and similar easy credit plans). We don't merely shop for the things we need; we've moved far beyond that.

Many people, including Rod Dreher, whose book I discussed in the post immediately below this one, have begun to find this pace and focus on shopping and spending to be disconcerting, an example of our national lack of self control and our rejection, by and large, of the virtues of thrift and caution which characterized our ancestors. I tend to agree with this assessment, and think that in many ways our habits of consumerism are a dangerous symptom of the larger disease of hedonism which plagues our society.

However, in tackling this problem I think we sometimes fall into a new one, as I discussed here; we can change our material focus from quantity to quality transforming but not overcoming our impulse toward materialism; this is especially dangerous when it gets packaged as a virtue, in my opinion.

Thinking about all of this made me reflect on why this is so. Why do we veer from mindless shopping to mindful and focused shopping without ever bypassing 'shopping' on the way? Why do we seek to define ourselves by the things we buy and where we shop, whether it's the biggest of the big boxes or the smallest of the trendy crunchiques?

Some of this, I think, has to do with the culture of advertising which we find ourselves inhabiting in the twenty-first century.

In every medium, at every turn, advertisers are pushing us to shop, buy, spend. They don't really care if we see ourselves as "sensible" shoppers or "practical" shoppers or "discriminating" shoppers or "careful" shoppers or "crunchy" shoppers--as long as we see ourselves as "shoppers."

The single college class I took which dealt with writing advertising copy talked about some basic advertising concepts, and how the ad would use these concepts to sell you goods you might not need. One of the most basic of all is the problem...solution ad format. You've seen dozens of these ads on television, in print, everywhere; ads which show a 'problem' and then propose the product as the 'solution.' Can't get those stubborn stains out? Try "Obliterate!" Or a more subtle version might show the man who just can't get a date, until he switches to "Scintilla" toothpaste.

But deep below the surface of this kind of conscious advertising is something else entirely; I think it's possible to look at our national "stuff" fixation in a new way.

I think that there's a new kind of "Problem" out there in the world of ads: "Problem: Nobody Knows Who You Are."

And the "Solution," or at least part of it, is "Stuff."

Buy this brand of car or bicycle or cell phone, to show you're "This" type of person. Buy that brand of golf clubs or computer or living room furniture to show you're "That" type of person. Define yourself as completely as possible by the things you choose to buy and own and watch and subscribe to and pay for.

The underlying context of this national spirit is that we moderns don't have time to get to know people. We don't have time to form friendships or enter relationships or reach out to family. We form instant connections with people who are Just Like Us (or at least who own the things we do), and an Us and Them mentality characterizes everything we are and do.

Politics. Religion. Clubs. Hobbies. Sports. Recreation. Television.

Us. And Them.

I think that's probably why Crunchy Cons seemed so radical to some people when it was first published. What? You can be a right-winger and buy organic produce? You can hate both abortion and environmental pollution? You can have your small-farm beef steak, and eat it too? Impossible.

Unfortunately, in the consumer paradise we live in, the idea was radical for about 29 minutes, or however long it took for someone to come up with this sort of thing.

I'm not sure I have more than observations here; it's hard to think of a solution to such an all-pervasive problem, especially when self-sufficiency isn't really possible for most Americans today.

Then again, maybe thinking of this situation in terms of Problem--Solution is what got us into this whole mess in the first place.


freddy said...

I've been thinking along these lines lately, too; prompted by your last two posts, on the Crunchy book and on clutter.

I was actually trying to figure out why it's a given that the big-box stores and chains are bad things. Why would we avoid these places if we could?

I think part of it is that we'd all like to know, and have a say in where all the stuff is coming from. It would give a sense of control -- of having a say in what we buy and use. You know, I'd be more excited about updating my kitchen and replacing those grotty towels if the tag at the store said, "Made by Susie over on Oak Street," instead of "Made in China" (possibly by prison labor).

I know that I get tired of the whole "global market" and "global economy" ideas shoved down my throat, especially since that doesn't seem to mean anything more than "get used to lower wages and higher gas prices." It's tempting to opt out of our culture and blame consumerism or even capitalism for our woes. Ultimately, however, the best lesson I've learned regarding money and the use of it comes from a child's bank. One section is for saving, another for church, another for needs, and that last little section at the end is marked, "fun."

AnnonyMouse said...

I like your post and one reason I try to use the locally owned business over the BIG "made in china" stores is because I want them to survive BUT I also wonder IF they were the only ones in town without the BIG store if they would gouge us, I do wonder that.

I do also like your observation on wanting to be known and buying whatever will make you feel like that projected image. Good thing we don't watch comericals that much!

And the crunchy link you provided...to all the extras is just tacky. Hmm. Wonder if any are made in China?

Freddy, I like your idea of teaching your kids how to save and in what order too.