Are you nobody, too?
I'm nobody! Who are you?
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.