Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Consumerism

Our country is known for its consumers. Everywhere we go, both here and abroad, we spend money, and plenty of it. Shopping practically qualifies as a sport (I mean, if you're going to let golf in, where can you really draw the line?). Therapy, too. And I'm quite honestly baffled by it. Not because I don't enjoy buying stuff; rather, I'm mystified by how much I enjoy it. I just spent the last few hours making the trip out to IKEA (that entire chain has something against buying space in locations that are convenient to me) and Bed, Bath and Beyond to buy a few things for my impending move to new quarters (sorry to use parantheses twice in the same sentence, but have been meaning to mention that those of you who've been contemplating a visit to Chicago, now's the time... particularly if you're a Cubs fan, as they'll be my new neighbors. Ok, back to the topic at hand.). I just got home and I can barely remember what I purchased. I don't even really care. But I'm blissfully content. I can think of few other occasions that make me feel so completely at peace with the world.

Why is that? I can already hear some of your answers: "Well, it's because you're a shallow bitch." I know that already; besides that. Why does having stuff make us happy, particularly new stuff? Whence this fascination with novelty? I'm sure plenty would blame evil American marketers (heheheh... you have no idea) of the past century for cultivating these desires, but I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. I would argue that people have always enjoyed buying (or rather, procuring) stuff, we just happen to now live in a world where we're able to do so much more frequently. Granted, our distance--both mental and physical--from the physical production of the goods we purchase plays a large part in this. The contentment I feel now is very different from the contentment I'll feel after I've assembled all that freaking IKEA stuff and am proud of myself for having mastered that little screwdriver-key-thing. Right now, I'm gloating over the potential of my purchases: I'm anticipating their use for the first time. Clothing is the perfect example of this: when we're kids, we often wear something new right out of the store if we possibly can (I almost always did when I got new shoes). When we get older and (maybe) feel like exercising some self-restraint, we'll wait until that evening or the next day to wear whatever it is, unless we're saving it for a special occasion. It's the anticipation of the change that your material something-or-other can effect that makes us (and by us, I mean me) so happy with its possession initially. Once you feel that potential has been realized (whether or not it meets your expectations...usually not), it loses its magic.

Now, expectation and anticipation of a good's ability to change your life are propagated by advertising. However, I still think that advertising is simply augmenting this desire, rather than originating it. However much advertisers may want to, they cannot make you buy something against your will (note that 'will and 'better judgment' are not the same thing, and one is also assuming that they're playing fair; outright lies and other such underhanded tactics are another subject entirely)--people only pay attention to marketing messages that they think are relevant to them. Even I, one who can appreciate commercials from a purely academic/intellectual standpoint, cannot and do not pay attention to ads for video games (a few PS2 ads have made it through my filter because they don't show game play right away, most notably this one, where they turn the guy into a chicken).

I think anticipation of a change, however exxagerated it may be as a result of advertising, is spawned by having a choice. If our world was like 1984, where everyone had the same things and did the same things and obeyed the same rules, you wouldn't get any joy out of getting something new because everyone got it; it was standard issue. You were required to have it, and thus having a new, say, bandana would mean nothing because your having it doesn't say anything about you. You can't choose the color to identify yourself as a 'green' in a world where everyone wears bandanas. You didn't save up your pennies to earn a bandana so you could be like whichever bandana-wearing geeks you thought were cool, who stood out because of this rather eccentric accessory. And though you knew other classes of people had access to different things, you knew that you did not, and so while you might desire, say, a journal, pleasure derived from actually obtaining such would be that of stealing the forbidden, and it would be tempered by fear. This past century, the rise of consumerism has coincided with an increase in marketing, yes, but marketing exists because there is choice. And consumerism is increasing because we have more choices than ever before. It's a necessary by-product of capitalism.

P.S. Now it's late and I'm not entirely sure that made sense. I do know this though: bandanas are hot.

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