Monday, October 5, 2009

Memo to Your Inner Spendthrift

I love Mad Men: the show provides an object lesson in the complete lack of concern for consumers that defines the advertising industry. It is, as they tell us themselves, where the truth lies.

Advertising is a business designed to do two things: 1) tell us we are imperfect, 2) sell us whatever we need to improve ourselves. Advertising’s mantra is create a need and fill it, whereas most other businesses operate to find a need and fill it.

When I figured this out as a youngster, I felt as if I had just discovered that the emperor had no clothes. I could not understand how adults could be persuaded by advertising. It was the same to me as letting someone else tell me what I want and what I need. Why would a sane person do that? Didn’t people know their own wants and needs?

Advertising is persuasive because it is seductive. Seduction is only effective when there is an imbalance of power. Look at the social constructs that underlie the interpersonal dynamics in Mad Men: the women are subservient, more decorative than useful, not to be brought in when serious matters are under discussion. They may as well have a target on their foreheads that says: tell me what to do to please you; tell me what to buy.

When we abdicate to the dictates of advertising, we give advertisers all the power they need to walk all over us, and we leave none of it for ourselves. No wonder we line up like sheep to buy expensive handbags, and shoes that would encumber us if we tried to run to safety from a burning building. Those are stupid shoes! They're not designed with your best interests at heart. Why do women buy them?

Look in any fashion magazine on the stands right now. Flip through until you find a pair of 7” heels with 3” platform soles and enough straps to bind a martyr to a stake. Can you honestly say those shoes were created with women in mind? No! And any woman who wears them is that martyr! Maybe they were designed for men who frequent what they alone like to call gentlemen’s clubs.

Close your eyes. From all the gratuitous scenes you’ve see on screen that involve poles and sequins, imagine the inside of one of these clubs. Smell the smoke. Smell the whiskey. Look around at the faces of the men as they watch the women on the poles. These gentlemen would like you to wear those shoes.

I have never purchased a pair of FMs.

However, I have overspent on a handbag or two over the years. I have more shoes than I need, and I have enough cashmere sweaters to outfit the senior class for portrait day. Even a vigilant stance in the face of advertising tsunamis is not foolproof: my own personal fool can still occasionally emerge and overspend.

It's easy enough to lose resources due to market downturns without adding to the crisis through your own irrational spending. It is true that the older we get, the less we need to buy, anyway. Most of us already have at least one storage unit. Some of us have many more. Just think: all that stuff (that now has its own rent bill and zip code) was accumulated transaction by transaction, cash register by cash register, signature by signature.

Then you had to bring it home. Unwrap it. Deal with the wrapping. Hang it up/put it on shelf/squeeze it into a drawer. And then—and this may be the biggest challenge of all—then you had to remember that you had it and where you put it so you could actually wear it/use it/carry it before it was completely out of style.

At some point, you put it into storage because you paid a lot of money for it, it is in excellent condition since you never used it, and it’s just too good to give away. So by paying to store it indefinitely, you have, in essence, never stopped paying for something you don’t even use. I have not said need. We all know need has nothing to do with it.

We have been duped by our advertising-trained spendthrift once again. We ought to put her in storage with all the rest of that stuff that may as well be flashing GUILT! GUILT! GUILT! because that’s what it brings up in you when you give this entire cycle any thought—which you try not to do.

This is a little like telling an alcoholic she wouldn't be an alcoholic if she'd just stop drinking. The key word is irrational, and I believe that's why shopping issues are so explosive for so many women. Somehow money, possessions, and status are all wrapped up in a sense of entitlement for many women, and this is a dangerous combination. Caveat emptor, indeed: the dollar you save will be your own.

So-called Self Storage (it is difficult for me not to read this term literally and wonder just what’s inside some of those units) operations have proliferated across our country like golf balls on a driving range. It is possible that together we can work to put them all out of business!

This brings me to two questions:

What will your children do with all the stuff you’ve squirreled away in your storage units once you’re no longer here?

How many handbags will fit in a casket, anyway?

And notice that you don’t see national advertising from casket companies—no prime time slickness, no half-time sponsorship. Why might that be? Is it because we all know better than to buy a casket we don’t need?

Photography: Mad Men, AMC

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