Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Joneses are Unhappy

It is our job to make women unhappy with what they have. 
—B. Earl Puckett, quoted in Stephen Donadio, The New York Public Library: Book of Twentieth-Century American Quotations, 1992

The philosophy behind much advertising is based on the old observation that every man is really two men — the man he is and the man he wants to be."
William Feather [1889-1981], American publisher and author

Classy Woman, Classy Drink: The 1890s advertising print shows a well dressed young woman, wearing hat, white gloves, and pearls, holding up a glass of Coca-Cola, seated at a table on which is a vase of roses, the "Drink Coca-Cola" sign, and a paper giving the location of the "Home Office [of the] Coca-Cola Co." as well as branch locations. The woman who modeled for this artwork was Hilda Clark (1872-1932). Courtesy: US Library of Congress.
Advertising makes everyone unhappy, men and women. And that is both its power and purpose. The role of all advertising is to create a need, often imaginary, in humans to purchase things. The unsaid assumption in all advertising is that unless you purchase this product or service, you will remain unfulfilled. But that "unmet need' can change by purchasing something, and the sooner the better.

By purchasing a particular product, as the poster for Coca Cola from the 1890s above suggests, you will quickly join the ranks of the classy and respectable people, which always has an appeal. So, by purchasing this beverage, in a sense you have now joined the ranks of the mythical Jones family.

Or, the advertising might appeal to a primordial familial instinct of preservation when it comes to financial products like life insurance, education-savings plans or savings plans in general. The motto and its many variations are, "If you care about your loves ones, you will do this..." Talk about pulling the heart-strings.

Of course, advertisers use psychology and other instruments of influence to compel you to buy things, particularly high-priced items and feed the maw of conspicuous consumption, or in modern parlance, to show off. One method of influence is feeding the need among some to become an early adopter, essentially the first on your street to have that product. After a comprehensive advertising campaign, the company announces that the product will be released for public consumption at a certain date in the morning.

Hence, the image of people lining up before a store opens to be among the first to own that product, which is now usually an electronic device. That fulfills the need to impress, to set you apart. (Compare that image to people lining up for food in less industrialized countries after a flood, earthquake or other natural disaster.)

Allow me to use a personal example to illustrate a point. Many years ago, in my early twenties, I wanted to own a Jacquar automobile, which I considered the ultimate in luxury and fine British workmanship. Of course, it was beyond my reach, and I settled for something less, a Ford Tempo.

Around the same time, I happened to meet a class-mate, and he showed up downtown in a beautiful Jacquar in British racing green. My heart stopped. It was precisely the car I admired and wished to own. I was, of course, envious. We drove it in, and as I admired the wood paneling and leather interior, I casually asked him, "What's it like to own such a beautiful machine?" His response, "At first, I couldn't get over the idea that I owned such a beautiful car. But after a few weeks, it was a car, a machine that took me from Point A to Point B."

My Dream Car is Just a Machine: Jaguar XJ6 photographed in Fairfax, Virginia, USA. Photo Credit: IFCAR

I learned a valuable lesson. The initial allure of ownership eventually dissipates to an everyday practicality. So, a great amount of time is needlessly wasted in finding the right cell-phone, the right HDTV, the right car, the right furniture, the right computer —all under the influence of what advertiser's say about the product, and, more important, because of advertiser's influence, what your family, friends, co-workers and colleagues will say about your newest purchase. Will they like it? Will they criticize it?

Even the super-wealthy are not immune from advertising or social pressures; their acquisitions, such as fine art, large mansions and luxury aircraft fit the mores of their social class.

To be sure, much of whether one "enjoys" the purchase rests on what your newest and dearest say about your latest purchase. And in casting judgment or that, they cast judgment on your tastes and, more important, on you. Your self-esteem or, rather, your dignity takes a blow. And with that, your happiness is also less than what you expected it would be.

If you remember Maslow's hierarchy of needs in descending order of importance—physiological, security, social, self-esteem, and self-actualization—you will quickly see that possessing things, apart from physical and security reasons, does not rank as essential. Yet, advertiser's well aware of Maslow's Pyramid capitalize on it to influence people to make purchases, either for social or esteem needs.

We all could live with less stuff. A great majority of people in the world do, and are fine with it. That might explain why studies show that people living in countries with very little advertising, so-called developing nations, are much happier and content. The poor might not have all the luxuries we have, as they have little contact with the rich and, therefore, they do not know what they are missing.

Or perhaps they do.
Note: I would like to hear your stories and views on what you consider important, whether it's the economic crisis, the erosion of democracy and humanity or anything that affects the human spirit. Many of us are going through very difficult economic and trying times. The Poor, the working poor, the struggling family should not be stigmatized. You can help make a change and a difference in society. Everyone should be able to live life with dignity. I love to hear your stories.

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