I went to see District 9 yesterday: a great, thought-provoking and gripping film (movie to my US readers). One of the ads before the film was this BMW one, which equates “owning a BMW” with “joy”.
This bothered me, and in many ways, it seemed a sadder statement about our world than District 9 itself. How can you buy joy? I learnt the word “joy” in a religious context, and it has strong spiritual or religious connotations for me. Joy isn’t something that I get from buying a new car – it’s an expression of my relationship with God.
BMW has turned joy into a commodity – and this is just one tiny example of how big companies are taking our emotions hostage and insisting that we need to buy to be happy. It’s an example of a process called commodification:
Commodification “is used to describe the process by which something which does not have an economic value is assigned a value and hence how market values can replace other social values.”
Who’s Holding Your Happiness Hostage?
Companies make money by selling us an emotion. We buy for emotional reasons – we might rationalise the decision using logic, but we often set our hearts on something then come up with the reasons why it’s a good idea to buy it.
This is a well-known axiom in every marketing department:
People rationalize buying decisions based on facts,
People make buying decisions based on feelings.
(The Power of Emotion, Future Now)
These are just some of the emotions and concepts we’re being sold:
- Security (insurance, survival gear/plans, home security systems…)
- Health (vitamin pills, diet pills, special foods, gym memberships…)
- Desire to learn (college, online courses, even essays and degrees are sold…)
- Entertainment (games, DVDs, CDs, toys…)
This sort of selling is analogous to a hostage situation, with the marketers seizing your happiness and selling it back to you for a price.
If that sounds overly dramatic, think about the times when you’ve convinced yourself that you’ll feel happier if you purchase something. I know I’ve done all of the below:
- Going shopping for entertainment purposes
- Buying something online when feeling a bit down
- Spending money on diet foods and programs
- Buying information products that you hope will “cure” a problem like procrastination
I’m going to look at three big areas where marketers and advertisements are taking something which we need, on an emotional level, and turning it into something to sell us.
Education = School?
Education is a mass market. In the UK and the US, most children are educated for free until the age of eighteen by the taxpayer. Some parents choose to pay substantial sums to put their children into fee-paying schools.
MSN Money suggests that a typical four-year US college degree will cost around $35,000. (That’s just tuition and required fees – not room and board.) Here in the UK, tuition fees for a three-year university degree typically run to £9,000 – £10,000.
But what exactly are we paying for, at school and at university? Many people would say “education” – but is that really true?
“[Schools teach us to] confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.”
I’ve been lucky: my goals have never required a degree. When I took English as an undergraduate, it was because I loved the subject. As a postgraduate, I’m studying an MA in creative writing not for the sake of the MA, or even just for the teaching, but for the chance to work alongside other passionate and accomplished writers.
During the past year and a bit as a freelancer, I’ve learnt a lot – and it’s all been highly relevant to what I’m doing. I’ve learnt about web design and CSS. I’ve learnt about internet marketing and copywriting. I could have spent a lot of money taking a degree in “new media” … but the actual learning would still have had to come from me giving the material sufficient time and attention. Don’t confuse learning with having a teacher: learning is an active process on your part.
If you’re thinking about college, if you’re at college or studying for a paid qualification … be willing to ask yourself why. Is it because the experience of being on the course itself is valuable to you? Is it because you (sadly) simply need the degree in order to progress into the career you want? Or is it because “it’s what everyone does”?
Entertainment = Toys, DVDs and Computer Games?
I’m sure you’ve come across the words “entertainment industry”. But what exactly is entertainment? Is it something that happens to us, or something that, like joy, comes from within?
What about the use of the word “entertainment” as in “entertaining friends?” That means something quite different: having guests to stay, or friends round for a meal. This is often a deeper sort of entertainment, the kind which refreshes and renews us … and which doesn’t need to cost us anything.
One of the worst examples of the commodification of entertainment is the number of advertisements and campaigns aimed at children. Children are “entertained” today by hundreds of plastic toys, games, gismos, and television shows. I’m not saying that these are bad in themselves, but children (and adults!) had perfectly happy lives before any of them existed. You don’t need to spend money in order to be entertained.
Multibillion-dollar corporations, with the commanding role of commodity markets as well as the support of the highest reaches of government, now become the primary educational and cultural force in shaping, if not hijacking, how young people define their interests, values and relations to others.
(Commodifying Kids: The Forgotten Crisis, Henry A Giroux, truthout)
If you’re stuck for ways to entertain yourself without involving other people, Trent has some great ones in The Frugal Introvert: 50 Ways to Have Fun By Yourself on the Cheap
Health and Beauty = Pills and Potions?
The dieting and beauty industries are huge: Americans spend $40 billion a year on weight-loss programs and products. (See The Diet Industry: A Big Fat Lie) If you’re female, you’ll probably be acutely aware of this: conscious and subconscious messages fill the pages of every magazine, cover every billboard and scream out from the television.
I write for a couple of diet-and-health related blogs, and so I keep an eye on relevant news – and I often get sent press releases. Every day, there’s a new diet pill, a new health product, a “shocking” new success story, an exercise DVD, a new book or audio program, a new superfood…
Frankly, it horrifies me. I know that most of these things won’t work, but they prey on people who are desperate. I’ve lost weight myself (and kept it off – rare in the dieting world!) and no book, scheme or special food can come close to the power of self-discipline and determination. It saddens me that so many people are trying to buy better health, when they’d succeed far faster by simply making progressive improvements to their eating and exercising habits.
Beauty is another big area, where we’re being sold perfection that doesn’t exist. Photos in magazines are airbrushed – often to a shocking degree. Why? Because this means advertisers can keep pushing their products at us, turning our desire to look healthy and attractive into something very warped. Our culture celebrates women who are often dangerously underweight, and men who have “perfect” six packs. These aren’t looks that most of us should be aspiring to.
Your health is entirely in your hands. Eat well, avoid the things you know are bad for you – like excessive stress and excessive alcohol – and get some exercise each day. It might be a bit boring, and it might sound like much harder work than just popping a few pills, but it’s free and it works.
When it comes to beauty, I’m not the best person to offer advice. I struggle with my own body image, and I’m susceptible to looking at other women – friends and family as well as glossy models – and thinking “I should look like that.” My best tip is to consider whether it even matters what you look like: none of my goals depend on my physical looks, so I know that I’m only wasting my time on an (irrational) concern about them.
Break Free: Decide What You Really Want
So how can you reclaim your emotions and your need for learning, for entertainment and for good health? How can you walk straight out of the hostage situation that the conglomerates have created?
The first step is to work out what you’re being sold. What emotional buttons are being pushed? Remember that emotion can be more like motivation than a strong “feeling”. What is it you really want, deep down?
Then figure out a way to get that without buying that product or service. Perhaps what you reall want is quality time with your partner. Do you need to go out for an expensive meal for this? I used to think that my boyfriend and I had our most meaningful conversations and our happiest times when we went out to eat together … probably because it was a reminder of our early days dating. But a meaningful conversation and a sense of fun and togetherness are not things that come from spending money. Going on long walks together is free, considerably healthier, and gives us plenty of time to talk, to laugh and to simply be with one another.
What do you really want? Freedom? Security? Love? Joy? You can’t buy these, whatever the marketers say. They all come from within, and you can have them for free.