Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ Happiness for Sale

Happiness for Sale

One human condition that consistently confuses me is the way people lust after material possessions. In this neck of the woods, it seems as if otherwise sane people want to get obscenely high paying jobs, then buy houses and cars and computers and clothes and entertainment systems and furniture and who knows what else. The reason this confuses me is because material possessions generally add little value to one's life; to the contrary, material goods bind one to the empty material world.

The way I see it, every time you buy something, it takes over a bit of your life. For one thing, you have to earn the money to buy whatever it is that you are buying. That's not fun, because often work itself is a pointless waste of time. Even after you have purchased your item -- say, a foo -- then you have to maintain it, lest it rust or break or run away. That can take up a lot of time; I have seen people spend entire weekends waxing and worshipping their cars. I have to suppress the overwhelming urge to pity the poor suckers. Do they enjoy slaving over their possessions? Or are they just trapped in a tangled web they bought themselves?

In addition to the time one must devote to taking care of one's possession, people often have to purchase other items to help maintain their goods. For example, the unsuspecting foo owner might discover that he has to get special foo-polishing liquid, or foo-lubricant, or who knows what else in order to prevent the foo from rusting or breaking or running away. That's more money that a person has to earn. Why would anybody want to burden himself like that?

Mind you, I am as susceptible to this material lust as anybody. A few months ago, I got the idea that I wanted to own a bike, because a bike would be cool and take me places. Ever since that moment, I have been drooling over bikes. When walking down the street, I lecherously ogle every bicycle that speeds on by. I inspect locked bikes just to see if they have been secured properly. The sight of cantilever brakes sends shivers down my spine. It's revolting. A slave to my greed, I signed out several books which covered the rules of biking. They told me all about the garbage cyclists have to put up with -- air pollution and traffic rules designed for cars and crashing into open car doors -- and I became a little reluctant to buy my dream vehicle. Then I took a gander at just how much a good bike was going to cost, and I decided that I could afford little more than department-store junk. Finally, I saw just how much maintenance has to be done when owning a bike -- monthly chain lubrications and inspections and brake pad replacements -- and I realized that owning a bike would be a lot of responsibility. I don't handle responsibility well. I'm not so sure that I want to buy a bike anymore.

What possesses us to chase after these goods? Why do we insist on wasting our money and time and freedom on goods that we often don't really want? Some might argue that it is necessity -- that people have to enslave themselves to houses and cars and entertainment systems because we live in a material world, and we need material goods to survive. To some degree, I think this is true. However, we seem to consume a lot more than we need for bare survival, especially in waste-happy North America. Exactly what makes hair-gel a vital part of our lives? Is it true that one cannot possibly survive in this country without depending on motor vehicles? I'm not so sure that is the case. I have my own pet theory, which I plagiarised off of Jeremy Rifkin. It is advertising and the requirements of economics that compell us to buy goods. It is advertising and the requirements of economics that enslave us.

Think about it. The economic machine is founded on human greed. If people stop being greedy, they won't buy things. If people don't buy things, the economy stops growing. If the economy stops growing, the Economic Gods get angry and unleash plagues of recessions and job layoffs to punish us for our sins. In order to be happy, the economic machine must keep growing and growing and growing. That wouldn't happen if people bought just what they needed. That wouldn't happen if people led responsible, sustainable lives. Nope. In order for economics to prosper, people must be convinced to buy items and services they don't need. Advertising is the mechanism by which people are suitably brainwashed.

I have problems with advertising. I think it is stalking me. It follows me everywhere I go. I can't look up without some fool company attempting to presuade me to buy something I don't need. Advertising is plastered all over:

I have undoubtedly missed many sources, but you see the point. I go outside, and I see advertising. I go indoors, and I see advertising. I eat my breakfast in the morning, and I see advertising. I am immersed in advertising. Despite my best efforts to waterproof myself, I am drenched, and some of the messages begin to saturate my head. Then I want to buy stuff, to mindlessly chain myself to the economic machine. It's revolting.

One effect of this commercial invasion is that our sense of reality becomes skewed. We don't actually need all of the things we are convinced we do. As I mentioned before, owning things we don't need is just a waste of our time, energy and money. In addition, this constant inconspicuous consumption is killing us, because we cannot replenish the resources we plunder to feed the economic machine, and we cannot clean up all the junk we spew out in order to manufacture our goods, and we cannot return the resources we have spent in creating our items when we decide they are out of date and throw them away. From an environmental standpoint, every aspect of our materialism is wasteful.

The effect that advertising has upon our psyches is more subtle, but just as damaging. For one thing, we need money in order to buy all of these goods, so we work and work and work and earn as much as we possibly can. How much nicer would it be if we didn't have to work so hard, if we could have more time to devote to ourselves and our loved ones? How much stronger would our relationships be? How much more secure would we be that we are loved in the world? I think that working less would be very nice -- but then we wouldn't be able to afford our televisions or fancy urban-sprawl houses or dirty cars. Gasp!

It's one thing that we are assaulted from every angle by advertisements, brought to us by people who -- just like us! -- are trying to make a buck so that they can spend their money. It's quite another to see the tactics that are used in this war of consumerism. We all know that sex is used to advertise goods. It frightens me, however, to see just how frequently sexuality pops up in advertising. Every time some curvy young thing pops up on television to tell you about the benefits of beer or tampons or life insurance, the advertiser is trying to associate his or her product with sex and curvy young things. Every time some ripped hunk is shaving in front of a mirror in an attempt to sell you a razor blade, the razor blade manufacturer wants you to associate shaving (ugh) and that razor blade with an idealized concept of masculinity. Every time a sultry voice lists the ingrediants of a Taco Bell Supremely Greasy Fry special, we are to associate the sexuality of that sultry voice with those fries. The message is not quite as obvious as it seems; these ads are not telling us directly that using their product will either turn us into these babes and hunks and sultry voices, nor do they tell us that babes and hunks and sultry voices will flock to us when we use their product -- at least, not directly. What they do, I think, is to create a false association. People (I have been told) are supposed to be lustful creatures who want to get laid frequently. Showing us images of peppy sexual young things piques our gonads and fires up our desires. That is when the advertisers hope we are vulnerable enough to lustfully desire their products as well.

Then, of course, we have the funny advertisements. To me, humourous ads are dangerous ads, because they seem to have the best chance of succeeding. There are few things I like better than sprightly witticism. If somebody can make me laugh, they not only have my attention, but they have lowered my defences as well. Then I become particularly vulnerable. Fortunately for me, however, this type of advertisement is a double-edged sword for advertisers. If I see a commercial that attempts to use lame humour, or a joke with a punchline I have seen before -- and there are a lot of them out there -- then I am likely to recognise this clumsy attempt to lower my defences and spurn the product being peddled to me. Still, one has to be careful. Be very wary of an advertisement that makes you laugh.

The funny advertisements are the ones I find the most dangerous. The award for most sickening advertisements, however, are the ones that attempt to use our own life experiences against us. These are the "feel good" advertisements, the ones that attempt to depict our happiest times -- time spent playing outside as children, or the first time we fell in love, or our graduation, or our marriage... all of the moments we cherish. These advertisements then try to associate their products with our life experiences. That sickens me. Every time I see such an advertisement, I want to retch. Our memories are sacred. They are the precious moments that define our lives. How could advertisers use these moments against us? They can, and they do. Why? Because they want to sell a product.


There is one last type of advertisement that I would like you to watch out for. These are the car advertisements that depict a shiny new vehicle driving through the woods. These advertisements attempt to forge some link between cars and nature. They try to associate the woods, fresh air and peacefulness with their antithesis -- the automobile. Automobiles do not drive through the woods. They do not harmonize with nature. They tear down woods in order to build roads and suburban housing developments. They pollute fresh air with their exhaust fumes. They contribute to wars and conflict both big and small; the Gulf War was all about oil, and every day people put themselves through the stress of commuting by car, playing deadly games of chicken on the battlefields of the road. These despicable advertisements are depicting a contradiction, a complete and total lie. They are indicative of the vast majority of advertising that exists today.

So why does this advertising work? Because it creates discontent. You are supposed to feel bad about your life when you see an advertisement. You are supposed to feel that the product that is being hawked will, in some fuzzy ill-defined way, make you feel better. These advertisements try to invoke a sense of happiness, of contentment, that can be achieved through the use of their product. They never explicitly say as much, of course, but why else do they try to associate themselves with desirable things like sex and humour and good memories? They are trying to tell you that your life will be better if and only if you enhance your life through the use of their product. And that is revolting. Why? Because in order for your life to become better through the use of a product, it has to be worse off when that product has not been bought yet. No advertisement is going to tell you that your life is fine, that you will do just as well if you don't get a foo. Even advertisements that seem to be cynically telling you that their goods are uneccessary -- the "Pepsi Stuff" promotion from a year or two ago springs to mind -- are appealing to your sense of belonging. They are trying to tell you that they are just as cynical as you are, and for that reason you should be purchasing their goods. It's all an absolutely disgusting ploy.

Advertising has to make you miserable in order to promise you happiness. Very few -- if any -- of the products that are being peddled to you will make you content with your life. These advertisements are lies, and they operate by telling you that you aren't good enough, that you aren't smart enough, that people don't like you and that you will continue suffering through your mediocre life if you don't buy into their pipe dreams. They do not tell you of the responsibilities involved when you purchase a product. They do not tell you that you might very well be happier spending time and energy with the people you love and the activities that give you pleasure. That would not be in their best interests. So, even though you are laughing and mocking me for being so naive and wrong in this essay, you listen to them. We listen to them. We cannot help but listen to them, because we are drowning in a sea of commercials and advertisements. And it is affecting us. Since you don't believe me, try opening your eyes; try observing the motivations of those who try to foist their goods upon you; try to see the messages hidden behind the promises. Then tell me that I am completely wrong.