Commentary

Born To Buy

All U.S. citizens are conditioned from the day they are born to be consumers. They learn platitudes like "more stitches mean less riches" to inculcate the idea that it’s always in their and everyone else's interest to buy new products rather than repair old ones. They learn that the highest virtue is to be entertained and buy things. Distraction and intoxication are social tranquilizers. Truths, such as they are, are merely phrases that are played over and over to children while they sleep. 

The world was created a long time ago by Aldous Huxley, who, with Brave New World was responding to utopias dreamed up by contemporaries like H.G. Wells. The two writers’ visions (H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods serves here) could be appropriated with minor tinkering for today's digital dialectic: the buoyant exponents of the digital and consumer electronics industry on one side, and social philosophers, "nattering nabobs of negativism," miscreants, agitators, and luddites in general on the other. 

Huxley's novel posits a caste system — Alphas down to Deltas — where the top castes are test-tube babies conditioned for intelligence and creativity and the lower castes are bred for limited intelligence and abilities for specific tasks. Ironically in this context, Wells’ The Time Machine does something similar with the Morlocks, reverse-evolved troglodytes serving the fatuous Eloi. 

Are we collectively making a world — with the help of the Internet — in which the great mass of people will be incapable of thinking, reflecting, remembering, functioning, feeding ourselves and participating in any kind of real debate? Do marketers, to sell us new stuff, have to necessarily be part of that? After all, every pundit extolls the virtues of buzz. But to generate buzz you have to show "hey look!" content, and suddenly you're competing with videos of people, celebrities, and animals doing or saying really crazy, stupid sh*t. 

This buzz gridlock was one of many themes at a conference on storytelling this week dealing with brands as content creators. A couple of presenters offered examples of brands that have taken the high road. One is Chipotle's "Crow Foods" take on factory farming. I think Acura's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" with Jerry Seinfeld is another.

The Audi story I have in today’s ish is a good example of brand as social media platform. It can be pure entertainment and self expression without being stupefying and/or alienating. Meanwhile, more and more desperately titillating content is coming from publishers trying to grab share from the long-and-getting-longer tail of "Check this out!"-type, buzz-generating crap. 

In any case, we are becoming more wired and less educated. Thursday's front-page New York Times article, "Changed Life of the Poor: Better Off, but Far Behind," offers a chart (the Consumer Price Index is cited) on consumer prices from 2005 to the present. The biggest drop in out-of-pocket costs for Americans has been for televisions, the prices of which have dropped over 100% since 2005.

Next is personal computers, then phones and accessories, followed by cell service. Clothing, cars, and personal care clock in with much lower price declines. Since 2005, housing is pretty much flat. More expensive is food. Way more expensive are childcare and healthcare. Way, way more expensive is a college education. 

Yes, the Internet has allowed companies to both extoll the virtues of their products and act on brand purpose, however they define it. And how will you define it? With the above disturbing news from the Times, brand marketers have a moral obligation to pitch their products and “brand purpose” at the very least without completely exploiting our growing ignorance.

Really, the bottom line should be moral activism. If you are going to play the brand value and purpose game, you should do something to make us smarter, healthier, better informed, more empowered, etc. Without too many strings attached. One expert at the conference said that, essentially, advertising really is dead. But advertising is simple, and its moral implications are constrained by its function: simonize the product. Touting “the brand” gets into broader, vaguer territory where marketers have the capacity to treat us like people, or like sheep.

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1 comment about "Born To Buy".
  1. Len Stein from Visibility Public Relations , May 2, 2014 at 9:01 a.m.
    we are not tip-toeing into the deep, dark but running at accelerating speed... I, alas, do not foresee brand culture showing us the light... great column!