Commentary

When Too Much Really Is Too Much

There used to be a Texas-style bar in Manhattan that had a huge sign out front that read: "Too much ain't enough!" When you are 25, too much sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll probably ain't enough, but lately I've been getting a little bloated on too much of a lot of things (unfortunately, none of them involve sex or drugs.)

Somehow, in the past five years the notion of "consumer choice" has morphed into a compulsion to bury consumers with options. Some of this may simply be a tactic in the battle for grocery store shelf space, or a way to raise prices with added content until consumers can no longer comprehend (or evaluate) the price/value relationship of what they are buying.

Last night I saw a commercial for berry-scented window spray. This on top of lemon, orange, green, and the blue we all grew up on. Got me wondering if the glass or countertop knows which scent or color it gets washed with. Reminds me of the battle over dyes in colored toilet paper when I was in college, where the enviro-maniacs held up signs that read "Your Asshole Won't Care."

Years ago, you could put all the cola products in three feet of grocery shelf space. Now that will only hold the "diet, with lime" -- which forms an endless chorus line with lemon, vanilla, cherry, diet, regular, and "remixed." While the rationale may be "consumer choice," it provides the dominant brands with a near-monopoly of invaluable space, virtually assuring that upstarts that might really represent new choices never see the retail light of day.

Meanwhile, when you plop down on the couch after washing the windows, you are confronted by another version of too much being more than enough: entertainment media. Years ago, when John Malone pulled a number out of his -- er -- hat and said that one day consumers would have 500 cable TV channels, he was simultaneously praised as a visionary and scorned for a prediction that would never come true. I can tell you now that if I ever get 500 cable channels, I won't watch 450 of them -- ever.

I know this because I get 200 content channels now and 50 more music channels, and I don't watch most of those either. Or TiVo them. I have 150 satellite radio channels. I was hard-pressed to round out the first ten pre-sets (I gave up the second ten to my son, who apparently can Name That Tune in .00025 of a second.) A short drive up the road, a cinema has 25 screens. The newsstand in town must have 150 magazines. While there are countless Internet sites, I can easily count on my fingers (and toes) how many I go to on a regular basis. The vast majority of them are work-related.

All of these media choices (most unfortunately including the cinema) are ad-supported. Perhaps therein lies the golden egg for the broadcast networks -- "we're smaller, but we're still bigger than almost anything else you can buy."

I find so many choices exhausting--producing a kind of "what am I missing" paranoia that distracts me from enjoying what I am watching or listening to at the moment. I am compelled to scroll through my "favorites" on the cable remote at the start of any commercials just so I can make certain nothing else more interesting is on. Too often something else IS on, and I have to toggle back and forth between the shows or choose which picture-in-picture gets the sound.

Whatever I do, my wife only adds to the pressure by insisting I settle on one show at a time (until she gets the remote -- then she surfs from show to show, but takes a maddeningly long time to decide if the alternative is better. I can tell in .00025 of a second!)

The big losers in all this (besides my serenity) are advertisers. I simply don't have time for them. Although I never once tuned into three-quarters of what comes through my digital cable box, I am still so overwhelmed by "choice" that I have to use those commercial breaks to find alternative content, which can mean online surfing with my Wi-Fi-ed laptop or reading a quick magazine story. No time for the magazine ads, the show is restarting!!!

Or maybe I'll just turn everything off and go wash the windows. Let's see -- what flavor would they like today?

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