Sunday, December 20, 2009

What cultural dysfunction can tell us about ourselves

We went shopping for holiday gifts the other night at WalTarDepot-R-Us, a store located across the Rhode Island-sized parking lot from TGISizzChiliBell and the T-VeriziQwest stores. We were there late in the evening on Friday to avoid the crowds and traffic of the weekend-before-Christmas rush. My mind wandered while on this trek, as I stared at the rows of I Love Lucy Barbie with chocolate in her mouth, variants of Anakin Skywalker legos, and other cheap plastic toys sold for exorbitant prices. I thought of two interrelated patterns in our culture that to me are clear examples of dysfunction.

The first is that 70% of our economy is based on consumer sales, and 20% of this amount comes during the months of November and December each year (source here).

The second is the cultural pathology of repetitive materialistic fixations on cheap, disposable toys. A quick list of these would include the following crazes: Cabbage Patch dolls, Beanie Babies, Furbies, Elmo, etc. etc. (see here for more).

Jonah Berger, Marketing Professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, wrote a commentary on this fad that was published in the Oregonian this morning. The key point of this article is that "Consumer behavior is interdependent, not independent; our behavior depends on the behavior of those around us. This dynamic affects both what people talk about and what they buy," with the result that "Social influence leads us to buy what other people buy." Berger cites a scientific study of this variant of herd mentality and concludes that "'it' gifts depend less on their innate qualities -- their furry, adorable nature, for example -- and more on human psychology."

So, please evaluate your decisions carefully before you allow yourself or your children to be so readily manipulated by publicity schemes, cross-marketing strategies, and manufactured consent: Is Object X what you really want and need, or are you being manipulated by the ruthless logic of the corporate bottom-line?


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