Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Consumer Demand

It is rarely mentioned, but the single-most important factor that drives the economy is demand. Deflation takes place when demand drops, and that is what happened during the Great Depression. Perhaps the reason it is not mentioned is that to do so would be to let the public know that its buying habits rule the world, which might put ideas in their head, ideas like boycotting.

Demand has gone through a mutation in the United States. You can confirm this through a visit to the supermarket--or B-52 hangars loaded with useless crap in all colors near you, same thing. Here are a few examples. The other day I went to the supermarket to buy a pen, just one pen. I went over to the stationary department and started looking. And looking. And looking. It was hard to believe: it was impossible to find just one pen. There were packages of ten pens, or four pens, or three pens, but a single pen for sale did not exist in that supermarket. Was it because the producers couldn't conceive of a person needing only one pen? No, they were making too many of them and needed to force consumers to buy more than what they need. Agglomeration appeals to the reptilian brain of the American consumer, anyway.

I went to get some laundry detergent, the kind that doesn't have any perfume added to it. Again, it couldn't be done. You can get detergent with an allergen fighter added to it, but you can't get a detergent that doesn't have that cloying chemical perfume added to--in the first place. Marketing rules state that products should always be "with" something and "30% More!" Marketing tactics and advertising play on the average American's psychology. To sell things nowadays takes playing on people's most primitive instincts, utilizing their greed and fear against them, to get them to stuff that last extra hot dog down their throat, squeeze it down into that millimeter of space left in their processed-meat-filled stomachs.

Once I was in a department store looking at washing machines. I was looking them over quickly; I wanted to get it over with and leave, get out of that overly bright whorehouse filled with wild-eyed customers groping around for the best products at the cheapest prices while the same soundtrack that they'd heard since the 1970s glorified their values and infused the meaninglessness of it all with deluges of sentimental emotion: "And it seems to me, that you lived your life like a candle in the wind/ never knowing who to turn to, when the rain set in." I don't know how many times I've heard that lugubrious couplet walking into a grocery store, all about a boy's identification with Marilyn Monroe, an emotionally intense one, which is why it's strange that its a staple of the soundtrack played for people buying chewing gum, or making a left turn onto a freeway, or eating Kung-Pao chicken at a moderately priced restaurant. All pop songs are as ubiquitous in everyday American life as they are melodramatic. They have to be; they have to be so melodramatic as to be able to overwhelm the mundane, like heroin or crack.

In any case, it was going relatively smoothly in that environment of noisome sweetness. I was evaluating and rejecting each whore/washing machine at a good pace, until I came upon this one washing machine that broke my rhythm. Everything was normal about it: top loaded, average-sized motor, large capacity, and so on. But when my eyes fell on the instrument panel, something seemed wrong, something that, in the beginning, produced a barely conscious feeling of irritation in me that blew into a conscious anxiety when I suddenly realized that I had been staring the panel for a good few minutes, perplexed. Perplexed, I thought, What could be perplexing about a stupid washing machine?

I began very deliberately reading the labels of the switches and dials, looking for the culprit causing the confusion, and I found it: it was the load-size dial. It read: "Small, Average, Medium, Large." Apparently, my mind had unconsciously picked up on the "Average, Medium" measures of the scale and gotten stuck on them, trying to determine just what the difference between average and medium is. Because there really isn't one. Don't we mean by "medium height," for example, that height which occurs most frequently and is, therefore, "average"? The only possible, remotely logical explanation is that the manufacturers were thinking about the difference between median and mean. Perhaps autistic people doing their laundry might know and distinguish between the most frequently occurring load size in the United States from the mean load size (i.e., the load sizes of all 100 million households in US added up then divided by 100 million), but I'd say the average person doing his or her laundry doesn't give even a medium-sized flying fuck about that question.

Having noticed this one ridiculous marketing gimmick, I wondered if there were others. And, yes, there it is was: the chime signaling the end of the wash cycle had an on-off switch. You see, if you are like the average person and are lulled to sleep by the sound of a 50 pound motor churning 40 gallons of water back and forth and, therefore, like to sleep next to your washing machine, you have the option of turning the chime off so it doesn't suddenly startle you awake at the end of the cycle. It's like a little bell signaling to terrified captives in a high-rise that Godzilla has now stopped breathing fire into their faces. And, imagine: You can turn this bell on and off--how convenient for "you."

Because "you" is what these marketing campaigns are all about. In their effort to get people to buy shit that they don't need, marketers have striven to convince "you" that, yes, indeed, the entire world does revolve around "you," and so especially does the corporation that they work for. Really? About me? Do they mean that the CEO of their corporation regularly gets up at the end of meetings with share-holders and says, "Well, we took a 50% cut in our profits this quarter, but that's OK because we made life more comfortable for Armen." You want to meet me in the back seat because you "really love" me, do you? Vulgar people, these marketers.

And if it is not about "you," it's "simple." The whole thing started with one or another ibuprofen peddler, the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, NSAID as they call it, that turns your stomach into a mini-Hiroshima. The ad that they aired was, "Little, Yellow, Different." Three words to characterize a product. "Keep it simple, stupid," the ad did. "K.I.S.S." was a rule formulated in a way that stupid people could remember, encouraging them to make their adds as stupid as possible, and it worked. After that, commercials started talking about how "simple" their products were: simple cellphone accounts, simple banking, simple food, simple life. Life wasn't about complications, but about simplicity; it was about falling in love with a product the way you fell in love when you were 12. Simple. In other words, if the commercial was about, say, picking a bank, then the decision to do so did not involve wondering what the dozens of PhD economists that the bank had hired to find out in what elaborate ways it can take advantage of "you," the center of the universe, no, it was about a "simple" realization that everything is OK, nothing to doubt, nothing to be weary about--like banks and their dealings.


More later. I'm calling it a night.


parisan said...

Nice piece!

Shops make me sick. I can't remain in one for more than half an hour at a time, especially the ones that have mirrors everywhere, which force you to look at yourself and feel bad about them, your old clothes.

Six people living together (mom, dad, three children, one grandma) need ONE washing machine.

Six people living in four different places (mom here with two children, the oldest one already living by themselves at seventeen, dad living there, grandma elsewhere) need FOUR washing machines.

Fridge, microwave oven, television, sound system, cars, etc. The breaking-up of traditional families came as a good business opportunity.

Armen Filadelfiatsi said...

Really, the breaking-up of the nuclear family would be the biggest cash cow that "they," the corporate mother-fuckers, have ever experienced.

The nuclear family exists in a "communist" economy: the mother or father never ask the children to pay for their milk. But what if they did?

Profits would be made!!

Ani said...

Tonight the Travel Channel is broadcasting a very special documentary entitled "The Most Unique McDonalds" -- you just can't make this stuff up!

Your post reminded me of a "South Park" episode of a few years back where the "boys" explained why Christmas has to be a commercial holiday in order to save America...Consumers (not the average, the median!) in this country could easily cut spending in half without missing the stuff they buy, and the figures today about car-buying show it. Unfortunately it's a cycle of materialism that if interrupted threatens to take everybody else (those of us who can find single pens in a 99-cent store) down as well.

Armen Filadelfiatsi said...

I wonder what that documentary is about; it "Unique McDonalds" certainly sounds like an oxymoron.

It is a capitalist cycle that, if broken, would bring great misery. But there is nothing natural about capitalism and it is not the only economic system that has ever existed. People have gone through several different means of exchange throughout the course of human history. The one that makes the most sense to me is the LETS exchange system. Wiki Local Exchange Trading Systems, if you're curious. LETS, coupled with a boycott, would destroy the fat cats without endangering communities.

Ani said...

"Oxymoron" was the point (not to mention "most unique"). Here's a description of the show:

One fun fact: "A two-storey McDonald's in Orlando, Florida, USA houses a mega-PlayPlace which hosts over 750 birthday parties per year. Pizza is available. Upstairs offers an arcade and a huge maze."

See--PIZZA IS AVAILABLE! And it's two stories, not one, with a maze! Freedom of choice is what America is all about...

nazarian said...

That's why you should buy washing machines that determine the load size by themselves. Because what's medium for me may be large for someone else...

BTW, 70% of the US GDP is based on consumer spending.