Who Will Buy

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Christmas shopping. Such a delightful activity. There’s decorations in every shop window, Christmas music filtering down from the mall speakers, and lots and lots of discounts.

I shop maybe three times a year. Once in the spring to get fall clothes on clearance, once in the summer to pick up odd hippie clothing and a few Christmas gifts, and once a few days before Christmas. The Christmas shopping experience is always the most intense. I’m buying for other people then, not for me, which makes me think twice as hard. I know what I like, but figuring out what other people will like is both extremely fun and extremely nerve-wracking.

That process is not what I’m here to talk about today, however. I’m going to talk about advertising.

Walking around a mall is exhausting. Number one, there are tons of grumpy people everywhere. Not just people–being around people is exhausting enough, speaking as an introvert–but grumpy people.

Number two, the advertising. The advertising is exhausting. Online and elsewhere. A thousand larger-than-life images of photoshopped men and women, ersatz stock photo families, shiny gadgets and gizmos, story-tall displays of whatnots and whozits.

All of these posters and displays say the same thing: buy this, or you won’t be happy, healthy, successful, beautiful, desirable, lovable, whole…

Online, it’s even worse. Take a few moments to scroll through the health and beauty page(s) of any online news source. A thousand glistening, digitally altered images show you “perfect” skin, “perfect” eyebrows, “perfect” eyelashes, “perfect” everything–perfection that can be yours if you buy this product, watch this tutorial, purchase this brush, invest in this brand.

Not like the site was paid off to write those kinds of reviews in the first place. Not at all.

The greatest irony of American culture–or any culture, really–is its insistence that we’re all good enough just the way we are while simultaneously insisting the opposite.

Advertisements of an aggressive nature operate similarly to the TLC show What Not to Wear. In this show, concerned family members of someone who dresses according to her (or occasionally his) personal taste and comfort enlist the help of two expensively-dressed and overpaid snobs to tell their loved one that their life is a mess because he or she doesn’t dress according to current fashions. These “consultants” convince this previously happy person that he/she is in fact unhappy and ugly and take the person on a shopping trip to buy her things that will make her feel pretty and happy again. They also change her hair and how she does her makeup to make her look acceptable to their standards of beauty. At the end of the show, there’s a “big reveal” party to show all the person’s loved ones the glorious results of a simple wardrobe change. Everyone cries. The recipient of the makeover is crying because the emotional journey of discovering her new, conformed self is over. Her family cries because their loved one is finally “normal” and “pretty.” The consultants cry because…well, pretty sure they keep onions in their blazer pockets for such occasions. I cry because I don’t like shows that take advantage of people, and I could have spent the last thirty minutes of my life a little more wisely.

Some advertisements do the same thing as this show, or try to. Before I encounter the add, I’m content–with my face, with my hair, with my wardrobe, with my figure. The advertisement, however, presents me with an Ideal. The advertisement makes it obvious that I don’t measure up to this Ideal, and I’m suddenly tempted to feel inadequate. Why can’t I look like that? But the advertisement assures me that with the purchase of the product it presents, I can be returned to my previously content state and live happily ever after. At least until I run out of or wear out the thing and need to buy it again.

Advertisements create the problem they promise to solve.

Now, lest I trigger any knee-jerk reactions, I realize that not all advertisements are like the aforementioned. Most advertisements (store displays, etc.) give you polite reminders like “Hey, that thing you already like or genuinely need? It’s on sale this week! Just thought you’d like to know” or “This thing here might solve a problem you already know about, but you can take it or leave it, no biggie!” This kind of product promotion supports both consumer and producer.

But a lot of advertisements–and ladies, let’s be real, you know what I’m talking about–say “You’re clearly inadequate. But if you buy this thing, you will become adequate.”

I understand why companies advertise the way they do. People get degrees in advertising. It’s a science. The science of selling things. Despite my concerns about how things are advertised, I am grateful that people buy things, because every time an item is bought, someone somewhere gets paid and can feed himself or his family, pay the rent, pay the heating bill. That’s important. That’s very, very important. People gotta eat.

However, a day of shopping at the mall, the typical hive of more aggressive advertising tactics, leaves me mentally exhausted. All day long my subconscious has been grappling with image after image of what I should look like and be compared to what I do look like and am. I buy several items and my mother (the best shopping buddy ever) buys several as well. A few items she bought are early Christmas presents for me.

And I put them on and looked in the mirror. Yes, they make me feel pretty. And look pretty. I am deeply grateful for them. But, as my mother assured me today and assures me daily, I was pretty before I even knew those items existed. And I’d still be as pretty without them. Things, after all, are things, and they can’t fill a hole. They can’t make a person. The clothes do not, in fact, make the man.

The thing is, I am in possession of something no money can buy. I have a deeper contentment than any trinket or bauble could ever bring me. I’ve been given other goals besides looking like the fictional people in the catalogs or having what they have.

Christmas time is more than “a time for paying bills without money,” but “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open up their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Contentment oughtn’t to rely on the procuring or possession of things. Not at all. Contentment, properly planted, finds its roots in heaven and grows downward. Then the heart is free to buy (or sell) for the benefit of others, with the knowledge that the best gifts are yet to come.

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