Every year around this time I start to think about black friday and the stampede in Walmart which crushed a person to death a couple years back: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aeSgBL7gpAk In my ethics class this week we’ve been talking about advertising, and its effects on culture and society. One of the articles we read compares advertising to poetry. Theodore Levitt says “As with art, the purpose is to influence the audience by creating illusions, symbols, and implications that promise more than pure functionality.” In the same way that a love poem is meant to ‘seduce’ and create desire, so to an advertisement is meant to attract the consumer’s attention and give them hopes of something better. And just as love poems make promises and raise expectations in ways which are clearly unobtainable (many poets have promised their woman the moon, but no one, so far, has delivered on that promise) still we don’t consider them lies per se. We all know that they aren’t necessarily meant to be taken literally, and they aren’t lies. They are embellishments made to attract attention. We don’t consider mascara, lipstip or pantyhose to be untruthful, any more than a toupee is a lie, even though these things are in some sense masking a more real reality. Levit actually says that advertising helps us escape our otherwise dull lives when it gives us hope: “Advertisements are the symbols of man’s aspirations” We not only expect this of advertising, we demand it: “We in effect expect and demand that advertising create theses symbols for us to show us what life might be, to bring the possibilities that we cannot see before our eyes and screen out the stark reality in which we must live.”
This is a defense of advertising based based on on the existential condition of humanity: “As every eager lover has ever known, the consummation seldom equals the promises which produced the chase. To forestall and suppress the visceral expectation of disappointment that life has taught us must inevitably come, we use art, architecture, literature, and the rest, and advertising as well, to shield ourselves, in advance of experience, from the stark and plain reality in which we are fated to live. I agree that we wish for unobtainable unrealities, “dream castles.” But why promise ourselves reality, which we already possess? What we want is what we do not possess!” Advertising helps endow inanimate goods with a sense of hope, and these goods and symbols can take on a substantial role in the meaning of our lives.
We have natural desires, like a desire to be happy, to be successful, to be safe, to not be thirsty or hungry, to have friends and community, etc. What advertising often does is it tries to associate a marketable product (like diamonds) with a non-market desire (like love). Money can’t buy love, but it can buy diamonds, and as the marketing campaign has taught us, “diamonds are forever”. Now this associative advertising is not necessarily deceitful or harmful always. Dr. Pepper does quench my thirst and makes me happy, as the comercials say it will. But what advertising can do is it can make us think that our lives require consumer-behavior. For example, you can list out all the major holidays as we did in class today (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Valentines Day, Halloween) and then consider what types of goods you purchase to celebrate them– christmas trees and lights and presents, chocolates and flowers, fireworks, birthday cards– a whole corncopia of products.
Around Christmas, it is sometimes hard to see much of Christ, because of all the consumer culture which surrounds Christmas. This can be hard on parents and kids– parents feel the pressure to provide their kids as much as other kids get, and kids can have expectations based on what other kids are getting. When our consumer spending shows our love for our loved ones (how big was the diamond? What did you get for Christmas? etc) even our interpersonal relations have become infected with the messages of advertising.
We as Christians live in culture and we are affected by it unless we live in isolation from our society. But we know that it is unbiblical to not be in the world– we are to be in the world but not of it according to Paul… We live in a consumer culture, obviously, but then the question is how should we live in it? We can always find someone who consumes more than we do– someone with a more expensive car or watch or clothes, etc. But that isn’t even necessarily the point of the discussion. Are we in some ways less human insofar as we live as consumers? My girlsfriend makes cards. http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=208506&id=652055191&op=6 She takes time to make cards instead of buying them, which takes more time. But those cards she gives have part of her in them. She also makes small purses and bags out of chip bags. These take forever, and it would be more efficient to simply buy one probably. But if I had my option, I’d rather have a personally made card or bag from Steph every time. Its more human somehow. When I think about this human element, I also think about restaraunts. When I go out to eat with friends, I have a great time and I am happy for those times. But when I go to a friends house for supper, it means a lot more somehow. When I buy a sandwish at McDonalds, someone else makes it, but when a friend makes you a sandwich, there is something involved in that which is lost buying it from a store. I’m not advocating home spun clothes and barel churned butter, but we as Christians should be thoughtful about how we buy into consumer culture, and how we might live more simply.
And its not about buying expensive stuff. I mean, I go cheap on lots of things– I own a $700 car, I never pay for haircuts, and I shop at goodwill but I LIKE to buy STUFF. I buy a lot of JUNK I DON’T NEED at goodwill. I own THREE cars (with a combined worth of under 3,000– but still– why does a single guy need 3 cars??) I love to go out for a nice meal or appetizer at good restaraunts and blow 15-20 fairly easily.
But my greatest weakness when it comes to consumerism is real estate– I also buy a lot of buildings and houses. Some people buy expensive cars. I buy cheap apartment buildings. Now mind you, they are usually cheap and a good deal, but I buy a lot of stuff like that and I have to constantly think through WHY am I buying this stuff and is it really good stewardship? Personally, I have come to a decision to try to not buy properties unless I feel like in buying and renovating them we will be making a substantial improvement to the community. This leads me to tend to buy properties that are not very deisrable to most, and some which end up being near lost causes, but the goal is to try to transform the neighborhoods for the better. I have decided to generally forego buying property simply in an attempt to make money. (Of course I have to make sure I can fulfill my obligations to the banks who lend me money for these properties, so they have to be sound investments– but while that is a baseline concern, it is not a sufficient condition for me to consider a property). This is my attempt to put some self-restrictions on how I spend my money in this area.
So we all have our consumeristic tendencies. For some it may be boots and handbags, for others it may be concert or sports tickets, for others it may be makeup and manicures, for others it may be cars, and for still others it might be goodwill crap or old houses. Whatever our achilles consumeristic heel, I think its fruitful especially at this time of year to consider what we are thankful for, to reconsider our values and spending habits, and to make sure that we are faithful with what God has given us. May God have mercy on us all.