Shop Till You Drop
How we have been trained to buy products and services, whether we need them or not
When it comes to making sense of your shopping behavior, telephones and food have more in common than you may realize. I’ll explain in a moment, but first, I want to review one of my favorite children’s stories, Pinocchio. Yes, your phone company, the food industry and Pinocchio are all relevant to the question of why you can no longer fit into last year’s pants. In the modernized version of Pinocchio, we have the story of a wooden puppet who wants to be a real boy. The question is, why does Pinocchio want to be real anyway? As a puppet, he can walk and talk and go to school and even learn to read. In fact, in practically every way he can already do what any real boy can do, so what is it that drives Pinocchio? I believe it is the same thing that drives all of us. It has been said that the story of Pinocchio is really about the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
In most versions, Pinocchio is continually manipulated by the characters he meets and these encounters always end in disaster. Very often, Pinocchio is the chief architect of his own misfortunes, but regardless of how he gets into trouble, tle one common theme is that Pinocchio lacks the maturity and the ability to direct and control the outcome of his future. That shouldn’t surprise us, because he is, after all, a puppet, and puppets have no self control. And while there are no physical strings that direct his behavior, metaphorically, Pinocchio is still bound by his inability to think for himself. It isn’t until Pinocchio learns to think and make decisions based on something beyond his own selfish and misguided desires that he is released from his prison of strings. We come to see in a very concrete way that Pinocchio represents all of us and our very human struggle for self determination.
The level of self determination we have—that is, the perceived and genuine ability to chart our own course—is one of the ways in which we judge the quality of our freedom. Few components of social life are more abhorrent than the sense that we are not in control of our own destiny. When we lose this sense of control over our future, we often rebel, but just as often we become paralyzed by hopelessness. Yet the need to be in control of our own lives is so strong that even the illusion of control is preferable to the stark realization that we, like Pinocchio, are mere puppets of a larger, unseen hand that determines our fate.
See The Adventures of Pinocchio:
Customers Brainwahed to Buy
Whenever I talk about the role of consumer engineering in the evolution of how and what we eat, two of the most common responses are shock and disbelief. Some people are shocked at the idea that much of what we know, or think we know, about food and nutrition may not be based solely on the issue of health.
The more common response is disbelief. Some very intelligent people simply cannot comprehend a world in which their thoughts and beliefs about food are not their own. They bristle at the mere suggestion that they may have been manipulated in some way, that their beliefs about food have been engineered as part of some grand, decades-long campaign to make them “better consumers of convenience foods.”
In the past, I found it difficult to make a convincing case for the idea that some of our beliefs and behaviors concerning food are, in fact, not of our own making. A task akin to convincing someone who has never seen an elephant that such creatures really do exist. Without an actual elephant, or at least a picture of one, to submit as proof of their existence, incredulity prevails.
Proving the existence of elephants and other oddities of the physical world is quite simple today thanks to the modern miracle of digital photography. But how do you demonstrate to someone that some of their most cherished beliefs such as, “I don’t have time to cook,” are more a fabrication of clever marketing than a reflection of reality? My mother had five children and my wife’s mother had twelve. Both of these women worked outside the home and were extremely busy by even today’s standards. How was it possible, then, in an age before the proliferation of microwave ovens, pizza delivery and the avalanche of convenience foods that we have today, that they were able to cook real food and put dinner on the table for their families? Even in the face of these facts, many people still cling to the belief that for the first time in human history, we are too busy to prepare our own food.
The problem, of course, is that we are all victims of consumer engineering. Some of our beliefs about food and nutrition were actually born out of food industry strategy campaigns, in some cases from policy enacted decades ago. Because these changes in opinion took place over a number of decades, it is difficult for many people to perceive them.
I had been searching for a way to describe the phenomenon of consumer engineering when a ride in a cab revealed the solution. The cab driver was a talkative fellow who spent the nearly one-hour ride discussing the foibles of his family. As an example, he told me his wife had given him a mobile phone for his birthday. She had taken advantage of one of those two-for-one phone giveaways that you can’t seem to escape from nowadays. The problem was, he already had a mobile phone. What his wife had given him was a new monthly bill, not a gift.
I understood immediately what his wife did not. Though she had saved a few dollars—on a phone her husband didn’t even need—her family would be saddled with monthly bill payments. These payments represented an added and unnecessary expense to their household budget. She might just as well have made a voluntary monthly donation to the phone company. From the description that her husband gave, she sounded like a delightful woman, bright and resourceful. How then could she have made such a bad business deal? How did she rationalize her husband’s need for a phone when he already had one? Where did she think the extra money to pay for a new phone was going to come from?
On the train, on the bus, on the street, at weddings and funerals, in church and even in public restrooms, mobile phones are everywhere. From eight-year-olds to octogenarians, everyone has a phone these days. If cell phones had existed in the late i800s, French sculptor Auguste Rodin might well have named “The Thinker” “The Talker,” perhaps posing him with a phone cupped to his ear and his mouth wide open.
I’ve had people tell me they can’t live without their phones and more and more people are replacing their traditional land lines with mobiles. Parents all across the country are opening their monthly statements and wailing over their children’s three-figure phone charges, then weeping at the loss of their retirement and children’s college contributions as they dutifully pay the bill. And it isn’t just a matter of technological change: the telecommunications industry is quite literally changing the behavior inherent in communication. Oddly, while mobile phones were supposed to bring us closer together, they are quite literally pulling us apart. I’ve seen couples on dates where one or both of them are talking on a phone and completely ignoring each other!
How is it that humankind has existed on this planet for millions of years without the need to be in constant communication with each other, while today many people seem practically addicted to their mobile phones? The answer is economics-driven consumer engineering. If you look back just ten short years, almost no one had a mobile phone. How did the telecom industry engineer such a dramatic change in the way we communicate in such a short period of time? They did it through intense and clever marketing.
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