Category Archives: consumerism

‘If you build a bigger levee, all you do is move the flood somewhere else.’

Brad Walker, rivers director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said that isn’t the point. Walker said people shouldn’t be building on the bottomland, which are the rivers’ own creation and where floods are supposed to go.

“We don’t really ever learn that lesson, and even if we do, we forget it very quickly,” Walker said. “Even if you build a bigger levee, all you do is move the flood somewhere else.”

–Post Dispatch, July 28, 2013, “Lessons from the Great Flood

It’s not a novel concept. But collectively, humans are bad at:

  1. Thinking about future consequences in the face of near-term gains
  2. Working together to share responsibility for those consequences
  3. Giving a damn about future generations, other than as lip service to avoid taxes

I’ve rambled about (re)building on Chesterfield’s Missouri River flood plain before — now we have two new outlet malls in the area! — but of course the money and incentive were there to build an even bigger levee, so up it went. The problem is, as noted in the article, that just pushes the problem to someone else’s yard.

The super individualistic American bent does not tend to embrace collective efforts that ostensibly benefit someone over there. So we’ll keep doing it. We’ll keep building.

Because can you really put a price on access to strip malls?


Yahoo!: Where every death is a Search Engine Optimization opportunity

Actual lead in Yahoo!’s report of the death of actor Martin Short’s wife:

Martin Short’s wife, Nancy Dolman, has died at the age of 58. The pair had been married for 30 years.

News of Dolman’s passing sent Web searches soaring for her biography, photos, and cause of death. Dolman had been battling cancer for three years…

Sent Web searches soaring. For her [insert tangential links to just about any Yahoo! content under the sun, including the Yahoo! kitchen sink].

Yahoo! is a — how would you call them? — sort of a “content” company these days, so most of their services like free email and photo hosting or whatever are geared around moving you to their content so that you are bombarded with ads and temptations to click and all that.

So they are already notorious for contriving stories, or at least reworking stories, in ways that encourage you to care about them first, the topic second. Kind of how local newspaper sites manufacture story topics that aren’t really stories, but rather links to public databases via their Web pages. Still, that line in the beginning of the obituary was something else.

May you live in interesting times, and may your death send Web searches soaring.

Look, a sale!

Every weekend of my life, Famous-Barr (and whatever it was called before, they all blend together) has run giant newspaper ads and mailers to advertise a BIG. SALE. !  The ubiquitous pullouts feature pages of photos of jewelry, women in undies (knees to naval), women in skirts, men in shirts and ties, men’s pants (socks to belted waist, or just folded nicely), plus the super-automatic toaster/coffeemaker/breadmaker section. Often, there is also a 15% or 20% EXTRA off IN-STORE! or with your FAMOUS charge coupon, complete with helpful cut-out dotted lines.

The joke in my home (which never gets old for me — partly because it has gotten very, very old for P-Lisa) is to pick up the paper in shock and say, “Look, honey: Famous is having a SALE!”

At the end of every season of course, the SALE gets even more OUTRAGEOUS as all the Perfectly Functional excess inventory piles on big SALE racks priced some 75% off original prices, and I occasionally replace any fallen soldiers from the wardrobe with items that — shock! — might be so last year by the time I wore them a few months hence.

But last year, when Macy’s decided to buy struggling May (the owner of Famous-Barr), they were dag-dern-determined to change this image and change this value-oriented “coupon culture” (nay: poisonous cult!) that Famous-Barr had cultivated among its customers.

Hilariously, it hasn’t worked. The Biz Journal article is restricted to print-subscribers, but suffice to say it is filled with laments about how “Coupons are a religion in the Midwest,” and Macy’s attempt to “wean shoppers from May’s constant supply of coupons, sales and other promotions” has been crushed by this well-entrenched “coupon culture.” So after disappointing sales, now Macy’s is letting up on its weaning effort in order to please antsy shareholders (why else?). “We shot ourselves in the foot,” laments a Dillard’s (competitor) exec: “For many, the coupon culture is not going away.”

Macy’s is putting on a good face, saying “We’ve made a good impression” in the market, and “Our customers are responding to the great fashions and style we offer … We are working to reassure the customer that we offer great value and sales, great brands, and great benefits” through their extra special rewards program.

(What they really mean to say is: “Our goal is to get sensible people to pay more to buy more expensive and slightly more ‘respectable’ brand-name shit than the shit they’re used to buying, and in return we make them feel adequate and fuzzy in inside, and semi-luxurious on the outside. And they inch ever-closer to sleeping with Cameron Diaz.”)

I love this, I love this, I love this. I have always been positively stunned by the bulk of Famous’ (and other local department stores) constant sales efforts here — not so much by a naive wonder at “gee, how can they afford to discount so much so often?!” — but rather by why people would buy excess, multiples of crap (OK, not always crap, but often unnecessary) from these stores without some kind of serious discount as an incentive. I mean, the volume they need to move to turn a profit virtually requires that none of it is bought at something close to “retail” (whatever “retail” now means). In short, if your closet is adequate, why would you be moved to go out and pay full price for new versions of attire you already have?

Admittedly, I am of the old school of thought that clothing should last, be durable and immune from trends that push it out of style. So I go clothing shopping about once a year, to an outlet mall, or a department store with a BIG SALE, and be done with it. But I suspect my hard-line policy is a derivative of something inherent in the no-frills, no-hipster Midwest.

[Disclosure: as my circle of influence and, ahem, family has grown larger over the years, my eyes have been opened to just how many people spend just how many weekends of their lives buying just how many great deals offered at department stores. This market of discount excess is bigger than I ever realized.]

But about that style vs. function: I wonder if this is part of the problem Macy’s has run into in the Midwest: whereas on the trend-setting coasts, if you don’t keep up with hip new fashion trends, you’re more than just an aesthetic outcast — you’re a downright separate caste; the Midwest is much more forgiving to those who fail to realize or adhere to the when big-ass ugly bug-eyed sunglasses are back in. Hell, in the Midwest you can maybe even hold down a steady job despite busting out your tapered jeans on the weekend.*

*assuming tapered jeans have not hip-ironically been re-allowed since this posting, in some Abercrombie moment of uber-cool “look at my mesh trucker hat” moment

So it’s a generalization, but maybe the dreaded Midwestern “coupon culture” poor Macy’s has run into is not just a product of Famous-Barr’s misguided business ways (Hey, you guys bought ’em). Maybe it’s the product of Famous discovering the only way to turn good ol’-fashioned, no frills, wear-your-shoes-till-they-break Midwestern, down-home values folk into rabid consumers. Maybe these coupon cult members previously saw a coat as, you know, a coat: something that should last until it wears out, rather than until George Clooney wears something different. Maybe these people really, really need to be persuaded before they go buy redundant clothing/accessories/applieances that kinda makes them feel like the handsome folk on “Friends,” cause maybe the social incentive, the hipster reward, and the extra respect in the workplace just isn’t there in flyover land like it is on the fashionable coasts.

If so, good luck weaning ’em, Macy’s! You dark prince of quasi-sartorial excess, you. (*singing now*) My coat is eight years o-old, and I bought it at a year-end sa-ale, nanny-nanny boo-boo: ppthhhhhhttppptt!! Isn’t.working

That same little piece I mentioned about Pond’s sponsoring a new show, being involved in its creative input, and meshing it into some seamless show-and-product recreating the 40+ woman’s self-image (surely it includes a right-hand ring!), also tipped me off to the fact the whole Bud.TV experiment apparently is going well (he links to an article in Ad Age that now, sadly, requires registration; I ain’t gullible enough to give an ad pub my info, but here’s a good summary).

Maybe they were too early. Maybe they are misguided. Give them points for trying, but I never got it: I have so, so, so many choices for entertainment venues, I can’t imagine even my (admittedly ad-hating, grouchy) self seeking out content that is available through some consumer brand. Even if it’s free. Really, though, I won’t ever understand how people can form any emotional attachment to brands and make decisions on them. (Of course, it should be noted, I don’t understand most people, period.)

Since the Ponds article I tried to recall any brand — any at all — that I’ve formed “loyalty” or attachment to whatsoever. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Sony: I have four Sony products (stereo, TV, DVD player, receiver), which I have bought over a 15-year period, because, huh, the first one worked and still works. Shocker.
  • Various beers (Pilsner Urquell, Newcastle, Guiness, Becks Dark, Warsteiner, on and on): I tend to buy several different kinds of beer repeatedly, the ones whose tastes I like for different occasions. Shocker.
  • My consumer-hygeine products — the ones the marketers REALLY need you to form brand attachments to — vary wildly depending on price, whether they work, and whether they initiate rashes. Schocker.

But for every purchase on the map, even hotels and services: if it works, you buy it again when necessary. If not, you try something else. Who are these people who get giddy over brands? I mean, I met plenty in college, the ones with the Harley sticker or the Jack Daniels poster or the Polo everything, but…don’t they grow up?

So I don’t get the whole brand emotion thing, whether with Ponds or with a brewery, which probably doesn’t bode well for my future in marketing. just represents one of many attempts to counter the cresting of growth in beer consumption in the United States.

What a sad consequence of our free-market consumerist society, though. Companies need to keep “growing shareowner value,” so they need to think of new ways to dupe people into buying only their shit. Even if their tastes change just a wee bit because, hey, it just might be nice to have wine instead of beer every once in a while. Or it just might be nice to have a brown ale instead of watery lager. Again, variety really is a nice spice in life.

Instances of marketing antichrists

This funny little article about “The Starter Wife,” a new show in which I have no interest — and the article explains why: Pond’s is a creating sponsor, harking back to the days of complete product integration with radio and TV shows — tipped me off to something far more foul in the world of marketing crap to people who don’t need it but apparently are susceptible to suddenly desiring it.

Not that is should come as any surprise, but to see the diamond industry so literally detail the campaign behind the hoax of the “right-hand ring” is still unsettling.

Awesome. Not only do women need — or started needing, back in 2003 — a silly stone on your left ring finger to signify wealth, possession of pimp juice, glamour, and (oh yeah by the way) that you’re married; now it is necessary, in post-marriage, sustained singlehood, or just plain ol’ grrl power, to have a right-hand diamond ring to signify, well, whatever the hell they want it to signify.

The campaign description is frightening [all italics mine]:

First, the clinical explanation:
DTC’s Diamond Promotion Service describes right hand rings as substantially different from diamond engagement rings, three stone rings and diamond anniversary bands. The designs should be oriented in a north-south direction and use a lot of open, or negative, space. Rings can contain a mix of round or fancy shapes and should include at least one diamond of 20 points or more.

DTC will promote right hand rings in four different styles: modern vintage, contemporary, floral and romantic. To help manufacturers envision these styles, DPS took the unusual step earlier this year of creating generic examples of the four styles that met its other criteria for the right hand ring. DPS gave manufacturers different configurations for inspiration.

Then, the rationale for why this Right-hand Ring thing MUST be done:
Research conducted for the DTC showed that women like diamond fashion rings and already buy a substantial number of them – it’s already a $5 billion category, according to Brandee Dallow, manager at the Diamond Information Center. “The desire is there, we just want to breathe more life into it,” says Dallow.

And who, who are these women just dying to, to start dying for one of these pieces?
The profile of a consumer who might buy such rings is a woman who has likely been married at some point, received diamond jewelry before, and needs no one’s permission to treat herself. She’s proud of her own accomplishments and is evolved, savvy and affluent. Unlike the female targets in other DTC campaigns, who are typically in the 25-54 year old age group, DTC is aiming for women 35 to 64.

But who will buy it for them, pray tell, who?!
Though the ring can be a self-purchase, the DTC also anticipates that women will ask for right hand rings as a gift from a significant other.

And how, how will we know that it is a necessity for any woman, of any means?
The ad campaign is directly to women and encourages them to desire the new product category because of its broad range of designs and the statement such rings make about themselves…The tag line for the campaign in each ad is: “Women of the World, Raise Your Right Hand.” Ad copy encourages women to think of rings for their right hands as expressions of personal style for the independent, worldly, assertive sides of their personalities, as distinct from their family commitments. One excerpt: “Your left hand loves candlelight. Your right hand loves the spotlight.”

Oh, oh, ohhh! You people are SO going to hell.

Your entertiainment dollar

*The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure

I have long realized I’m too easily distracted and intrigued by many of life’s curiosities to delve into any one long enough to a)get good at it, b) become a continuously informed expert in it, or c) change my habits enough to devote more time to it. This condition covers the gamut of possible interests, from tennis to European history, from playing guitar to Australia, biking to astrophysics; hiking to home improvement skills. All interest me. All (and many more) steal my interest from the others.

Ideal love a new purchase
A market of the senses

Add to these interests a few patently guilty pleasures that steal my time at a rate disproportionate to the amount of fulfillment they add. Namely, televised sports. For the most part, I’m down to two: NHL ice hockey and European soccer. They are brain recess, diversions that I spend enough time on *to* become an ‘expert’ on them, even though that is not the goal.

As I said, I am ‘down to’ two, which means I’m trying to reduce the time I spend on them. I’ve pretty much axed tennis, football, and baseball. Similarly, I’m ever fighting the temptation to spend frivolously on new gadgets and hobbies whose interest will fade (economics says we are all essentailly insatiable beings of desire, living to consume), but that is a rant for another journal. I know I can’t eliminate them entirely, because diversions are necessary for inner peace. But give diversions like these a minute, and they take an hour. It’s a slippery slope from one TV game a week to every game on TV that week. They multiply so easily because they demand so little of you other than time.

Dream of the perfect life
Economic circumstances
The body is good business
Sell out maintain the interest

Yet that is time that I would ideally like to spend on other pursuits, be they new forms of exercise (physical fulfillment) and exploration, or simply other reading and writing (mental fulfillment).

There is an added economic factor in this equation. Watching NHL hockey or European soccer costs varying degrees of money, depending on the cable tier or season package you must purchase to witness a given set of competitions. Last winter, after the NHL’s cancelled season and the Blues absolutely blowing up their team, I bucked up for the NHL season package so that I could watch hockey under the much-needed new rules and would not be forced to watch the hideous Laurie/Wal-Mart-spoiled Blues.

That was a great decision. I loved it. I could watch the Islanders as much as I wanted, and I could catch great local announcers I hadn’t heard in years. Best yet, the NHL finally enforced its rulebook–an approach I’d been pining for for years and years–and it made for the most exciting hockey I’d seen in years. The skilled play was back, and the checking was hard–and legal.

But the season package provided an avalanche of games and, as wtih anything you invest in, I felt compelled to use it. It took so much time. Combined with a loss of affection for the sport after another lockout, I couldn’t fight the feeling that I was yielding too much time to this diversion.

Remember Lot’s wife
Renounce all sin and vice
Dream of the perfect life
This heaven gives me migraines
This heaven gives me migraines
This heaven gives me migraines

Now it’s the time of year when I must decide whether to renew the season package. The Blues are under new ownership; I could reject the package and just watch the games I can catch on their broadcast. Or I could go in another direction, put my entertainment dollar in a new area: the English Premiership (soccer) package. All the games every Saturday and Sunday. More European soccer than I could ever dream of. More time devoted to televised sports than I’ve ever given before.

Or, I could write a book.

*From the Gang of Four classic, ‘Natural’s Not in It’