Friday, September 4, 2009

The False God of Consumerism

 Worshiping " bling"  goes back quite a ways...

The False God of Consumerism

or,

Buying things doesn't make you an expert - or happy


One great feature of the Internet is (or was) that it liberated information for use by anyone, anywhere in the world, provided they have a computer.

If you can go online, you can check prices and make informed decisions as a consumer - better informed decisions that you could in the past.

For example, when buying a car, you can do a much better job of price shopping than ever before. Only an idiot would walk into a car dealer these days without knowing what the real price on a vehicle is in advance.  And you can research the reliability and resale value of a vehicle as well - far better than you could in the past, when such data was only available in pocket-sized "blue books" that the car dealers had - and you didn't.

And this revolution in data sharing has made it much easier to maintain and keep technology at a much lower cost.  If something breaks down, chances are you can go online and find a message or posting from someone having the exact same problem - and possibly fix it yourself for far less money than a mechanic would charge.  And you can find replacement parts cheaply online.   Or at the very least, you can better educate yourself as to the possible causes and expected repair costs.

In the free market economy, such information is essential.  The theory of the free market is that consumers will generally make rational economic decisions and thus the free market will function efficiently.  Unfortunately, it seems that even in this digital age, misinformation abounds - and perhaps spreads even faster than before.  Warnings about the collapse of the dot.com bubble and the real estate bubble were available online - there for anyone who wanted to read them and for those who knew how to find them.  But the huge bulk of irrelevant data shouted down the quiet voices of reason.

Why is this? Well, starters, many financial interests have realized that the free exchange of data does not work in their favor.   A car dealer does not benefit from your education about pricing. And a car company does not benefit from your education about resale value and reliability.  So there have been strenuous efforts in recent years to "spam" the internet with misinformation and disinformation designed to distract consumers from truth and reality - and to turn consumers into cheerleaders for products and corporations.   These Internet users are bootstrapped into being free corporate shills for interests that are often contrary to their own personal interests.

Why is GM in trouble? Not because they have bad products!  No, there are a plethora of folks on the Internet who will tell you it is the consumer's fault for not "buying American."   Some of these postings might be shills.  But many more appear to be sincere postings from people who have taken it upon themselves to be cheerleaders and free spokesmen for a major corporation.   A very odd phenomenon.

(And even today, 30 years after GM troubles started, and after the company went belly up and ditched several of its major brands, people are still on various boards, claiming that "but for" people buying those inferior Toyotas, GM would be rockin'!  Yea, right.)

It sounds hard to believe, but many people put more faith in brand names than they do in their religion. Look around and see how many folks have turned themselves into walking billboards for various corporations and products. We all do it, to some extent. While driving down the road the other day, I was chagrined to see a cyclist with the AMD logo (a semiconductor manufacturer) plastered on his rear end. Clearly this amateur cyclist was not being sponsored by this chip-maker. Rather, it has been a trend lately for cyclists to mimic their favorite cycling star by donning similar jerseys - complete with corporate "sponsorship" logos.

For many folks, particularly young men, this form of consumerism becomes almost a religion. It doesn't really matter whether the subject matter is cars, boats, bicycles, computers, jet skis, wakeboards, snowboards, snow-skis, or whatever. Having the right "brand" and make product (and often advertising that product) is viewed as the key to happiness and success.

(Note: It is also possible to sucker in older people as well. I subscribe to a magazine for enthusiasts of Mission style and Arts-and-Crafts architecture. It is the same deal, only involving folks who are a little older, with a lot more money to spend. Same idea, though. If only you can buy a craftsman bungalow, spend $700,000 rebuilding and furnishing it, your life will be complete. Sort of ironic, considering how the Arts & Crafts movement began).

Trademarks take on a mystical aura and become like a secret insider's code. You may see a young man's car or truck, plastered with stickers with Trademarks and corporate logos on the back, all of which may mean nothing to you. They look like pagan religious symbols, and to some extant, are. However, to another person steeped in the same hobby, they spell out a map of the purchases or brand loyalties of the driver.

It is interesting to note that to some extent, the Christian movement has taken notice of this and is striking back. In response to the series of "Calvin" stickers sold, showing a bootleg (and poorly drawn) Calvin character urinating on the logo of a competing car brand, many Christian bookstores and outlets offer instead a "Calvin" shown praying before a cross - providing an alternative to brand-worship. It is an astute piece of marketing and also a tacit admission that religions are losing customers to the competing "religion" of consumerism and brand loyalty.

Having worked at or for many of these large corporations, the idea of having consumer "loyalty" to a brand of consumer product seems somewhat odd to me. A corporation is formed to manufacture products for consumers and make a profit. A product should serve its intended purpose, have a reasonable service life, and be competitively priced. Being a "fan" of a manufactured good seems somewhat odd to me. Advertising a product on your person or car or expressing enthusiasm or loyalty for such a product or corporation strikes me as doubly odd. For all the slavish devotion you may make toward Chevrolet or Ford, trust me, they don't feel the same way about you (GM engineers don't drive around with your name plastered on the back of their cars).

No where is this phenomenon more prevalent than the Internet, and its prevalence, I think is carefully nurtured by the companies involved, as mindless cheer leading for a product or service or company is useful in drowning out real critical analysis of a company or product.

In the early days of the (popular use of) the Internet, discussion groups were largely limited to USENET, which were largely public and unregulated forums. You could go online and search for information about a product, and generally get some reasonable information from others. Unfortunately, the unregulated nature of USENET lead to its total spamming, and as a result, much of the traffic for these forums splintered and went to private web-site based forums. Democracy was, in effect, shouted down in favor of the private sector control of debate.

Such website based forums usually had sponsors and were for-profit ventures. So it was not too surprising that in many of these forums, the sponsors are often lauded and their products favorably viewed. Yes, they "shill" the forums with fake messages. Don't act surprised.

Other forums are actually sponsored by the companies involved. Want to discuss problems with your Vonage account? Well, Vonage sponsors the forum. To be fair to Vonage, I found their forum to be pretty even-handed, for the most part, in that they allowed users to air their grievances and say negative things about the company (whose business model, while once a rising star, has been eclipsed by Skype and Magic Jack and a host of copycat competitors. It never pays to be the first in any field, does it?).

But yet another interesting phenomenon started occurring with USENET and the private forums. Many people started visiting these forums regularly, using them as a substitute for regular social interaction. Many articles, books, and even PhD. thesis have been written on this phenomenon and also how group-think affects the operation of such groups. Social pressure - peer pressure - is a phenomenally powerful thing, and marketers are using it to sell products to consumers. Peer recommendation of a product a powerful way of selling (so called "word of mouth") but peer pressure to buy is 10 times as powerful.

The idea that a Wiki (based on a Hawaiian word) or group effort and consensus, will eventually reach the truth of any matter, is a fundamentally flawed idea. Group thinking often results in less than optimal decisions. The Pontiac Aztec was the result of Consumer Focus Group thinking. Nazism was result of the "consensus" of the German people in the 1930's. Group think not only results in less than optimal outputs, it also can result in horribly bad results. Group think gave us the dot.com bubble and the real estate bubble, as well as 8 years of George Bush (or Barack Obama, depending on your political views).

I have visited probably dozens if not hundreds of such enthusiast sites over the years, as they are often a good lead for data for my personal life, as well as research for Patent issues. I have found information on everything from photocopier repair, to vacation recommendations, to car repair, to home buying, to the rules of Farkle. If there is something that more than two people are interested in, chances are, there is a website, blog, discussion group, news group, or other site devoted to that issue.

And on every site, there is sure to be a core group of about 5-10 people who spend a lot of time on that site. And often, many of them consider themselves "experts" on the particular topic, not by means of their background, education, training, or experiences, but rather based on their purchases of products and services from board sponsors or those in the industry.

For example, on any given car site, a typical "hard core" poster will create a "sig" (signature) file with their name, and a list of their cars, as well as the aftermarket parts they have attached to them. Like the window stickers young men put on their vehicles, these lists are like a code to other readers. If you can't decode what it means, relax, you're not supposed to. By using these seemingly mystic lists of Trademarked product names we are enticed into the aura of false expert-ism and also increase the coziness of the group (and increase the us-versus-them mentality).

(It sort of is like the not-too-subtle codes marijuana uses use. "Dude, are you 420 friendly?" they say, as if we didn't all know that "420" was a lame code for pot. It is a way of demarcating who is in the group and who is not).

Surely someone who has put an ACME XF9700e cone air filter on their Chevy S-10 pickup is a true enthusiast, correct? They must be, because they list it on every post. They are one of the mythical few who was able to pull out a credit card, buy the part on the ACME website and then install it according to manufacturer's instructions! Wow, he's an EXPERT.

Incidentally, it is interesting to note how manufacturers are increasingly resorting to code-like names for their products. A combination of letters and numbers is always good, as it sounds technical. Capital X's and Z's are good choices. Adding a lower case "i" or "e" to the end is a bonus. If you use words, the names of vicious animals works well, or something sounding very tough. But conversely, you can change-up by tacking on a silly or ridiculous name as well. By the way, this works well for microbrews, too.

So if you are going to sell some useless piece of chrome add-on to a car, you could call it the "Xtreme Cougar ZX100i" which would work well for selling to insecure young males. But ironically you could also call it the "Bozo Goofus XF500" as a silly name would work as well. I am not sure the "Totally Gay Powderpuff 50" would work, as that might be too far in the reverse macho direction. Regardless, what clearly won't work is a simple, normal name, like the "ACME Air Filter" which certainly wouldn't entice anyone, for its utter lack of code-ability and in-crowd appeal.

Not only will folks buy this stuff, they will go out and buy magazines advertising the stuff - magazines that are little more than bound advertising pages - with even the articles being not-too-subtle shills for the products. The next time you are in the grocery store, take a careful look at the magazine rack and see how many of the magazines are little more than product promotion platforms. If an article is about a person, it acts as an endorsement of the idea that "if only you could buy enough", you might end up happy and complete like the person in the article (and maybe quasi-famous as well!). The person with the ultimate custom car, motor home, dirt bike, computer, BMW, boat, or whatever is profiled as a role model to the reader. Never mind how much money these folks squandered on this stuff, or whether having the "ultimate" whatever really made them happy (Again, see my article on Hobbies and taking them too far).

You can sell anything this way, particularly to young men age 15-35. The Internet bulletin boards are chock full of such folks, proudly declaring their brand loyalties to particular makes and models of cars, boats, computers, motor homes, and their various accessories. They get sucked into this concept that, if only they can buy as many of the add-on parts or toys that the other people in the group have, they too will become "experts" in the group and accepted as well.

And the way these Internet groups are structured, if you do purchase such products, you will be showered with accolades. Many postings on such message boards are along the lines of "Well, I'm finally going to buy an ACME Razor XF900 for my (car, computer, boat)" which is often followed by accolades by others, endorsing the consumers purchase choice as if it were the birth announcement of a child.

On the contrary, you are sure to be ostracized from such groups if you point out that such add-ons or products are not really of any use, or perhaps have an inflated perceived value - or perhaps that they are just THINGS and not an end in and of themselves. The group-think is to BUY MORE, and it seems awfully coincidental to me that the products in these discussion groups that are touted in this manner are often the same products sold by the sponsors. Nothing happens by accident - or very few things do.

I think perhaps that this scenario was not designed by marketers, but perhaps fell into their lap. When companies started getting orders for products and consumers mention "I heard about your product on such-and-such a discussion group" they sat up and took notice. Word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool. If you can co-opt that, you can rule the world.

So subtle shilling began, and it was not hard to do. Young men all-too-willingly sold their souls to corporate interests, plastering logos and product names on themselves and their vehicles, craving acceptance from their peers.

And not surprisingly, counter-shilling began. Different boards competing for the same target audience (Corvette fans, for example) might try to SPAM each other's boards, or create trolling posts, or raise the level of discourse to the point where it is hostile and nearly toxic, hoping to reduce traffic to a competitor's board and increase traffic to theirs.

Lost in all of this was the original idea set forth in the beginning of this article - that the Internet could be a good source for actual opinions from real people - hard and useful data that a consumer could use in making an informed choice in the marketplace.

For a brief period of time, perhaps this free market of ideas flourished, back when the newsgroups of USENET were unmoderated, unspammed and unsponsored. And also back before such discussion groups were reduced to discussions between a dozen "regulars," with the conversations devolving into "Hey, wassup?" and of course, "Attack the new guy!"

I visit (or visited) a number of these forums over the years, and found them less and less useful, and oftentimes only myself publishing any useful information (I try to document simple BMW repairs with photos and instructions, for example, but most other posts on such boards are limited to selling add-on parts). In many cases, however, any question raised in a forum by a "new" person, is often met with scorn and derision, and a host of hasty posts from the "regulars" who want to shout down the new person who invades their space.

In a way, it reminds me of my dog. Today a neighbor's dog visited our yard and our dog went berserk, barking and raising the fur on her entire spine. If she met the dog on neutral territory, she would be fine with it. But this was HER yard, and she had carefully urinated all over it and chased away all the other animals. She didn't want some alien dog nosing in on her territory. In a similar manner, board "regulars" try to chase off any new folks with gruff and abusive responses.

I've seen this again and again on many sites. You post a message asking for help with a problem with your (Car, boat, computer, RV, whatever) and the instant response from the "regulars" is "you're an idiot, you probably caused the problem yourself!" And of course such responses are less than useful.

But what is more disturbing than the lack of Internet etiquette, is how these folks have made product ownership into a false religion. In any forum, there is bound to be one person who considers himself "Mr. (fill in product name)". I've seen it with BMWs, Bayliner Boats, Casita trailers, Fords, Chevies, Computers , Cell Phones, Telecommunications Services, even Fiats. The person devotes their life to this particular manufactured good, making themselves over as a quasi-expert on the good in question based upon their length of ownership, money invested, and time spend on the Internet discussion group. How pathetic can it be to go though life being known as "Mr. Fiat."

(And it seems that companies nurture such folks. I have met more than one "Mr. (fill in the product name) who the company carefully nurtures and encourages, throwing them occasional bits and scraps - just enough to keep their interest. On the Vonage forum site, for example, there are unpaid regulars who patrol the site and promote the service and give advice to folks in trouble - for hours and days at a time. This ends up being a free form of customer service for the company, not a bad deal - for the company that is).

In a way, it reminds me of these mall caricature artists. You've seen them before and maybe you've had your picture drawn. They draw the person with a huge head and a small body. While they are drawing you, they ask you what your hobbies are or what you do for a living or what sports you play. If you say "Well, I play golf occasionally" the resulting portrait will show you, with an enormous head an a tiny body, swinging a tiny golf club while shouldering a bag of clubs, a tiny voice balloon having you yell "Fore!".

Suddenly, based on an offhand comment, this caricature has you pegged as "Mr. Golf" or something. I always am somewhat amused by these portraits, as they usually totally miss the real character of the individual, and moreover tend to over-emphasize one aspect of a person's life as their dominating trait.

(I do play golf, about once a year or so, and on a good day, I am horribly bad at it. When family and friends found out I had "taken up golf," I was flooded with presents, birthday cards, and the like, with golf themes or golf paraphernalia. Suddenly, I was very easy to shop for. Pigeonholing and stereotyping are handy sometimes!)

Perhaps there are people like this, but I am not one of them. Perhaps it is my short attention span, or perhaps it is because I am a dilettante, having interests all over the map. But if a mall caricature artist asked me to pick one thing for my little cartoon body, no one thing I could mention would really fit. And even if one did, I would like to think my life was more than merely a work and hobby choice. I would like to think there is something MORE to life than that.

But for many, I guess, having a single hobby (see my article on Hobbies) is a way of finding an identity, of picking the caricature from the wall of the mall artist, of having an identity to fit in or be pigeonholed. It provides them comfort that they fit in, and perhaps drowns out the background noise in life - the background noise that says "You're going to die soon, and nothing you do will change that." Better to be thinking of a new aluminum anodized widget to bolt on to your jet boat than to think about such things.

Consumerism is a false God. It provides little in the way of succor or relief, it merely drowns out the background noise and prevents one from having to think.

It also is a way of squandering enormous amounts of money. I see this all the time in car forums, where young people flock, wanting to know, right away, what add-on parts they need to bolt onto their car, in order to be accepted by their peers. And you want to have the right parts, too, as anyone who buys the unpopular part will be ridiculed. "Surely, you aren't running a SOLEX carburetor on that car (tee-hee, what a lamer!)"

Consumer products have a use in our life. And yes, they can be enjoyable when you do things with them. Merely owning something is often the least enjoyable aspect. I have a few BMW convertibles. What is fun about them is not merely owning them, but to drive with the top down, on a beautiful warm afternoon, to a picnic or some other fun destination. Doing something is fun. Owning something is often merely a chore. And yet, you'd be surprised by how many people drive around in convertibles with the top up all the time. They want to own a convertible not use it.

So how do you avoid the false God of Consumerism? In the USA, it ain't easy, as we are bombarded with messages every day that tell us to buy more - and that we will never be truly happy unless we get some product being touted. In many cases, they push the idea of ownership in such as way as to get the consumer to believe that their lives will be fundamentally changed forever once they own the product. Yes, it truly is a religion.

Eventually, everyone sours on consumerism. The young male 15-35 eventually grows up, gets married, and realizes in horror how much of the finite amount of money he will make in his life he has squandered on "things." And as you get even older, you realize that owning "things" is little more than a chore - a series of maintenance procedures to fulfill and expenses to pay. And you realize that the "things" in your life are not what make your life fulfilling and complete. And in fact, people who define their lives by their jet boat or their car choice are often sad and unhappy people.

If you can avoid jumping on the bandwagon of consumerism, so much the better. But if you are already on it, the sooner you jump off, the better.

Just some thoughts I'm having....

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