What do a Wednesday Adams-like dress and the Super bowl have in common? The answer is over consumption… but perhaps I should explain. This past Saturday, Mr. Sweetspot and I had a date night, which started at our local thrift store. Our standard frugal approach to buying clothes is that we simply don’t. However, the fasting has led to some unexpected weight loss, so we both find ourselves in need of some smaller sized items of clothing. I identified my needs as a few shirts and a pair of jeans. Mr. Ss identified… well- everything (he’s dropping more weight than me. The bastard!).
Thrifty Shopper had quite a bounty of offerings. Mr. Ss was able to score 3 T-shirts, a pair of jeans and a sweater. I found a black and white tee, and the most adorable dress. I tried it on, it fit perfectly. I looked cute, professional and thin. I liked it a lot, but I was hesitant to buy it. The dress was $7.99, so it wasn’t the price tag scaring me off. I simply didn’t need it. I shared that thought with the hubs, and he proceeded to talk me into the purchase. I regretted it within the hour. Turns out the story I was telling: “I don’t need the dress”, was misinterpreted by my husband into “I don’t think I deserve the dress”.
I have a fairly curated collection of clothes. This collection has 12 different dresses. I do not need another dress, the 12 serve all of my needs just fine (a few are strictly summer or winter). Another dress would add to my stewardship, without significant benefit. This item would not add value to my life. Ergo, I don’t need the dress. My husband assumed that this was an excuse not to treat myself, and encouraged me to indulge a little. I was swayed fairly easily… but soon realized he interpreted the wrong story.
We recently watched a new documentary, and as I keep saying, these things are dangerous. The film was “Consume this Movie” and I have to admit I was hesitant to watch it at first, as it was made it 2008. With data over 10 years old, I doubted that I could learn anything new, and I thought my take-aways might be dated and inaccurate. While the film provided stats on consumption which could in fact meet that metric, it taught me something completely new as well: “Keeping up with the Jones’s”.
I knew the phrase before. All aspiring frugal FIRE minimalists (say that ten times fast!) know it well. It’s important to note, however, that its origin comes from the actual Jones’s, your neighbors down the street. While hanging out during bridge/cocktail hour (or whatever fancy things people did in the 50s) friends would talk about products, sharing new buys and recommending things to each other. These stories bonded the group together, and partaking in the product strengthened the social bond and reinforced the social standing.
Enter advertising. The smartest of social psychologists, market analysists and visual designers are now working together to recreate the same story telling. They want you to believe that Mrs. Jones is your friend, so by buying the product you increase your social capital. They succeed, because they are the best, and the results are big money. They work hard at this. The only problem? This Mrs. Jones isn’t real. She doesn’t care about you. Unlike the actual neighbor, her story is a lie, enticing you to part with your money for a sense of belonging that she is not capable of giving you. All in 30 seconds or less.
Following the thrift store adventure and documentary viewing, we went to a friend’s super bowl party. Neither of us are sport buffs, and as a first generation American I’m still very confused as to why it’s not called the Super Ball (duh! Nobody is cooking?!). Out of all of us, one of us cared about the game, the rest were there for the snacks and the ads. Point of interest: a super ball (I’m making it a thing!) ad costs around 5 million dollars. While that feels crazy expensive, as my friend pointed out, it is one of the few times when people who don’t have television gather together to watch live TV. To his point, our hosts were the only one with television service. After watching the documentary I was fascinated: What stories will these ads tell us? What will the mirror held up to society reveal?
From sparkling water through home invasion skin cream (really Olay?) I knew right off the bat that at no point of time am I coiffed or contoured enough to pass for an average woman. But neither was my local team of Jones’s, so I focused on more plot driven stories. Two stand out. Both are well produced, funny and disturbing in their message. I’ll call them the “elevator of drudgery” and “Devour”.
In the “elevator of drudgery” Jason Bateman? takes a group of people through various floors, each of which have unpleasant stops. These include a root canal, “the talk”, and other hostile scenarios. But when it comes to car buying, the couple in the elevator either bought the right brand car, or used some app, and the drudgery is no more. They are happy, life is easy and everybody left on the elevator is jealous. Be like this couple- buy the car!
“Never just eat- devour” was the slogan of potentially the most controversial Super ball ad, where in a set up resembling porn addiction, we find out the fellow in the story is addicted to… frozen meals. His beautiful wife/girlfriend is worried and distraught at first, but soon learns to accept it and even partakes in the action making food porn videos. She wears a slinky night dress the whole time, and then the slogan flashes: DEVOUR. Seems like a lot of action to peddle some mac and cheese.
We get caught up in stories, they represent our humanity. If your friend, Mrs. Jones, recommends a delicious product, or the ease of buying a car you may be tempted to try it. But this “relationship” has been stolen by the media. Now celebrities or attractive strangers are trying to entice you to buy. To devour. Same, if more polished, stories. Completely different relationship.
Stories are how we engage with each other, but even in a close setting, our stories can still be wrong. After all, my own husband misunderstood my story, and convinced me to buy something I didn’t need. I was able to clarify my point of view, and the product will go back to the store. I have no desire to over-consume. This was an honest misunderstanding, and no one had anything to gain. I was able to talk to “Mr. Jones” and consume just enough, while maintaining our relationship.
Now consider 5 million dollars. The amount paid just to air the ad, not counting production or market research. The TV Jones’s are the best of the best. Their script is written by the best of the best. The psychological manipulation is calculated by the best of the best. This is a Jones 2.0. You will never be their friend. They will not appreciate your social standing. They will not engage with you. But you’ll sure feel like they do. And you’ll buy to fill that void for a neighborhood cocktail hour.
I urge you- DON’T! Think through your consuming decisions. At the end of the 2008 documentary all the speakers were very optimistic that we, as a culture, could change. We could consume less, appreciate what we have and care about the environmental impact we’re leaving on this planet. With a message like “Never just eat: devour” in 2019 advertising, were they just being naive? Is there really no hope for the future?
I want to end on an optimistic note, so I propose a challenge. I dare you to “Never just devour: savor”. Appreciate what you have. Take time with it. Indulge in the moment. Slow down. Don’t fill a void, evaluate it. Enjoy getting to know yourself without external stimuli. Take an elevator to adventure. Be present. Host a cocktail hour. Exchange stories with friends, don’t consume the stories given out by the media. Tell your stories to this “Jones”, I’d love to hear them. Dare to savor.