Wednesday, February 15, 2006

My Identity Does Not Come From Advertising

In the last blog article, I quoted Dr. Joseph Heath (Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto) from his article entitled "The Rebel Sell: If we all hate consumerism, how come we can’t stop shopping?" He argues that anti-consumerism leads to simply another consumer choice and that rebels with their different tastes are only encouraging businesses to add rebel consumer goods to the marketplace. So instead of getting rid of the problem, rebels are actually making the problem worse. In the article he says,
"What we need to see is that consumption is not about conformity, it’s about distinction. People consume in order to set themselves apart from others. To show that they are cooler (Nike shoes), better connected (the latest nightclub), better informed (single-malt Scotch), morally superior (Guatemalan handcrafts), or just plain richer (bmw)."

So I thought I would take his test myself and list some of the products that I use, for example: a Buick Park Avenue Ultra (top of the line), a Brooks Brothers shirt, an Eddie Bauer down vest and Beck's imported dark beer.

What do these products tell you about me? Take a guess and then read on.

First the Buick: My Buick may be top of the line, but it is 15 years old, a 1991 model. I don't really like Buick's (or at least I thought I didn't) but this car was in mint condition and was unbelievably comfortable. I bought it only after doing thorough search for the best deal in the area where I live. I paid $2000 with a 40,000 mile 3.8 liter six cylinder engine that some consider to be the finest engine built by GM and that gets 23 mpg in town and 31 mpg on the highway. Also Buicks are common where I live, everyone knows how to repair them and I can find parts easily. I bought a quality model because I knew that a top of the line car in the used market only costs a bit more than an economy model and that luxury models are usually better made to begin with. The new price for this car is about $35,000. So if you see me coming down the road in my Buick put away your preconceptions; I bought it because it was the best deal and *NOT* because of the image that people have about Buick owners.

But what about the Brooks Brothers shirt and the Eddie Bauer down vest? I know that Brooks Brothers makes excellent shirts, certainly some of the best, but my wife paid 50 cents for mine in the thrift store. It retailed for $65. And I know that Eddie Bauer has made excellent down products for decades but my wife paid only $2 for what was listed in the catalogue for $88. Again I was after quality and the best deal not the image that I would present.

This picture is from my interview on MSNBC about buying clothing.

But what about that Beck's dark beer? I love the taste of a good German or Irish dark beer more than any other kind. I only drink one or two at the most in an evening, so it does not cost that much. At my bar, draft Guinness is served in plastic cups, so I don't impress anyone. And when I took two bottles of dark beer to a NASCAR race in Roxboro, North Carolina, I was definitely not cool since they were all drinking Budweiser!

So what image am I trying to project? Am I trying to impress people with my Buick Park Avenue, Brooks Brothers shirt, Eddie Bauer vest and refined German dark beer? No! I found excellent quality that met my needs for a great price. Image was not part of my thinking.

But did I buy things that will encourage businesses to add new goods into the market place as Dr. Heath has asserted? No, the Buick and the clothes were all used. I was, in fact, recycling. As for the Beck's beer, it has been made since 1553; it is definitely not a new product.

So Dr. Heath was flat wrong. Rebel consumers can live 'outside' the regular marketplace, shop for what they really need, find quality stuff and pay a lot less. At the same time rebels can avoid the problem of adding more junk to the marketplace.

The false 'trap' of Dr. Heath's article was to assert that we are all stuck with equally bad choices no matter what consumer products we buy. While we all live in a consumer society, some choices are much better than others and these can help individuals, families, and the environment while avoiding the siren song of advertising.


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