The Same Message...A Thousand Times A Day

by Cathryn Sykes

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Have you ever wondered why it's so hard to save money instead of spending it? Maybe one reason is that a thousand times a day, you're told that both your happiness and your worth as a human being depend on "buying something."

Think about the typical day of the typical American. From the moment the clock radio goes off in the morning to the moment we finally switch off the TV before clambering into bed, we're exposed to a never-ending deluge of advertising. We see, read and hear advertising all day long, advertising that's as persuasive as it is pervasive. Advertising that's very carefully crafted, by very skilled people, to make us believe that the way to be valued is to purchase that advertiser's product. Want to be sexy? Buy our car, our toothpaste, our shampoo, our clothes. What to be a good parent? Buy our diapers, our antiseptic wipes, our cereal, our toys. Want to be popular, wealthy, admired, respected, satisfied, loved? Buy something!

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying there's some kind of evil conspiracy at work here. The people who create advertising, by and large, are simply skillful people doing the best job they can. (I've been a copywriter myself, so I have some insight into this.) Advertising gives us valuable information, and has helped raise our standard of living to the highest in the world. But, like any other powerful, constantly evolving force, it's proven to have a life of its own, and some not-so-benevolent side effects. One of them has been to turn what used to be a fairly thrifty nation into a country where the level of individual debt is downright scary.

And each of us is at least partly to blame. We let advertising soak into our minds with no more caution than a sponge taking in water. Few of us ever examine advertising through the eyes of common sense. We rarely question the messages sent our way. We rarely look at advertising with a critical eye. We let ourselves be amused and entertained, and in the process, we sometimes let ourselves be brainwashed.

You think I'm kidding? Here's an example:

I was sitting at a table in one of those little coffee shops attached to a large supermarket when a little girl, perhaps five or six years old, headed past me towards the nearby water fountain. Her mother saw what she was doing and immediately cried out: "No, no, honey, don't drink there! Wait a few minutes. We'll stop at 7-Eleven on the way home, and Mommy will buy you a Big Gulp."

The little girl obediently turned around, and she and her mom left the supermarket. Curious, I strolled over to the water fountain, thinking maybe it was too grungy to drink from. Nope. Stainless steel and sparkling clean. I tried the water. Cold and delicious. No problem there. No advertising, either. I have yet to see a commercial that urges people to drink free water. Every adult American alive, however, has seen countless commercials on how wonderful soft drinks are...and most of us have accepted those messages without question. This lady certainly had.

Think about what this mother was really telling her daughter. "No, no, honey, don't drink that delicious, 'free' water." (Water, of course, is the very best beverage there is to quench anyone's thirst. If you don't believe me, ask your doctor.) "Wait a few minutes...and Mommy will buy you 'one solid pound' of refined sugar...and acid...and carbonation...and caffeine. Because I love you."

I'd call that brainwashed.

Most advertising is designed to appeal to your emotions, not your good sense. If we thought about it, would any of us seriously claim that wearing the same shoes as Mr. Jordan is somehow going to make us an athlete? No--yet millions of us buy overpriced "athletic" shoes that we'll never use for anything more strenuous than a stroll around the local mall. (Did you know that comfortable, lightweight rubber-soled canvas slip-ons are available for eight bucks at K-Mart?) Do we really think owning an SUV will turn us from a suburbanite office worker into someone who, to quote an SUV commercial, "goes canoeing on Tuesdays"?

No--yet that illusion of freedom has convinced millions of consumers to go seriously in to debt to buy overpriced, gas-guzzling vehicles that will rarely, if ever, be driven off-road.

If you buy bottled water, will it make you healthier? Check the label. A lot of bottled water is plain municipal water in a fancy package. (I also love people who would never drink tap water, but who chug sodas without restraint. I hate to tell you this, folks, but Coca Cola and Pepsi don't use Evian at their bottling plants.) If you want really pure water, buy distilled water at the grocery store for eighty cents a gallon--not some "designer" water at twice that per quart.

If you buy a certain shampoo, will three incredibly handsome men give you a sexy wash and rinse? Well, I tried it and the guys didn't show up. (Darn!) So I'm back with the grocery store generic that works just as well...and costs me a heck of a lot less.

Again, don't get me wrong. If you have your financial bases covered--a reasonable amount of cash in the bank, a nice retirement fund that you contribute to regularly, adequate insurance, a fairly small amount of high interest debt--feel free to buy whatever you want. A lot of us aren't in that position. We'd like to be, but we've got to figure out a way to cut expenses first.

And one way to cut expenses is to start looking at advertising with a critical eye. An unemotional eye. An "unmanipulated" eye. And reject--absolutely--the idea that your worth as a human being depends on what you buy...instead of the kind of person you are.

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