Saturday, August 05, 2006

Advertising and some unintended effects on society

I am not a psychologist or sociologist. I'm only an observer of society.

Advertising, in its’ current form on television, is all about shaping opinion and trying to influence decisions. Well, duh. But now that I have stated the first postulate of my advertising theorem, I can now develop it further.

Shaping opinions for advertisers is, of course, first and foremost about the product they are trying to sell you. But the ads also have a secondary, perhaps unintended, perhaps not, consequence. They influence your opinions about more than just the product. They influence your opinion about your self-image, about how you view your place in society, and about society itself. This can be rather dangerous to not only the individual, but to society as a whole.

Take the issue of instant gratification, for example. The mindset that car companies, credit card companies, etc., are trying to instill is that there isn’t any reason to wait to have what you want. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the money for it. In fact, just by the fact that you own a credit card, you will be rolling in cash to buy all sorts of fabulous vacations and luxury items. Ultimately paying for these items doesn’t even come into the picture.

Everyone knows how dangerous this is for the individual. You can get neck deep in debt before you know it, charging all sorts of items that you don’t really need at 18% interest. But what is this doing to our society as a whole? Obviously, when you expand the personal debt issue to the entire population, you have a very large part of society that is deeply in debt and doesn’t really know how to extricate itself. But there is also this issue of instant gratification. This notion that everyone should have everything they want immediately, regardless of what this might mean in the future, is now instilled in our population as a given. And this isn’t only about buying things with cash vs. credit. It is about politics, about relations with other people, about your life as a whole. We now have, as a basic ideal of our society, the concept of not having to wait to get what you want. It’s wrong to wait or to try to actually earn what you want.

This is pretty dangerous for several reasons. The obvious one, again, is the personal debt issue that our country faces. That may very well come back to bite us in a big way in the near future, according to some economists that I have read. In a way, it is this debt that has been driving the economy of this country for a while. Buying stuff on credit means that the producers of all these goods upon which our economy depends get their money, can continue to exist and grow, and continue to make their product (whatever that might be). The economic institutions are happy, because of the high rates of interest they charge, INCLUDING penalty payments that are now a big part of their income. All this stimulation of the economy is done on the concept that people will be paying for all of this present economic good health sometime in the future. When, it doesn’t really matter to anyone but the person carrying the debt.

Sometime in the future, this entire pyramid scheme may start to collapse. Many of the people carrying these large debts for things they don’t really need (such as a Hummer, for instance) or things that they don’t even have anymore (such as a vacation) are not going to be able to keep up. House payments may start to be defaulted in a large way. The Bush administration has made it more difficult for individuals to declare personal bankruptcy, even though huge corporations use Chapter 11 as a business strategy.

What is going to happen to the economy when huge amounts of adjustable rate mortgages are defaulted? The people who default on these loans are not going to have a place to live anymore, of course. They are going to have their personal credit rating trashed, and that might just the least of their worries. Additionally, the sudden glut of available housing on the market might just cause the bubble to pop, and housing and the financing of said housing has been one of the major drivers of our economy for some time now.

I realize it is probably a stretch to start out talking about instant gratification and making the jump to buying a house you cannot afford in more traditional ways. However, I think this is a valid point. It is a matter of the person in question having talked themselves into buying a house with perhaps methods that allow them to buy the house right now (thus, the “instant gratification” part of the equation) that may not work for them five or six years in the future. That is not part of their equation. Yes, there are good reasons for wanting to buy a house, and the conventional wisdom is that you buy the most house you can afford. You are banking on the assumption that the market value of the real estate will increase over the years, as well as your salary. Therefore, although you may be really pushing the envelope during the early years, it will smooth out and you will be much better off financially for it in the future.

That’s the way it is supposed to work, and still can, given the correct circumstances. But when you start throwing in adjustable rate mortgages, balloon payments, and even interest only loans into the equation, the whole concept has been altered. The system is now “gamed” to benefit the housing industry and the loan industry, not the consumer. That is the part of the instant gratification idea that plays into this. The consumer has now been talked into an action that looks good at the outset, but if not handled correctly, could have disastrous consequences in the future. And when you multiply that disastrous consequence across millions of consumers simultaneously, you have the makings of a large, negative impact on the economy of this country.

Even worse than getting sucked down by debt on something that people really do need, such as housing, is the notion of getting sucked down by something entirely frivolous that they don’t need. High-end automobiles are an obvious example of this. People don’t really need Hummers or SUV’s that cost in excess of thirty thousand dollars. They only think they do. Very bad reasons include need it for their self-esteem, or to impress their friends and neighbors. Driving something very intimidating that could actually crush the car in front of you can empower a person. It gives them a feeling of dominance that they might not have in their real life. Advertising feeds into this need. There is a current ad about a guy who is buying tofu at the grocery store, and he looks at the purchases of the guy in front of him in line, which include beer and a huge slab of raw red beef. The tofu guy immediately goes out and buys a Hummer. We see him with a very self-satisfied look on his face as the ad ends. What concept is this ad reinforcing? You are a wimp unless you have one of these babies.

If this is the basic message that the auto manufacturer has to depend on for sales, then their product is not one that indispensable for the consumer to have. Rather, it is purely a discretionary purchase. There is no “need” involved. And ultimately, this is a very, very poor reason to go into debt that you ultimately cannot afford. This is not to say that luxury items, strictly for the indulgence of the consuming public, are necessarily bad things. In fact, many times, high-end items like these can really add to one’s life, if one can afford them. Again, that is the instant gratification speaking. People should not look upon these items as a means to get to a fulfilled life. They should only be looked upon as a nice addition; icing to the cake you already have. But our society views these items now as necessities, regardless of whether or not they are affordable.

The concept of instant gratification is, of course, well known and most everyone understands that it can be ultimately destructive. But the insidious aspect is now that advertising as helped establish this belief system firmly in our national psyche. And that is dangerous for us all.

There may be more on this later.

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