Do you really know what you want?


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Yesterday’s post went in a direction I never anticipated so I want to shift gears today and ask you: whether you really know what you want?  I pose the question because we are rarely given the opportunity to make our own choices unless we consciously attempt to do so. If we fail to be mindful we will be lead to decisions by other influences.

You all remember the whole Pavlovian conditioning thing.  Pavlov and his dog.  Trained the dog to salivate upon the ringing of a bell whether or not there was the reward of food.  Well, that’s what the entire marketing profession is all about.  Expose the buyer — you — to certain cues that are intended to elicit a particular response:  that is,  buy the right thing.

In the same way that I have been talking recently about making conscious decisions, the intent of advertising is to get you to make the decisions someone else wants you to make regardless of how you feel.  It’s more or less effective, but it’s being constantly refined and revised to do a better and better job.  Just this morning Peggy and I were driving up 27th Street in Milwaukee and we noticed a store that had been recently closed.  Talking about the store brought up a conversation about other businesses in that same location and all of a sudden I remembered one store that had been there a long time ago.  I could not for the life of me remember the name of the store, but I could remember the jingle that went with the store:  “Under the Squiggly Roof.”  (The store, for those of you old enough to remember was Treasure Island and it’s been gone for a long time.)  My point is simply that “Under the Squiggly Roof” was my ringing bell.  I long ago forgot the name of the business, but I remembered the advertising.  It’s just like “plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is” being a trigger to remember Alka Seltzer.  There are other products for upset stomach, but we who lived during that era are so attuned to the plop, plop, that I’m sure we all associate Alka Seltzer with upset stomach relief whether or not we want to. And if that is the case, is a decision about what product to purchase really my own?  Or have I been conditioned to respond in a certain way.

Everything you’ve ever been taught about how to eat has been driven by money. Breakfast as the most important meal of the day? Money, designed to get you to buy cereal. The infamous “food pyramid”? Money, designed to get people to consume more American grain. “Milk – it does a body good”? Money, from the American dairy lobby. Look behind any of the things you were taught about how to eat growing up and you’ll find $$$$.

Think about it, advertising harps on how young girls need to be prettier, advertising has convinced us that we need to be skinnier, men need fancier cars, and of course we also need Viagra, we should drink the right alcohol, eat the right breakfast cereal, go to the right vacation spot, you name it.  Wherever you look — there’s someone whispering in your ear — “you should do this,” or “you should buy that.” Who is making the decision?

I don’t know about you but I find ever more critical of what I watch and what I listen to. Television and movies approach product manufacturers and receive significant sums of money to put those products where they can be seen by the viewers — product placement it’s call — because the manufacturers want you to see other people (just like you, they will tell you) using the products they want to sell you, the products they want you to think are cool, or affordable, or the only product to do the job.  Wherever you look there are people manipulating what you see and hear so that they can make money from your next purchase.

This is not about a conspiracy theory.  What I’m describing is nothing more than the ultimate out-workings of Capitalism. Everyone wants to make a profit.  The smarter we get about marketing the more clever our approach can be, the more subtle and insistent we can appear, but in the end it’s all about the same thing:  buy me.

It doesn’t matter to me whether you wear skinny jeans, or get a boob job, or use almond milk on your organic cereal, your decision to do any of those things has been influenced by some degree by advertising.  You certainly could have seriously considered the plusses and minuses of every decision, but many times you’ll have to admit you have not done so.  You reached for the product that was conveniently placed on the shelf just about eyeball height, or that fit your budget, or that your friends use.

When I was young a grocery store might have 2000 stock items.  By the 1990’s that number had grown to 7000.  Today, a large store can have as much as 40,000 to 50,000 separate inventory items.  Which one you buy is probably not going to be because you have carefully compared each option and chosen the “best” one for you — you’re going to make your selection on a much more ‘gut’ level.

Fortunately for me, at my age, I don’t need to buy as many things as once I did.  I have a lot of them already; my needs are diminishing; and I’m getting smarter to advertising’s tricks.  If you’re in your 20’s or 30’s you aren’t so lucky.  I can see it would be tough to face all those decisions all the time.  But, it’s a choice / decision you get to make.

Peg and I have long used the largest grocery chain in town as our fallback grocery store. Over the years we have visited other of the local choices and made them our go-to choice for specific purchases.  Other stores we have visited and seldom return to.  For years we had very limited options for Latin foods but in the last couple years a new chain has opened that feature really nice produce.  I find myself going there for fresher produce. Today, for the first time in (literally) years we walked into an Aldi’s store.  My parents shopped there from time to time, and Peg & I have too — occasionally — but their product line always seemed to fluctuate a lot and too much of their product line was prepared foods — something we don’t buy very much of.  But on today’s visit it was clear that they are changing their approach and I can see us shopping there more in the future.

The point being that to fight back against the onslaught of merchandising you have to break your own way of thinking too.  You have to try new things,  test things out, investigate, be an informed shopper.  It’s all part of adulting. 🙂

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