Friday, February 20, 2009

Please Don't Eat the Daisies...

“You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl”

I like to order from catalogs. Catalog orders are convenient and bring with them their own special rewards. There’s the excitement of receiving a package, the delusion that you really didn’t spend any money (because you didn’t actually hand anyone any cash, did you?) and, my favorite, the thrill of the Free Shipping Coupon.

The problem is that once you dip your toe into the ocean of mail-order purchases, other catalog companies, smelling blood, circle like sharks. As a result, I often find myself on the receiving end of multiple catalogs each day, particularly around the holiday season (I have actually come to believe that they are not all originally sent to us, but that they multiply like bunny rabbits in our mailbox).

Most of the time, these unrequested catalogs are quickly browsed (or not) and end up in the recycle bin. But I find myself asking the same very basic question over and over again while in catalog browse mode: Who buys this stuff?

Take, for example, a recent catalog I received with the motto “Garden Décor that Leaves a Lasting Impression”. The nicest way to describe the collection of items would be “eclectic”. Less nice ways might include the terms “unusual”, “bizarre”, and “downright tacky”.

It’s not that there were no appealing items in the catalog. But the juxtaposition of the somewhat attractive items with the more…shall we say, unusual selections was just plain ridiculous.

Another striking oddity is that the marketer appears to be completely obsessed with the size of each and every item. Nearly every statue has a caption on the photo indicating the size of the item, complete with exclamation point (e.g., “Over three feet tall!” ). Bigger is Better must be the company’s secondary motto

On one page, we have a collection of classic statues for the garden. They include St. Francis, Jesus (nearly three feet tall!), Our Lady of Fatima (nearly five feet tall!), a Giant Buddha (four feet tall!), and….yes, you guessed it, rounding out this serious religious collection is…The Meerkat Gang (over two feet long!). Yes, you too can have three meerkats standing on their hind legs, “hand painted and authentically sculpted”, for only $85 plus shipping and handling.

On another page, we have the option to purchase a Tyrannosaurus Rex Dinosaur Garden Sculpture (Over three feet long!), which is “realistically sculpted” from “quality designer resin” with “rows of menacing teeth, a fearsome tail and scaly skin”. Realistically sculpted? T-Rex?

I could go on to describe Big Foot, the Garden Yeti (Over two feet tall!), several variations on the gargoyle theme, the Crocodile Skull Sculptural Artifact, and The Zombie of Montclaire Moors (Life-size!), but you get the idea.

Who buys this stuff?

I know that we live in a capitalistic society. Consumerism drives our economy, and if people aren’t buying, other people aren’t earning a living. Money makes the world go around. Buying things brings people a little joy in a cold world.

But here’s the thing that bothers me. Somewhere in the world, maybe in China, or Vietnam, there is a poor woman working long hours, possibly under unregulated conditions, hand-painting thousands of three foot resin T-Rex statues.

What does she think of us? This person who probably works for minimal pay that is barely sufficient to feed her family….she must shake her head in wonder. What kind of country is America where people have SO much money that they can spend $100 on a plastic statue? I imagine her describing her job to her neighbors and friends – those crazy Americans will buy anything, they must think. And maybe they are right.

Now, we are not blind followers of the advertising Pied Piper. Most of us know, deep in our hearts, that material goods don’t bring lasting happiness. Most of us try to live our lives with more important goals in mind. We struggle to find the perfect balance between time spent acquiring possessions and time spent building relationships. We navigate the tension between the material and the spiritual. But we are pitted against experts in psychology and human behavior whose goal – whose actual full time paying job – is to make us want to buy their product.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines Materialism as: “The theory or attitude that physical well-being and worldly possessions constitute the greatest good and highest value in life.” I can’t think of a better way to describe the message promoted to our culture every day through advertising.

“Physical well-being and worldly possessions”. We all fall into the trap of spending too much time and money in this arena. Show me one TV commercial that isn’t centered around these themes. Show me one online, print, or radio ad that doesn’t focus on how we can look better, live longer, and be happier by buying some product.

And then, please, tell me how a plastic T-Rex in my garden is going to make the world a better place.

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