Friday, February 24, 2012

The Wages of Fear.

It’s a French film, from 1953. Existentialist, if you’re into that kind of thing. Spoiler alert: In it, a bunch of misfits get hired for a suicide mission to transport nitroglycerine through treacherous jungle to extinguish an oil field fire. All of them die trying, save for one. He collects the money, then dies in a car accident on his way to celebrate at a local pub (man, those existentialists…). I wouldn’t bring it up except that it happened to me, too, kind of. The pub part. And the you-don’t-always-see-it-coming part.

When Consumer Republic was published last year, I worried about two things. First, I hoped that my industry would see it as a defense of the system and not as an incitement to consumer rebellion. Second, and to the point of this post, I worried about the press. I’m a marketing guy who’s written a book defending brands. Journalists as a breed tend to be a bit suspicious of both of those things. I was afraid I might get eaten alive. To my eternal delight, that didn’t happen. But for one violently bad review in New Zealand (!?), interviewers and reviewers were open minded, balanced, and surprisingly intrigued. As my media tour disappeared in the rear view mirror last spring, I figured I’d survived the fire. No critic is going to be tougher on such a capitalistic premise than, say, The Georgia Straight. And that’s when, at a local pub last week, a dinner companion turned to me and serenely observed, “all you do is make people buy things they don’t need.”

Well, first of all, I hope it’s obvious that I don’t possess this power. If I did, my snowmobile wouldn’t still be for sale after a year. Plus, it would be gold plated and powered by unicorns. Let’s dwell, instead, on this idea of “things they don’t need.”

There’s no doubt that marketing subsists partly on what Charles Kettering called the “creation of dissatisfaction,” and on people’s freedom to act upon it. But Kettering’s assertion that industry can create dissatisfaction at will was as arrogant as my dinner companion’s was na├»ve. Humans have been dissatisfied for a lot longer than there has been a Madison Avenue. Our restlessness as a species isn’t new, and it’s not even an affliction, necessarily. It’s a natural resource. Like water, it can be life-giving, or implacably destructive. Which is a matter of choice. In other words, the world we live in is shaped by what we want, not by what we say. And the only thing that would scare me more than the improbable specter of industry telling us what to want would be some higher moral authority doing the same thing. I like my chances against, say, Walmart more than I like my chances against whatever marketplace Taliban we’d have to invent to legislate our urges.

It’s true what Jefferson said: the price of freedom really is eternal vigilance. Sometimes vigilance is as simple as knowing whom you’re eating with. Sometimes, it’s about our own wobbly convictions in the face of temptation. Either way, two things remain true: Our fate is in our own hands. And it’s always a mistake to let your guard down too soon.