Some 50 years ago I was riding on the 5th Avenue bus in NYC, which more appropriately should have been Madison Avenue, when I began to read the signs above the windows on both sides of the bus. Each one conveyed a message and, either to pass the time or just out of plain curiosity, I read each one in detail. As I got off the bus and began walking, there was something about the signs that disturbed me but I could not figure out immediately what it was. After several days of brooding about the experience, it came to me, whether one night suddenly or in a moment of more conscious thought and reflection, I cannot remember. What it was that disturbed my thoughts was that almost all of the signs were in the imperative. They were telling me what to do, and in some cases, when and how. For example, “Get the best mortgage rate available/” “Call now to reserve your place at the hotel of your dreams.” “See the new model at your favorite dealer. “ “Stay at New York’s finest….” “Pay no more than 10% down….” “Eat at Joe’s Diner” “Win a trip to wherever…” and you can think of many more such examples such as a slogan connected to a sports shoe that said, “Just do it!” And a take off on the cover of a business magazine, “Do it. Get Rich.” And from the world of fitness, “Beat the bulge.” And “Lose the flabby look.”
These messages are everywhere and this is no surprise to anyone who has anything to do with advertising or any of us keenly aware of conspicuous consumption. Each of the messages was specific to its own particular product or service but essentially each message had the same intended goal which was to get the reader to take some kind of action and inevitably it was going to cost money. After all, these messages were selling, not simply informing. Maybe these signs had all been created by the same TDI agency that I remembered seeing on the train! I think that TDI was the abbreviation for Transportation Displays, Incorporated. These were among the first sound bytes in my experience because, depending on the length of the ride, there wasn’t much time to get the message across. They were certainly not infomercials! In addition to being in the imperative, I wondered how such messages, advertising of this kind, clearly in the imperative, would ideally affect the behavior of the respondents. In other words, if these signs achieved their goals and persuaded the dear reader to respond “favorably” what would happen? And slowly but clearly, I had the revelation that these subtle manipulations of the mind would result in a sequence of at least five behaviors.
Here are the five imperatives and we may be able to understand them because we have all been active participants at some time and at some level in our typical consumer responses, whether buying a car or the latest techno gizmo. The five economic imperatives are SPEND, BUY, WASTE, WANT, and BORROW. Spend money, buy what you want and even if you don’t want it, buy it anyway for some other purpose such as keeping up with the times or to improve your station in life, waste or throw it away or trade it in or upgrade or get the newer version of whatever it is, thus creating the desire for the “better” or more expensive model, and if you have to, borrow, in order to start all over again on the cycle of spend, buy, waste, want and borrow. There are those in our society who have sufficient funds available that they can leave out the borrow part and simply concentrate on the first four but I contend that these people are mostly in the 1% and are among the very wealthy who may not have to consider cost/price benefits.
Let’s go back to my being disturbed by the messages and why I was experiencing some kind of conflict over a seemingly benign set of messages. Perhaps not so benign! That we now live in the age of information is undeniable but information can take many forms depending upon its purpose and intent. If the information intends to simply give us the facts, such as a news article of what happened, that is one thing. However, advertising is designed to sell, one way or another, if not directly, then indirectly. Classic examples are the television ads during super sports events that cost in the millions of dollars per minute (4.5 million dollars for 30 seconds in Super Bowl 2015) and why do you suppose that is? It is because of the great visibility by the consumers. In fact, this kind of advertising has created its own entertainment value. And the companies who pay the millions upon millions must believe that those kinds of expenses are justifiable. In a similar vein, those who were persuaded by TDI to spend part of their advertising budgets on the placards above the bus windows were also persuaded that they would benefit from that kind of visual and verbal advertising.
This essay, however, is not so much about advertising as it is about the conflict between the message sent and my own internal reaction. Although I was able to identify these economic imperatives, it was some time before I could identify the inner conflict but as mentioned earlier, the reason for the mental and emotional turmoil became rather obvious once I knew the reasons why I felt such a disturbance. It was about the difference between what I had learned as a child and what I was now experiencing as an adult. And it was mostly about values. What I been taught by my depression era parents was a set of values AND behaviors that were in direct opposition to those of the consumer oriented advertising. While the SPEND, BUY, WASTE, WANT, BORROW scenario went to work on my senses, those deeply ingrained values of my parents which were in direct opposition producing the conflict were SAVE, USE, KEEP, HAVE and GIVE. And there you have it. These latter values and practices seemed to be in direct opposition to the former ones. And thus the resulting conflict.
My wife, the curious sort of person who grew up under somewhat different economic circumstances, asked me this question. Do I think that the depression era values I learned came from a mindset of scarcity? It may true that save, use, keep, have and do not come from a place of abundance, in fact, certainly not in my case. Sure enough, those values come from an experience and an attitude of scarcity rather than abundance because that is how it was for many people. That those people were influenced, shaped, and affected by all of that, yes of course. The bigger question might be how does one transcend or change or give up those things, if indeed, abundant thinking as it might be called is more productive? IF and this is a big IF, an attitude of abundance goes overboard or goes to something extreme this will certainly help produce the spend, buy, waste, want, borrow behaviors, Are those values any better, healthier, or more productive than save, use, keep, have and give? Cannot these latter behaviors and attitudes also come from a place of abundance, especially the GIVE part? It seems to me that philanthropists and other wealthy people actually practice some combination of both sets and it seems quite possible that these attitudes and behaviors do not have to be an either/or proposition.
The issue may be how we choose to allocate our resources, especially financial ones, and these choices reflect our values, regardless of how much we have available to spend or to save or to give. Regardless how much we have available to buy something, how do we use those purchases whether those are real goods, services or the necessities that sustain life such as housing, clothing and food. I remember when a rule of thumb for balanced family economics was not to spend more than 25% of one’s annual income on housing. I heard recently from someone in California that many families there have approached the 40% level on housing alone. Without going into some kind of mind-numbing statistical analysis, suffice to say here that it is hard to give something if you do not save something or set aside a portion to give! If we spend all that we have for what we need or want what about the needs of others? There are families of modest means who find it within their budgets to give something significant because their values include the priority of setting something aside to be shared with those whom they choose to support. That could be the Tsunami that spawned world wide support, or something else big that captures our attention – the environment, health issues, education or hunger, or our own favored, local, national or global charity. So what is the point in all of this?
Maybe the new imperative can be simply, in the words of Larry Mellon, inspired by Albert Schweitzer, “Help life where you find it.” Larry and Gwen Mellon went to Haiti over 50 years ago, started the hospital in Deschappelles and it became their life work. That was their choice and they could have chosen most anything and yet they personified the Save, Use, Keep, Have and Give motif, inspiring others along the way to join them in their efforts to bring better health care to the poorest country in the western hemisphere. One does not have to travel far to find something worthy and deserving of a gift. The question for us may be this. What is it that we would like to give to beyond ourselves? It does not have to be a lot nor does it have to be heroic. Gifts of self and substance are welcome in many quarters and those of us fortunate enough to live in a place of plenty, maybe abundance, can easily find a way to reach out and let someone else benefit from our generosity, however large or small. So much to give, so little time. Places to go, things to do. People to see, work to be done. “To whom much is given, much is required.”
These words of Aristotle sum it up well: “To give away money is an easy matter, and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power-nor an easy matter. Hence it is, that such excellence is rare, praiseworthy and noble.”