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How consumerism has enslaved us

Abstract

It used to be identity was to be found in the way we thought, the groups we were a part of, and the things we held dear. More and more, however, we exist in a monotonic world where our identity is provided by the things we display (cloths, watches, smart phones, stinky chemical scents), our thinking is remarkably conformist and identical, and we all belong to the same social group knowm as "the consumers." It is a brave new world world where the pain of our shrinking sense of self can, we are told, be easily be mitigated and managed with the appropriate product purchase (booze, antidepressents, social phones) . But in case you haven't realized, more product purchase doesn't help. The anxiety and malaise continue to grow.

Slave to fashion

Just take a stroll to the nearest mall (or the nearest upcoming one) on a weekend and what do you see? Hordes of shoppers pushing their way through a gigantic stampede of other shoppers lulled by the power of the brand name and the “discount” price tag. Count yourself lucky if you can complete that shopping trip unmauled by the forces of “nature”. Shades of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Mecca flash before one’s eyes as one struggles to meander the unnavigable terrain of merciless consumers hunting for yet another generic Osim chair or “that new outfit by Forever 21 that I simply must have”.

Brand name consciousness, certainly, is the mantra by which we eat and breathe these days. From designer bottled water to purified mountain air, Nokia, OSIM, Nike, GAP, Levi’s, and its likes make up the Ten Commandments of the materialistic sub-culture we inhabit. One is easily compelled to wonder why of all things does one need to brave the throng yet another Sunday in the “largest shopping mall in (insert continent)” to purchase yet another little black dress and phone accessory to match when others can scant tell the difference whether its really Pucci or Grada or what the Ah Beng in Petaling Street said was ‘in’ this monsoon.

Nevertheless it is an untiring business as thousands of Ah Lians with boyfriends and butt-crack revealing jeans (and boyfriends in their butt-crack revealing jeans) join forces every other weekend to ensure the struggle does not fade from light. From ‘romantic’ strolls in bookstores while snogging each other and glaring at any poor soul who happens to read in their way, to snatching the last fur-coated cropped cardigan from any poor soul who happens to be paying for it in their way, the quest for more material goods continues. And again next week. Like what Arnie in good ol’California would say, “I’ll be back.”

Indeed, yours truly, a former avid shopper and holder of the longest shopping marathon award has now been relegated to a shadow of her former self. One is not ashamed to say that one is now terrified of malls due to the fear of the impending mindlessness and lack of consideration of others from the first step into the shopping sphere. A twilight zone of apathy mixed with feigned blindness engulfs as one takes that hesitant step. It is as though one is cloaked by the hands of evil – the evil of money, surely – as everyone else pretends to see no mercy, hear no mercy, and of course, speak no mercy as they bump you nonchalantly out of the queue you’ve been standing in since an hour ago. (Just try GSC Mid Valley on a school holiday).

You want to say you’re sorry for not letting them jump queue – you poor little kind soul – rare as you are like a gem in the rough. But they give you the eye and you shrink back – only to bump into the bouncer from Hell who is so dedicated to his night job, he lives it out during the day. So you scurry into the only refuge you think still exists – only to see that the toilet is now a war zone – or at least Daniel Craig must have had his first victim up as James Bond in there. And you’re at a total loss.

Don’t blame yourself, folks. Welcome to the realm of mass consumerism and the rebirth of Fordism, camouflaged in brand names. You can have any colour you want, the ads say, as long as its branded. Look at Paris Hilton’s twinkling lips. Of course its just an Ah Lian with blond hair and Japanese contacts in blue taking a puff. But the colour stays, like what they say at Maybelline. Or Revlon. Or any other brand of lip gloss, really. The product doesn’t really matter, it’s the tagline, dah-ling.

[ad#article]The extent of which corporations will go to in order to sell their products can be no less baffling. A number of these unashamedly breach the reins of political correctness, going all out to produce sexist ads. Sex, for them sells, and apparently, sexist-ness does too. Just watch TV for a night. You’ll see that nine (and I may be wrongly optimistic) out of ten ads featuring household products have women starring as doting housewives, inane smiles plastered all over their more-than-willing to play Stepford wife faces as they scrub yet another kitchen tile while the ‘man’ goes out to battle it out in the corporate warrior’s battlefield. When he (in all his glory) returns, he is treated to a spot-free house and dinner, with his wife all the while smiling that inane smile.

Or you get ads featuring some blossoming young girl, books in hand and all, apparently on her way to some educational institution. On the way she meets love. Love, as it is, is a boy riding a bike who crashes into a wall, mesmerized by our heroine’s beauty. Next scene we see her happily scrubbing child-stained walls, still mesmerized husband coming home from work. And its all thanks to some brand of paint. Need love? Desperate to become a housewife? Want a goofy husband who’ll promise you that dream job of wall-scrubbing? Discover paint. Period.

Some ads try to appear a little more “politically correct”. The woman, now, is some corporate warrior herself. She battles it all day at work. Then she comes home to see Mr. Househusband not doing too well in the domestic sphere. She loses temper. After all, which warrior doesn’t scream a battle cry or two occasionally? Husband makes her coffee. Its named after some sort of lighthouse. She wavers. She is drawn to the carrot. Now the man is back, wielding power in his hands. A woman, as it is, has to be tamed. Otherwise she is nothing but a screaming shrew. And the screaming shrew says, “Never mind, darling, you sit down and relax. I’ll do all the work.”

Of course, the most unpretentious ones tell the truth. Or the constructed ‘reality’ as they so often name that new brand of voyeuristic TV shows like The Simple Life. Some girl tries out a new brand of beauty products. Its named after some fabric that resembles satin. By implication the metaphor describes girl as ‘soft’. Of course. Then there’s an old man of a photographer, 90 or so. He is asleep on a chair. Initially sensibly dressed girl is now a sprightly beauty (one that many CCTV cameras would automatically wake up to, if a particular Minister gives the go) and her enthusiasm wakes the sleeping old man up. Old man is stimulated, girl is ecstatic, and they dance the dance of Eros, our old photographer all the while snapping away. Humbert Humbert would feel so betrayed.

It seems true, at times, the joke about TV shows “being those annoying breaks between endless runs of TV commercials”. What with Petronas ads and all. But sadly enough these too often fall into the trap of parochialism and bad taste. But see one, and you see ‘em all. After all, its all about the brands, not the contents, my dear.


About Rachel Suet Kay Chan