Christmas and I have a weird relationship these days.
Like the song said, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. I’m learning to better appreciate the cold (since Global Warming is inevitably screwing up Summer for the Earth), and have really great memories of this time of year with my family. I eat the food, hang with family, and listen to the music, which might be my favorite part of the season. But more and more, I notice the way that my past is used as a means of getting me to buy something, and pressuring me to do so when I know I have very little money to spare.
I was recently at a grocery store, and while buying cat food and dinner ingredients, I was mentally accosted by an entire section of shelving devoted to selling $60 HD Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo consoles.
My first thought? I have to have it.
They hooked me the way they hook most kids. The packaging had a big Sonic on the front, a game I grew up with, and made sure to show off all 30 titles on the back. Two controllers for multiplayer, and I knew it could be something I would have a good time with. But, of course, I didn’t have the money to get it, which caused me a deep pang of sadness.
And that was the point, which I feel is pernicious in a way that we are aware of, and should be even more cognizant of this time of year.
There’s a Samsung commercial going around where the guy says, “I promise to consume, but also to create,” that always needles me when I see it. I love to create things, I have a blog and I’m working on a book, so that part is covered. But why do I have to promise to consume things? I really can’t promise that, I don’t have the means so. And if I do consume things, it’s out of necessity. There’s no such thing as a free meal in America, you have to have money for survive. I didn’t agree to those terms, so why does this (who I admit only wanted to make a commercial and has little to do with its interpretation), speaking for me when he says I promise to consume?
Only 90s Kids Understand
Most may realize this, but our generation was an experiment in long term profit collection. As my grandparent’s and parent’s generation started to make money, they realized that merchandise was perhaps one of the most profitable things they could invest in. Thus, we have cartoons, movies, and books all created with the soul purpose of selling toy lines and T-shirts, geared specifically to entice kids.
The advertisements are so wacky and loud and in your face, with laughing kids and their friends enjoying some awesome action figure or doll house or anything fun that they become intrinsically connected to our childhood experience. Hence, you can search on YouTube for compilations of advertisements from that era simply for the nostalgia of it all, since it calls back to a time where our needs were simple and met by our parents and we could want things without guilt, at least in my case.
In this way, this experiment of breeding consumers succeeded. We would bug and guilt and cry to our parents to buy us things (I certainly had my moments), which they would do, since the repercussions of not having these commodities made it more difficult to experience an effective and fulfilling childhood without those things, mostly due to social pressures at school and other places kids congregate.
It worked so well that I felt its effects years later when seeing that console in the grocery store. It sent a cocktail of endorphin’s and dopamine straight to the pleasure center of the brain, bringing me all the way back to the “good old days”. And it made me feel guilty, not just in the way I used to feel as a kid when my parents couldn’t buy me something I wanted, but also for realizing that the tactic had worked against me.
Millennials Ruin Everything
In that same vain, however, the experiment is also failing. The multitude of articles bemoaning the downfall of golf, diamonds, skiing, napkins, and housing industries place their blame for this downturn in the hands of my generation for not spending enough on the things they assumed we would. A mistake that some of the older generation made was assuming that we would grow up to enjoy the same things as them – that the world would change more slowly, and we would gravitate to those same pleasures with the same amount of capital, and a similar desire to breed another generation to consume the things we would create for them.
In this, they were short sighted. The world changed faster than anyone imagined, and my generation found other things that we enjoyed that were more difficult to profit from. As it turns out, you cannot have your cake and eat it to.
Or, old white men cannot hoard a majority of the world’s wealth, and then expect the younger generation to consume the things they make while denying them the means to obtain that capital. You have to invest to collect. My generation is so concerned with paying rent and student loans that we don’t get to enjoy expensive pastimes like golf or skiing, or buy each other diamonds or waste time buying napkins when a paper towel does the same thing (honestly). We found ways to innovate and created spaces of our own that were more difficult to monetize, and for that, I am extremely proud of us for seeing how we were being misled.
I want to make sure people understand that just because something can be bought does not make the experience that comes from exchanging money for memories less valuable somehow. My honeymoon was in Southern California, hitting up the theme parks, perhaps the most commodified places on the planet. But just because it requires money to experience those things does not make the things that we did there any less real, any less important. They may be some of the best memories I will ever create, with my wife and I going on rides together. Thousands of other people have ridden those rides before, but none of them shared my experience, because they were not me. Watching my wife laugh, sharing the the best strawberry shortcake ever created, scaring her with the rides she had never been on, are moments so close and dear to my heart that they are now indistinguishable. Those memories are my heart.
The same would go for purchasing that Genesis in the grocery store. I could have bought that home and shared it with my friends and created some worth while memories that would have made up for the cost of the console tenfold. These things have real value in them, but that isn’t the issue. Stores play Christmas music to entice people to buy things, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still be enjoyed. Ads for kids are over the top, but the memories we have of them are real. It is indeed possible to separate the tactics of the creators of these experiences with the experiences themselves.
All it requires is for us to be present and acknowledge our actions, and to be observant and informed spenders. I promise to create, but I will choose to consume only if it serves something real.