Simple vs ‘smart’, why advertising is the new heroin

This morning, feeling slightly fluey and wanting to take it easy on myself, I picked up a copy of GQ Magazine, a magazine that promises to help me ‘look sharp and live smart’ that is read by ~1m every month globally. A closer reading of that catchphrase might indicate that vanity is something to be desired. Let us have a quick look inside this magazine and just pretend, for a minute, that I’m highly impressionable and vain, obsessed by looking sharp and smart – a marketer’s dream consumer who buys everything he sees.

By the time I’ve got to a piece of ‘smart’ in the intellectual sense within the magazine, the letter from the editor – which is the first page that isn’t an index or an advert (or the first one that has any meaningful writing), I’m on page 60. This is a rare oasis, the next piece of content that is unrelated to consumption of goods or services is on page 151 of the 320 page magazine. A total of 185 pages within are dedicated exclusively to adverts. The remainder include index pages, pictures, contents of features that persuade you to buy things in the adverts, or see films, or go to restaurants. In total, there’s very little ‘smart’ within the magazine measured purely by the number of pages dedicated, without going so far as to analyse the content. Plus there is an awful lot of stupidity. For example, purchasing a $27,000 Rolex (note that I need not tell you what this is – the brand is so effective you already know), when you can buy a watch for $5 that performs many more functions and doesn’t turn you into a walking security risk would seem somewhat foolish.

Let’s say I bought one of each of the items advertised on pages 1 to 59 at the cheapest price a quick search of the internet can provide. My total shopping bill comes to $78,253.66 and I’ve bought a total of 40 items, including 7 jumpers, 3 watches, 5 jackets, 7 bottles of cologne and a host of other accessories that should rightly make me ‘smart and sharp’. I’ve also noted that 5 brands are now claiming that their products have the environment in mind. Whether that’s the truth or to induce me to believe the brand is worth buying, I’m none too sure, but boy do I feel better about the $78k hole in my bank account. The poorest country in the world, Zimbabwe, has a per capita GDP of ~$200, meaning that my little shopping spree would cover a mere 391 years of an average citizen’s life there. 80% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 per day. In their case, we’re covering 21 years of life. 21 years of life versus 40 items that, as far as I can tell aside from car insurance and a laptop, provide very little net additional utility to an individual’s life. Especially considering that aside from the car insurance, two bottles of liquor and a laptop, I’m fairly confident that I could purchase an item of replicable quality without a label for less than a tenth of the price. If I went second hand, we’re looking more like a twentieth or more of the price.

I’ve also glanced, in the adverts, at some of the most enviably beautiful and rich people in the world. I’ve just youtubed one of the adverts and found out I can watch a ‘compelling’ video of the making of the adverts, in which a number of supermodels get almost (i.e. never quite but almost) naked. I’ve also been enticed by products and people that I don’t know but I now envy, or at least that’s the hope.

Now before you expect me to go off on a rant about the shameful differences between rich and poor and the horrific inequality in the world, remember that the aim of this site is not to guilt you into making an immediate donation to Oxfam. Its purpose is to make you think about what is good for you and what makes you happier, rather than making you feel bad about wanting more stuff and then guilty about the poor people of the world for the stuff you have.

With that in mind, here’s the rub. The average income of a GQ reader is $75,103 – meaning that to purchase the heavily overpriced goods that come before the editors letter page would require more than a year’s salary… before tax. What’s interesting about this salary is that although fairly generous by modern standards, it isn’t the kind of pay that would allow for too many purchases of $5,000, let alone $27,000 watches. If we presume that there are a few readers of GQ who earn significantly over this amount, it is possible that the average is actually higher than the median. So what is really going on here? If the average reader is not the average purchaser of the goods advertised, why advertise at all? The simple answer is because the marketers are creating aspirational desires in these consumers resulting in occasional purchases of these goods. These desires also enable the companies selling these goods to price them way beyond the levels of their utility and comparable models. The cost of the marketing is easily covered by the increase in perceived ‘value’ that these goods are given by the marketing. The same unlabeled cashmere sweater as is sold by many of the ‘boutique’ brands can be bought at a fraction of the cost, a legal replica (one that isn’t an exact copy) watch of the same quality can be purchased for many multiples less. It’s not even as if these companies require a huge budget for research and development, an argument that many companies (think pharmaceuticals) use to justify high prices.

The point behind all this is that there is little reason, sorry, absolutely no reason what so ever, behind the prices charged by many of the brands that people aspire to being able to afford. There is an argument that wines, or cars, or houses justify additional value on the back of improved quality or performance. Certainly a $1000 dollar bottle of wine may well be of superior quality than a $10 bottle, even if it might be hard to make a case that it is 100 times better. But for many fashion brands, the only thing you are paying for is the brand, the image, the perception. That, my friends, is pure insanity. We work harder, to earn more money, to buy products that are more expensive than those that can be replicated identically for a fraction of the price. We climb voluntarily into a vicious circle that leaves us poorer and unhappier. We’ve become so used to the marketing we’re bombarded by, we no longer notice the subliminal effects they have on our day-to-day.

I’ll leave you with an advert that is at least honest, although I’ve a funny feeling it may have been modified slightly… Happy thanksgiving, let’s hope you consumed all the right things – love, friendship, laughter, conversation…

6 thoughts on “Simple vs ‘smart’, why advertising is the new heroin

  1. Great post! You really put things in perspective … the reality of glossy advertising and prestige brands… creating perceived wealth and happiness for all of us to buy into!! It is indeed “pure insanity”!!

    There is so much more to life than to ‘look sharp and live smart’ : )

  2. Good post. I think for the most part your onto a winner – however cheap goods often have a huge negative impact on society.

    Lets take your example of cloths. We can purchase cloths that are extremely cheap and it often makes sense to over the prices that big brands charge. The problem with our cheap clothes though is that they are manufactured by workers who are not properly compensated for their time or risk. These cloths are manufactured at such low margins they are detrimental to both the environment and society. Cheap has its consequences.

    In practice, more expensive items should be designed smarter – from creation to consumption and with care for workers and the environment. To an extent that is worth paying for.

  3. This is a great point Scott – we should definitely be mindful of this phenomena. However, I’m not sure the large brands are too different from some of the cheaper in terms of their CR record. It is also possible that there are already enough clothes out there if we distribute them wisely.

    Another important point is that if we all stopped buying clothes today, a number of industries that support people’s jobs would close. Fortunately I think simplicity will happen slowly, if at all… so that people can adapt to change.

    Nonetheless, we must be mindful of the ramifications of our actions. Thanks again for the post. Totally agree that the more expensive should be smarter and therefore worth paying for. A good example might be Patagonia.

  4. Patagonia looks like a good example! They remind me a touch of Howies. Howies now do a range called “hand me down” ( which are designed to last and get past on to future generations – its a nice thought.

    For me it comes down to design. If a product or service is well designed (with a complete life-cycle in mind) then it will cost a little more and it has a reason to. Hopefully at the same time it will cost our planet a little less 🙂

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