Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Emperor's New Logo

     (This is part 2 of a 4-part series on how we can—and should—do what conventional wisdom tells us is impossible. Each of us can—and should—enjoy a higher standard of living while drastically reducing the negative impact we have on the environment. In achieving these seemingly contradictory goals, we can achieve two other seemingly contradictory objectives: We can spend fewer dollars on greater benefits and enjoy better health.  Part 1 is titled "How to Raise Our Living Standards by Lowering the GDP)
     Not long ago, I reminded a group of the short story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and I asked them, “Do you think that you would be gullible enough to be tricked into buying nothing and think that you’re buying something wonderful?” Of course, everyone said that they’d never be that gullible.
     I then said to them, “Everyone in this room knows somebody who already has. In fact, you may have done it yourself.” That remark immediately got their attention.
     I showed them two nearly identical images of shoes. They differed only in that the logo of one was removed through the magic of Photoshop. You can see where this is heading, but there are still a few surprises in this article.
     Beneath the one with no logo, I presented a hypothetical price (NT$2,000), with the total price beneath it. Not surprisingly, the total price was the same as the price of the shoe. Beneath the second, I gave the same price (NT$2,000). Beneath this price, I listed the price of the logo as another NT$2,000. The total was NT$4,000.
     In case the illustration was not clear enough to get my point across, I told them, “The person who buys the shoe on the right is paying two thousand dollars for the shoe, the same as he would be paying for the one on the left. The difference is, he’s paying another two thousand dollars for absolutely nothing. The company spends millions of dollars each year to convince gullible people that they’re buying something wonderful when they’re really paying good money for absolutely nothing.”
     “Oh,” advertisers and other professional propagandists would say, “They’re paying for status.”
     The shoes are an objective reality. Status is a social reality. The issue here is not whether they’re buying a means to status but whether the status is based on something of reasonable social value. This begs the question, “What values are worth valuing?”
     Becoming something worthy of respect takes time and effort. A person with low self esteem can be gulled into believing that he can always take a shortcut by buying something to gain respect.
     Cool is a trigger word that often suggests a shortcut to social acceptance. "Cool" exists only in the imagination, and it’s ever changing. What people consider cool today can be embarrassing a generation later. To add to this, things considered cool are generally of little or no practical value. Usually, they’re counterproductive and, when judged objectively, often ridiculous.
     What has a person gained when he tries to buy status? He has gained nothing but the praise of people who are just as gullible and emotionally stunted as himself. He doesn’t need new shoes as much as he needs new friends—friends who will help him to become the best person he can be instead of looking for vacuous shortcuts to social acceptance.
     To show the other side of status—the type of status I consider worth having, I give two examples from the life of an actress named Gabrielle Anwar.
     In 1990 or 1991, Gabrielle Anwar was in Orangeburg, South Carolina, for the filming of Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. Five portable dressing rooms the size of outhouses had stars pasted on the doors, and one of them had her name on it. Another dressing room had the name of the only other actress. The latter actress came and went in a grand manner and had a fawning entourage with her.
     Gabrielle Anwar was quite the opposite. She was quiet, serious, and came across as rather shy. Between scenes she sometimes stood alone with the pensive look of someone mentally rehearsing her lines.
     Around mid-day, I hunkered in an open space, trying to conserve my energy, having bicycled all night to get there, and knowing I’d have to bike another night to get back to Columbia. I noticed her looking in my direction. Tiredly, I forced a smile and waved at her. She shyly smiled back and copied my wave. She’s a good kid, I thought. I was far more impressed by her shy politeness than by the other actress’s feigned air of hauteur.
     When the movie was released, I was surprised to learn that Gabrielle Anwar was the star of the movie. As for the other actress, I couldn’t recognize her in the movie. I felt vindicated in my assessment of the two.
     I would not have given this example were it not for something I saw on a YouTube video. Gabrielle Anwar told an interviewer that she likes to make her own clothes. When she sees a style she really likes, instead of paying outrageous prices for it, she makes one like it for herself. Her self-made clothing doesn’t have a famous label on it, but it has a kind of status that no amount of money can buy: It’s a product of her skilled hands, talent, and admirable self sufficiency. In the interview, she was visibly proud of this practice of hers.  
     This revelation starts at 3:25 on the video.  Confessing her love of bargains, she says, "I take tremendous pleasure in creating my own version of what I can't afford."

      A person who tries to buy status, on the other hand, has no such reason to be proud.
     Let me take this a step further.
     A hand bag marked with a famous logo can cost hundreds, if not thousands of U.S. dollars. Most of the cost is in the logo, which, as I’ve pointed out, amounts to paying a wad of money for absolutely nothing. The making, transport, etc, of these bags is environmentally destructive. In spite of all these disadvantages, a famous-brand hand bag has the same functions as—and no more thana hand bag made from palm fronds.
     In Yap State, which is in western Micronesia, people take pride in being able to make hand bags and baskets from palm fronds. It’s my understanding that children are taught this craft in the first grade if not earlier. Everywhere visitors go in Yap and the Outer Islands, they see women, children, and even men carrying palm frond hand bags.
     Palm frond baskets and hand bags cost nothing to make, as palm fronds literally grow on trees. They’re 100% environmentally friendly. They also enjoy well-deserved status in that they’re the products of the skilled hands of people who are self-sufficient and essentially free of vanity.
     No amount of advertising dollars can produce enough phony status to outshine the well-earned status of someone who has values worth valuing.
     (In part 3, “Waste Products are Wasted Products,” I give several examples of countless items of value that people imagine to be valueless. Part 4 is the tour de force of this series. By learning how advertisers narrow our decisions to Hobson’s choices, we can break the matrix. Part 4 is titled, “How to Raise Our Living Standards, Spend Less Money, Enjoy Better Health, and Improve Environmental Protection All at the Same Time.”)


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