Is “wanting” an integral part of humanity or a plague upon it?

April 20, 2011

Wanting drives every advertisement ever made. Sometimes, it passes as “need” but let’s call a spade a spade. We want. And we want a lot. Whether it’s a new car or world peace human beings are defined by this unnatural urge. I say unnatural because wanting is not an impetus for survival. Animals need sustenance and they take what they can get. A Bear eats salmon when they’re running. Berries when they bloom. It does not crave one for the other.

When born, we are much like other animals. Helpless. Dependent on our parents. A baby needs food and it is given to him. Oddly, an infant remains this way far longer than any other creature. It takes an inordinate amount of time for us to become self-serving. But when we get there we arrive in style.

By the time we’re children, the wanting mechanism is in full flower. We want more than sustenance. We want Cheetos and iPads and Sour patch Kids. Our crying out of need becomes warped, narcissistic. As we get older we crave an ever larger, more expensive and baseless array of things. Want has taken over for need.

So utterly commonplace, the only time we hear about of want is when we are in church, listening to a dusty sermon on greed and gluttony or faced with those who are seemingly without it. Like the Amish. Buddhists. Or Sinead O’connor.

Which begs the question: Is ‘wanting’ a bad thing?

It’s tricky. Unraveling the ball of yarn to get from ‘want’ back to ‘need’ is no easy feat. Does one have what he needs in order to survive? If yes, then it’s everything after that that is in question. The defect (if it is a defect) becomes pronounced when we want better versions of what we already have (car, house, boobs) or when we want what we don’t have (two cars, Cartier watch, mistress) or what someone else has (all of the above).

Keeping up with the Joneses is nothing new. This is the ‘longing’ all of us in Adland cultivate and exploit every day. For without it what would be the point of marketing? Does advertising create it? I think so. Like the header on my blog reads: We make you want what you don’t need.

I’m no socialist. I’m not even Alex Bogusky. And I’m as culpable (if that’s the right word) as any of you. Likely more so. But when I observe my young daughters pining for all the stuff they see on TV, the Internet and, most poignantly, when visiting their rich friends I am forced to wonder about wanting.

2 Responses to “Is “wanting” an integral part of humanity or a plague upon it?”

  1. jim schmidt said

    There’s Buddhist symbol that someone I know used to wear. When I asked him what it meant he told me it protected him from the things he desired. We all need one of them, I fear. David Foster Wallace speaks of this as well-

    “If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.”

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