Choose wisely…

Has anyone read The Paradox of Choice (Why More is Less) by Barry Schwartz? I started it the other day. His premise that our “culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction” captivated me. Deep down I’ve always felt –in spite of being a capitalist and an ad man- that having too many choices makes life chaotic. Mine anyway. Here was a book espousing the same idea!

The pressure to keep up is real. In high school and college we are given a syllabus: a defined and finite list of books we had to read. For most of us that was all we could handle.

Upon graduation, we create our own reading list –presuming we still read. I certainly do. However, I also love movies. I make it a point to see every best picture nominee in the Academy Awards. Recently, Oscar expanded that list to what, nine? How am I supposed to see all these films (not to mention the genre pictures I adore) and finish that book I just started?

It would help if I got off the damn computer…

Ah, the computer. Like many of us, I’m hopelessly addicted to the Internet. The trade blogs, the film blogs, the book blogs, and all those I-can’t-believe they’ve-got-a-site sites. Nothing says choice like the Information Superhighway. Damn you Al Gore for enriching my life! Damn you, Apple computers, for creating such glorious shiny, silver hardware.

On my devices I sail down the Amazon. There I can get anything I want -fast, cheap, easy. Do you like Ebay or are you a Craigslist guy? Perhaps there’s another etailer you prefer more – one that really knows you and what you like.

Am I missing anything? That’s the big question, isn’t it? Am I missing anything? The answer is yes. And that makes me nervous. Irritable. Discontent. It’s sort of like New Year’s Eve. No matter which party I chose I was missing another far better one.

But we prefer having choices, right? Sometimes I wonder. I’m relieved when a restaurant has only three dishes on its menu. The chef has chosen for me. Picking one of his specials is a no-lose situation. It’s even relaxing and enjoyable, which, come to think of it, is the whole point to going out for dinner.

Schwartz opens his book by recounting a visit to the Gap to buy blue jeans. Instead of merely having to find his size, which is daunting enough, he is faced with myriad styles to choose from: boot cut, relaxed fit, skinny, distressed, button fly or zipper. Black, brown, white or blue. And so on.

He wanted jeans. Not choices. What should have been a simple task became complicated, even fraught with peril. Yes, freedom of choice is the American Dream. But is it turning into a nightmare?

I have trouble choosing sides.

Democrat or Republican? Liberal or Conservative? Cubs or White Sox? I know with whom I am supposed to side with based on where and how I was brought up. But that doesn’t make it any easier for me to fall in line. Frankly, it often makes it harder. I see the strength and weakness in opposing groups. I identify with both, for better and for worse.

For example: I want to help others (liberal) but I also want to help myself (conservative). I want to fight evil (conservative) but I don’t want to fight (liberal). When what is right is forced upon me it becomes wrong. When wrong is explained to me it becomes right. I veer from either political party not just cynically but because I see the virtue in both sides along with the hypocrisy. And there’s plenty to go around.

So, what’s a girl to do? On a personal level, I’d like to think I know right from wrong. But when I step outside myself and look at something from another person’s perspective I often alter my view. For better and for worse, I remain open minded.

Part of my problem –if it is a problem- is that I don’t belong to any one community, save for the human race. And even then I wonder (a joke people). My father is Jewish. My mother is Catholic. Neither practices either faith. My father was born on the south side of Chicago. Yet, we lived on the north side. And I lived with my mother, who is from Bordeaux, France. Not a lot of continuity there.

I grew up a tier or two below middle class. Now I reside a tier or two above it. I am from Chicago and I love this place. But I hate it, too. Chicago’s massive corruption and beauty are inextricably linked. This is a Democratic city and for the life of me I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Take our Mayor’s Daley. They were awesome and terrible at the same time. I would vote for them, partly knowing I shouldn’t. I feel the same way about our President.

Maybe my profession reveals answers. As a copywriter I am tasked with finding the virtue in everything: cereal, fast food, cigarettes, booze, cars, and corporations. Look at that list. Every category is controversial. But not when you’re writing copy. Spirits are authentic, smooth and mellow. Cars are sleek, fast and state-of-the-art. Corporations do so much good in the world! The company that spilled millions of tons of oil into the sea is helping millions of people get back with their lives. And so on…

The ranks of Adland may be filled with left-leaning hipsters but our creed is dogmatically right wing. Advertising flaunts capitalism. Advertising is capitalism. By definition. But then what are we who practice it? To write copy for a multi-conglomerate by day and support the Occupy movement at night (for example) is hypocritical. For me, it smacks of leading a double life. Like when Newt shrieks family values and bangs his assistant.

Choosing sides means accepting hypocrisy. I vote for Obama but I want Congress to veto his taxing and spending. I write copy for fast food but believe we are a nation that eats too much of it.

In the end, I am careful taking sides. I can only pray to do the next right thing, whether I know what that is or not.

“I want what you have.”
“Me too.”

I grew up under modest circumstances, living with my mother and brother on the first floor of a two-flat in the not yet gentrified Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. The Latin Kings and the Latin Eagles still called it their “hood.” We attended public schools, walking or taking the CTA to get there. I was mugged countless times for my lunch money, though by some miracle never had my ass kicked. I did, however, lose my first payday ever to a lanky gang-banger with a huge knife. Blade to my throat, he made me remove my pants so I couldn’t run for help. I was twelve.

My grandmother and mother emigrated here from France, requiring sponsorship to do so. I cannot know the hardship they experienced in Europe and was blissfully unaware of how tight our situation really was. My single mother worked in a scruffy boutique on Broadway selling trendy clothes to bohemians and drag queens. My father was becoming successful in advertising but hadn’t yet made his financial bones. I saw him on Saturdays. Eventually, my parents and even grandmother all improved their circumstances and we became upwardly mobile, even borderline rich.

And so while this nation (and the world) struggles through grave economic turmoil, political pettiness and financial fraud, relentless debate over the greedy rich and the mistreated poor, I can legitimately say I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum. And from this perspective I tell you that demonizing the rich is just as dopey as victimizing the poor. For the most part, neither is either.

I didn’t understand the bailing out of failed corporations any more than I get further taxing the wealthy to give their “fair share.” Both notions seem the same to me and equally wrong. It’s all so reactionary: the need for villains to explain hardship, the need for heroes to fix things. Pitting government against corporations is like fighting fire with fire. We all get burned.

There will always be the “haves” and “have-nots.” That’s the human condition. As the population relentlessly grows (7 billion now) that condition will continuously be stressed. It is human nature to want what we do not have and to resent those who have it, a defect of our species and a powerful one. Trying to mitigate that resentment by force never works. Not in the long run.

Fortunately, humanity is capable of altruism. Helping those in need is within our nature. And the rich are capable of it, without a gun to their head. Ask a Rockefeller. Or Bill Gates. Philanthropy is alive and well.

No, it’s never going to be enough but again that’s the human condition. This is our truth: for better and for worse poor people would behave just like rich people if put in their shoes and rich people would behave just like poor people if put in theirs. I think about that every time I see a broken man buying lottery tickets.

For a marketing perspective: Advertising Age

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.