Feeding Frenzy

Posted: October 14, 2006 in Culture, Tacky, Taste

I stopped in the local mall today to look for something I wanted (not needed, beverage coasters if you must know), and felt dispirited to see — already — Christmas decorations and displays. It’s only October 14. We used to regard Thanksgiving weekend as the start of the season. Over time, that’s crept further back in the calendar to Halloween. It’s now half a month before Halloween and one of the anchor department stores at the mall I was in was trumpeting “It’s Gift Time!”

We have been told again and again that the Christmas season accounts for some large percentage of annual sales. Some retailers have adopted a nonsensical strategy: that by enlarging the Christmas season and offering the sometimes large discounts necessary to draw in the customer they can increase sales. Which begs the question: do consumers have a flexible gift budget that expands to fit the expansion of the season? The answer to that question should be obvious, but such is the apparent thinking of retailers.

This article by the Wharton School describes the phenomenon, which it calls Christmas Creep, as a sort of mini-arms race. Read for yourself why it’s a self-defeating practice.

Shopping at the mall usually makes me a bit nauseous. Since I don’t watch TV (really, none) or attend to most mainstream media, I’ve managed to retreat somewhat from the onslaught of advertising and the constant selling of the “good life,” which I frankly can’t afford. (I’ve long since determined that I mostly don’t want it anyway, even if I could afford it.) Wandering through the mall and seeing what’s on display — including wandering among the shoppers — I was struck that much of our consumption is so far beyond anything we need as to resemble the practice of potlatch. Wikipedia defines potlatch as a ceremonial practice of gift giving or gift exchange whereby wealthy families gain status and prestige. A lesser known perversion, which strips potlatch of any pretense of charity, occurs when potlatch centers around amassing wealth and elaborate craft items only to cast them into fire, destroying them for all to see.

Our modern perversion of potlatch is centered around conspicuous consumption, known in hip lingo as “bling.” We display our supposed prestige through our purchasing power. So, for instance, we have the wristwatch costing thousands of dollars (merely to tell time), engagement rings and wedding ceremonies that basically hemorrhage money (merely to designate marital status), or the ever-popular sports car (some insist they be called “penis cars”) of the just-divorced middle-aged man reentering the dating scene (’cause the bimbos whiff the scent of money?). Philanthropy isn’t dead, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the excessive amounts we spend on ourselves to feel vital.

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