“What the hell is this?”
My mother had uncovered the skeletal remains of a shoplifted candy necklace from my bunk bed. She was organizing like a Hindu deity the material aspirations of her seven young children, and there, wedged between my Littlest Angel and Cootie were the last bites of a Smartie candy necklace, along with Charleston Chews, false eyelashes and a lighter, all stolen from the local mall.
I’d amassed a stockpile of shiny consumer products. Little did I know my burgeoning career as a thief would be the harbinger of a distinguished career in retail marketing.
Like a fruit flavored trinket my skill as a liar was about to bear fruit too. “I don’t know how it got there,” I pleaded. I was a five-year-old shoplifter caught in the clutches of American mass consumerism and ditching security detectives in the A&P and Payless.
It was the age of Warhol, Camelot and America’s longest uninterrupted period of economic expansion. Countless new brands and must-have advertising campaigns made even an informed preschooler defenseless.
When I look at today’s reinvention of retail, and our economic dependency on consumerism (along with digital technology which has disrupted manufacturing, and reduced government spending as a stable source of prosperity) much of our economic burden remains tied to household consumption.
American consumers are increasingly propping up the global economy, an enduring source of strength that is helping keep the United States out of recession and drawing a sharp contrast with the rest of the world, according to a recent article in the Washington Post.
It’s clear, we have a chronic, insatiable desire to shop. Yes, mass consumerism has had disastrous environmental consequences. Rich countries consume exponentially more natural resources than poor countries. Yet we still keep shopping.
And all we wanted back then were Mustangs, kick pleat skirts and celadon coffee mugs. Now, we want more.
Cyber Monday raked in a new record of more than $9 billion in sales this year according to Forbes, marking the first day in history when consumers spent over $3 billion using their smartphones.
To be fair, we humans are born with limitless desire. The desire to live, to feed ourselves, the materialistic desire to acquire possessions and the psychological desire to be noticed. Desire creates energy to move forward. It also creates great human suffering.
And yet, after more than half a century of post-WWII consumer ambition, and as we enter a new era of massive automation, some forecasts suggest there just may be plenty to go around. A noted voice for “luxury communism” Aaron Bastani has written a book on the subject and argues that we are living through a radical economic transformation where machines replace people, the planet heals and we all begin—at last—to thrive. Somewhere between the catastrophe of now and that magical moment however, we’ll need to fully convert to renewable energy and guarantee education and healthcare for everyone.
But how do we do it? More sermons on the obscenity of university schooling and corporate greed? It all comes down to winning over ourselves rather than winning over the weak. The Law of the Jungle must be rewritten. We are born with instinct, but we can control our fate.
“We’re going back to that store right now and apologize,” my mother was on a pilgrimage of forgiveness and I was caught, humiliated. Later that day I was delivered by the Blessed Virgin Mary. I took my mother’s bed spread, put it over my head like a good Catholic and impersonated the BVM. “Look mom, I’m the Blessed Mother!”
My shoplifting tapered off as I got older. When I landed my first real PR job in Macy’s press office, I was summoned to personnel to answer questions about a shoplifting incident decades before. My boss didn’t seem to mind, as long as I excelled as in-house publicist. Capture the emotion. Make it irresistible.