Advertising is the PR team for an economic system, Neoliberal Globalisation, that operates by making us feel inadequate and telling us the solution is to constantly spend.
We are constantly bombarded with messages that we will feel better only if we buy some specific product; and then buy something more; and buy again, and on and on, until finally your family buys your coffin.
Can we turn off the autopilot, and take back control for ourselves?
Spending often isn’t about the object itself. It is about getting to a psychological state that makes you feel better.
When there is pollution in the air that makes us feel worse, we ban the source of the pollution.
Advertising is a form of mental pollution.
When I was trying to apply everything I had learned to change, in order to be less depressed, I felt a dull, insistent tug on me. I kept getting signals that the way to be happy is simple. Buy stuff. Show it off. Display your status. Acquire things. These impulses called to me, from every advertisement, and from so many social interactions. I had learned from Tim Kasser that these are junk values, a trap that leads only to greater anxiety and depression. But what is the way beyond them? I could understand the arguments against them very well. I was persuaded. But there they were, in my head, and all around me, trying to pull me back down.
But Tim, I learned, has been proposing two ways, as starters, to wriggle free. The first is defensive. And the second is proactive, a way to stir our different values.
When there is pollution in the air that makes us feel worse, we ban the source of the pollution: we don’t allow factories to pump lead into our air. Advertising, he says, is a form of mental pollution. So there’s an obvious solution. Restrict or ban mental pollution, just like we restrict or ban physical pollution.
This isn’t an abstract idea. It has already been tried in many places. For example, the city of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, was being slowly smothered by billboards. They covered every possible space, gaudy logos and brands dominated the skyline wherever you looked. It had made the city look ugly, and made people feel ugly, by telling them everywhere they looked that they had to consume.
So in 2007 the city’s government took a bold step, they banned all outdoor advertising: everything. They called it the Clean City Law. As the signs were removed one by one, people began to see beautiful old buildings that had long been hidden. The constant ego-irritation of being told to spend was taken away, and was replaced with works of public art. Some 70 percent of the city’s residents say the change has made it a better place. I went there to see it, and almost everyone says the city seems somehow psychologically cleaner and clearer than it did before.
We could take this insight and go further. Several countries, including Sweden and Greece, have banned advertising directed at children. While I was writing this book, there was a controversy after a company marketing diet products put advertisements in the London Underground asking, ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY? next to a picture of an impossibly lithe woman. The implication was that if you are one of the 99.99 percent of humans who look less buff than this, you are not “ready” to show your flesh on the beach. There was a big backlash, and the posters were eventually banned. It prompted a wave of protests across London, where people defaced ads with the words “Advertising shits in your head.”
It made me think: Imagine if we had a tough advertising regulator who wouldn’t permit ads designed to make us feel bad in any way. How many ads would survive? That’s an achievable goal, and it would clear a lot of mental pollution from our minds.
This has some value in itself, but I think the fight for it could spur a deeper conversation. Advertising is only the PR team for an economic system that operates by making us feel inadequate and telling us the solution is to constantly spend. My hunch is that, if we start to really talk about how this affects our emotional health, we will begin to see the need for more radical changes.
There was a hint of how this might start in an experiment that tried to go deeper, not just to block bad messages that divert our desires onto junk, but to see if we can draw out our positive values. This led to the second, and most exciting, path back that Tim has explored.
The kids were telling Nathan Dungan one thing, over and over again. They needed stuff. They needed consumer objects. And they were frustrated, outright angry, that they weren’t getting them. Their parents were refusing to buy the sneakers or designer clothes or latest gadgets that they needed to have, and it was throwing them into an existential panic. Didn’t their parents know how important it is to have all this?
Nathan didn’t expect to be having these conversations. He was a middle-aged man who had worked in financial services in Pennsylvania for years, advising people on investments. One day, he was talking to an educator at a middle school and she explained that the kids she was working with, middle-class, not rich, had a problem. They thought satisfaction and meaning came from buying objects. When their parents couldn’t afford them, they seemed genuinely distressed. She asked, could Nathan come in and talk to the kids about financial realities?
He agreed cautiously. But that decision was going to set him on a steep learning curve, and lead him to challenge a lot of what he took for granted.
Nathan went in believing his task was obvious. He was there to educate the kids, and their parents, about how to budget, and how to live within their financial means. But then he hit this wall of need, this ravenous hunger for stuff. To him, it was baffling. Why do they want it so badly? What’s the difference between the sneakers with the Nike swoosh and the sneakers without? Why would that gap be so significant that it would send kids into a panic?
He began to wonder if he should be talking not about how to budget, but why the teenagers wanted these things in the first place. And it went deeper than that. There was something about seeing teenagers craving apparently meaningless material objects that got Nathan to think, as adults, are we so different?
Nathan had no idea how to start that conversation, so he began to wing it. And it led to a striking scientific experiment, where he teamed up with Tim Kasser.
A short time later, in a conference room in Minneapolis, Nathan met with the families who were going to be the focus of his experiment. They were a group of sixty parents and their teenage kids, sitting in front of him on chairs. He was going to have a series of long sessions with them over three months to explore these issues and the alternatives. (At the same time, the experiment followed a separate group of the same size who didn’t meet with Nathan or get any other help. They were the experiment’s control group.)
Nathan started the conversation by handing everyone worksheets with a list of open-ended questions. He explained there was no right answer: he just wanted them to start to think about these questions. One of them said: “For me, money is …” and you had to fill in the blank.
At first, people were confused. They’d never been asked a question like this before. Lots of the participants wrote that money is scarce. Or a source of stress. Or something they try not to think about. They then broke into groups of eight, and began to contemplate their answers, haltingly. Many of the kids had never heard their parents talk about money worries before.
Then the groups began to discuss the question, why do I spend? They began to list the reasons why they buy necessities (which are obvious: you’ve got to eat), and then the reasons why they buy the things that aren’t necessities. Sometimes, people would say, they bought nonessential stuff when they felt down. Often, the teenagers would say, they craved this stuff so badly because they wanted to belong, the branded clothes meant you were accepted by the group, or got a sense of status.
As they explored this in the conversation, it became clear quite quickly, without any prompting from Nathan, that spending often isn’t about the object itself. It is about getting to a psychological state that makes you feel better. These insights weren’t deeply buried. People offered them quite quickly, although when they said them out loud, they seemed a little surprised. They knew it just below the surface, but they’d never been asked to articulate that latent feeling before.
Then Nathan asked people to list what they really value, the things they think are most important in life. Many people said it was looking after your family, or telling the truth, or helping other people. One fourteen-year-old boy wrote simply “love,” and when he read it out, the room stopped for a moment, and “you could hear a pin drop,” Nathan told me. “What he was speaking to was, how important is it for me to be connected?”
Just asking these two questions, “What do you spend your money on?” and “What do you really value?”, made most people see a gap between the answers that they began to discuss. They were accumulating and spending money on things that were not, in the end, the things that they believed in their heart mattered. Why would that be?
Nathan had been reading up on the evidence about how we come to crave all this stuff. He learned that the average American is exposed to up to five thousand advertising impressions a day, from billboards to logos on T-shirts to TV advertisements. It is the sea in which we swim. And “the narrative is that if you [buy] this thing, it’ll yield more happiness, and so thousands of times a day you’re just surrounded with that message,” he told me. He began to ask: “Who’s shaping that narrative?” It’s not people who have actually figured out what will make us happy and who are charitably spreading the good news. It’s people who have one motive only, to make us buy their product.
In our culture, Nathan was starting to believe, we end up on a materialistic autopilot. We are constantly bombarded with messages that we will feel better (and less stinky, and less disgustingly shaped, and less all-around worthless) only if we buy some specific product; and then buy something more; and buy again, and on and on, until finally your family buys your coffin. What he wondered is, if people stopped to think about this and discussed alternatives, as his group was doing, could we turn off the autopilot, and take back control for ourselves?
At the next session, he asked the people in the experiment to do a short exercise in which everyone had to list a consumer item they felt they had to have right away. They had to describe what it was, how they first heard about it, why they craved it, how they felt when they got it, and how they felt after they’d had it for a while. For many people, as they talked this through, something became obvious. The pleasure was often in the craving and anticipation. We’ve all had the experience of finally getting the thing we want, getting it home, and feeling oddly deflated, only to find that before long, the craving cycle starts again.
People began to talk about how they had been spending, and they were slowly seeing what it was really all about. Often, not always, it was about “filling a hole. It fills some sort of loneliness gap.” But by pushing them toward that quick, rapidly evaporating high, it was also nudging them away from the things they really valued and that would make them feel satisfied in the long run. They felt they were becoming hollow.
There were some people, both teens and adults, who rejected this fiercely. They said that the stuff made them happy, and they wanted to stick with it. But most people in the group were eager to think differently.
They began to talk about advertising. At first, almost everyone declared that ads might affect other people but didn’t hold much sway over them. “Everyone wants to be smarter than the ad,” Nathan said to me later. But he guided them back to the consumer objects they had longed for. Before long, members of the group were explaining to each other: “There’s no way they’re spending billions of dollars if it’s not having an impact. They’re just not doing that. No company is going to do that.”
So far, it had been about getting people to question the junk values we have been fed for so long.
But then came the most important part of this experiment.
Nathan explained the difference that I talked about before between extrinsic and intrinsic values. He asked people to draw up a list of their intrinsic values, the things they thought were important, as an end in themselves and not because of what you get out of it. Then he asked: How would you live differently if you acted on these other values? Members of the groups discussed it.
They were surprised. We are constantly encouraged to talk about extrinsic values, but the moments when we are asked to speak our intrinsic values out loud are rare. Some said, for example, they would work less and spend more time with the people they loved. Nathan wasn’t making the case for any of this. Just asking a few open questions took most of the group there spontaneously.
Our intrinsic motivations are always there, Nathan realized, lying “dormant. It was brought out into the light,” he said. Conversations like this, Nathan was realizing, don’t just happen “in our culture today. We don’t allow space or create space for these really critical conversations to take place, so it just creates more and more isolation.”
Now that they had identified how they had been duped by junk values, and identified their intrinsic values, Nathan wanted to know: could the group choose, together, to start to follow their intrinsic goals? Instead of being accountable to advertising, could they make themselves accountable to their own most important values, and to a group that was trying to do the same thing? Could they consciously nurture meaningful values?
Now that each person had figured out his or her own intrinsic goals, they would report back at the next series of meetings about what they’d done to start moving toward them. They held each other accountable. They now had a space in which they could think about what they really wanted in life, and how to achieve it. They would talk about how they had found a way to work less and see their kids more, for example, or how they had taken up a musical instrument, or how they had started to write.
Nobody knew whether all this would have any real effect, though. Could these conversations really reduce people’s materialism and increase their intrinsic values?
Independent social scientists measured the levels of materialism of the participants at the start of the experiment, and they measured them again at the end. As he waited for the results, Nathan was nervous. This was a small intervention, in the middle of a lifetime of constant consumerist bombardment. Would it make any difference at all?
When the results came through, both Nathan and Tim were thrilled. Tim had shown before that materialism correlates strongly with increased depression and anxiety. This experiment showed, for the first time, that it was possible to intervene in people’s lives in a way that would significantly reduce their levels of materialism. The people who had gone through this experiment had significantly lower materialism and significantly higher selfesteem. It was a big and measurable effect.
It was an early shot of proof that a determined effort to reverse the values that are making us so unhappy works.
The people who took part in the study could never have made these changes alone, Nathan believes. “There was a lot of power in that connection and that community for people, removing the isolation and the fear. There’s a lot of fear around this topic.” It was only together, as a group, that they there were able to “peel those layers away, so you could actually get to the meaning, to the heart: their sense of purpose.”
I asked Nathan if we could integrate this into our ordinary lives, if we all need to form and take part in a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for junk values, a space where we can all meet to challenge the depression-generating ideas we’ve been taught and learn to listen instead to our intrinsic values. “I would say, without question,” he said. Most of us sense we have been valuing the wrong things for too long. We need to create, he told me, a “counter-rhythm” to the junk values that have been making us mentally sick.
From his bare conference room in Minneapolis, Nathan has proven something, that we are not imprisoned in the values that have been making us feel so lousy for so long. By coming together with other people, and thinking deeply, and reconnecting with what really matters, we can begin to dig a tunnel back to meaningful values.
Also on TPPA = CRISIS
JUNK VALUES. CONSUMERISM LITERALLY IS DEPRESSING
Just as we have shifted en masse from eating food to eating junk food, we have also shifted from having meaningful values to having junk values.
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