RSSCategory: Consumerism

Who I Am Is No One Else’s Business

June 2, 2009 | By | 27 Replies More
Who I Am Is No One Else’s Business

As this just happened, I thought I’d come right home and write about it. I just had one of those customer service incidents that sends me over the moon.

I walked into a store to find something. I was in a frame of mind to buy. I found the something and asked the sales person “How much is that?” Back at her desk, she sat down, I sat down, and I expected her to punch up the price on her computer and tell me.

Instead: “What’s you name?”

“Private individual,” I replied, a bit nonplussed.

“I need a name for the quote,” she said.

“You have to have it?”

“Yes.”

“Have a nice day.”

And I walked out.

Now, this was perhaps petty of me. What, after all, is the big deal? She needed to punch a name into her computer to open the dialogue box to ask for the price.

Here’s the big deal: IT’S NONE OF YOUR DAMN BUSINESS WHO I AM UNTIL I DECIDE TO BUY FROM YOU!

This is a persistent and infuriating condition in our present society that causes me no end of irritation because so few people think it is a problem that I end up looking like a weirdo because I choose not to hand out private information for free.

It has crept up on us. Decades ago, when chain stores began compiling mailing lists by which they could send updates and sale notices to their client base. Then they discovered they could sell those lists to other concerns for marketing. Now we have a plague of telemarketers, junk mail, spam, and cold calls and a new social category with which to look askance at people who would prefer not to play. Like me.

In itself, it is an innocent enough thing. But it is offensive, and what offends me the most is my fellow citizens failing to see how it is offensive and how it on a deep level adds to our current crisis.

Look: if telemarketing didn’t work, no one would do it. A certain percentage of those unwanted calls actually hook somebody into buying something. Direct mail campaigns have an expected positive return rate of two percent. That is considered normal response and constitutes grounds to continue the practice. Economies of scale work that way. So if only two to five percent of the public respond favorably to the intrusions of these uninvited pests, they have reason to persist.

I think it might be fair to say that people with money and education don’t respond as readily as poorer, less educated folks who are always on the lookout for bargains—and often find bargains they don’t understand and probably end up costing them too much, like sub prime mortgages.

We are too free with our personal information. Maybe you or you or you find nothing wrong with always giving out your phone number or your zip code or even your name and address when asked, in Pavlovian response to the ringing bell behind the counter, but what has happened is that we have made available a vast pool of data that makes it easy to be imposed upon and that has aided and abetted a consumer culture that has gotten out of hand.

And made those of us who choose not to participate in this look like some form of misanthropic libertarian goofballs.

How hard is this? If I choose to buy from someone, then I have agreed to have a relationship, however tenuous, with them. Unless I pay cash, they are entitled to know with whom they are dealing. But if I’m not buying, they have no right to know who I am. And I can’t know if I’m going to buy if I don’t know how much the object in question is. Trying to establish the buying relationship in advance of MY decision to buy is…rude.

I have walked out of many stores when confronted with a request for personal information. I’ve had a few shouting matches with managers over it. In some instances, the unfortunate salesperson is as much a victim, because some software programs these days have as a necessary prerequisite for accessing the system the entry of all this data. The corporation won’t even let the employee make the call whether it’s worth irritating someone over collecting all this information.

Concerns and worries over Big Brother have a certain validity, but it is largely unremarked that the foundation of such a system will not be imposed on us—rather we will hand the powers that be what they ask for because we can’t muster up enough sense of ourselves to say, consistently, “None of your damn business!”

There. I feel better. I needed to get that out. This rant has been brought to you by Consumer Culture LTD.

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Now you can pay for the convenience of water!

June 1, 2009 | By | 7 Replies More
Now you can pay for the convenience of water!

This is now the second time in a few months that I’ve gotten the following piece of junk mail:

This letter is advertising a promotion in which, for thirty-two dollars a month and up, I can pay to have bottled water delivered to my door. What a brilliant idea! How could you beat that for convenience?

Oh, that’s right . . . Instead of paying for Poland Spring water at the rate of about $1.64 per gallon, I could get clean, fresh, drinkable water of any temperature I please straight from the tap in my kitchen. I don’t know exactly how much this costs me, but I can say with complete confidence that it’s a lot less than a dollar per gallon.

Clearly, Poland Spring doesn’t want you to think too hard about the economics of this. However, for the environmentally conscious consumer, this mailing also has a page touting their green credentials:

Bottled Water Junk Mail

Recycling 900,000 bottles and keeping 1.8 million pounds of plastic out of landfills is certainly very impressive. But, the skeptic in me has to ask, wouldn’t it be much better for people to just use their perfectly good existing public infrastructure for drinking water, and not have to manufacture all that plastic in the first place?

The bottled-water industry is one of the great triumphs of modern marketing: creating demand for a product for which there’s absolutely no genuine need, selling at exorbitant cost a substance which any person in the Western world can obtain virtually for free. Even more absurd, despite its imagery of glaciers and mountain springs, most bottled water comes from municipal sources – i.e., the same water you get from your tap anyway.

What bottled water really represents is almost pure profit for the beverage conglomerates that sell it, and unnecessary environmental harm caused by the expenditure of fossil fuels needed to manufacture, pack and ship it (not to mention sending out all this junk mail touting it). It’s no healthier than the water that comes from the tap in your house. It doesn’t even taste better. What on earth could convince a person to pay money for a scheme as ridiculous as this?

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Suggestion for Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Hire real script writers.

May 25, 2009 | By | 10 Replies More
Suggestion for Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Hire real script writers.

My family doesn’t go to many movies at theaters. In our experience, modern movie theater audiences tend to be far too talkative during the shows and prices are not cheap. Netflix is the default option for my family.

I made an exception for Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009). On Friday, I had heard an director interviewed on NPR. She indicated that the producers had to work hard to earn the trust of those who run the various Smithsonian Museums, the setting for the movie. Plus the movie featured Robin Williams and other notable actors.

Thus, I gathered up my willing daughters (aged 8 and 10) and assumed that even though this was a movie geared for kids, there was a decent chance that it would have some take-home value. I was sorely disappointed. The problem is that this movie, despite the almost-constant high-quality special effects, had no meaningful plot and no meaningful resolution, even for someone willing spend disbelief for the duration. I was already dissatisfied with the movie while the credits ran, but now that I have had further chance to consider the work both as a parent and a member of the audience, I’d have to say that I’m all the more disappointed.

Those special effects constituted eye-popping pyrotechnics, but it’s an old story for so many American movies: the producers forgot to hire a real script writer. Thus, the movie was merely one damned thing after another, with Ben Stiller and company dashing here and there, in a wacky and barely-connected series of scenes that continually threatening to break out into needless violence. What especially aggravated me is that the attention-deficit afflicted characters made almost no effort to think things through, quite a feat for 105 minutes. There was no sustained effort at problem solving, but only a constant need to drop buckets of wise-cracks and put-downs and to keep on the movie moving–to keep doing something, anything. This movie exemplifies one of the most prominent social illusions: that movement is necessarily progress.

Here’s my bottom line: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian presents a collection of paper-thin characters running amok, somehow not getting each other killed. Most notable is the prominent appearance of the character of heroic aviator Amelia Earhart (played by the fetching Amy Adams), who was quickly reduced to a woman who became all-too-willing to take orders from a numbskull (“Larry,” played by Stiller) while maintaining her schoolgirl crush on him for most of the movie’s 105 minutes.

This movie must have cost many tens of millions of dollars to produce. Whatever it cost, the producers of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian could have spent a pittance more ($50,000??) to hire a real writer so that all of those special effects could have told some sort of story. Sheesh. [Hint: there are many good writers looking for work.] It was like the producers were concocting the scenes even as they were shooting them, even though this couldn’t have been true, since big teams of computer artists had to be finessing in those dozens of special effects. What an embarrassment it must be for them to see their first-rate special effects put to such piss-poor use . . . .

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Businesses tricking children into thinking that brands can solve non-existent problems

May 24, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More
Businesses tricking children into thinking that brands can solve non-existent problems

I really like the message delivered by Josh Golin of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. [Note: I interviewed Josh here.] This speech was giving at the February 2008 Conference for Reclaiming Childhood From Corporate Marketers.

First of all, yes, a healthy childhood lifestyle is something that is extremely difficult to commodify. That fact means that when you see commercial entities trying to convince children to buy things, it is almost certainly an attempt to convince families that there is a problem where there really isn’t one.

Golin states that “children are being targeted relentlessly with the lie that it is brands that will make them happy, cool, powerful and sexy.” He scoffs that the problem can be addressed by allowing businesses to “self-regulate.”

In this speech, Josh clearly identifies some of the specific problems with allowing advertisers into the hearts and minds of children. And then he tells some stories about how people are fighting back.

Here are parts II and III of Josh’s speech:

[more . . . ]

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Hear the story about all of our stuff

May 16, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More
Hear the story about all of our stuff

In The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard tells us that all of our “stuff” is part of a linear system that is clashing with our finite planet. Her video is extremely popular (5.5 million views) and easy to follow. Here’s a short description from her site:

From its extraction through sale, use and disposal, all the stuff in our lives affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It’ll teach you something, it’ll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever.

What are the main problems? We are externalizing costs, so that we are oblivious to the damages we are causing around the world when we buy so much of the stuff that we are buying.

We are running out of resources. Her stats from the United States are especially troubling because we are so very much living beyond our means. We generating huge heaps of waste. We are using energy + contaminated products to promulgate toxic products and untested products. One of the highest concentrations of toxic food substances has become human breast milk. 200,000 people move from their resource-exhausted long-time communities into crowded cities, many of them slums.

And consider that 99% of the stuff we run through our economic system is trash within 6 months. This is not an accident, either. It is long-time government and industry policy that we should shop and consume. We shop three to four times as much as Europeans.

Which, again, leads to disposal problems. For every trash can full of waste we throw away there were 70 trash cans of waste produced to make that one can of waste.

Incredible.

Many DI related posts can be found here.

Further, listen to Daniel Goleman’s description of the basic problem and the solution in his interview with Daniel Goleman.

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What’s the count?

May 1, 2009 | By | Reply More
What’s the count?

What’s the count?

Image by Erich Vieth

No, not the balls and strikes! I’m talking about the number of advertisements you’ll find in a baseball stadium (click on the image for a much bigger and clearer image).

I was recently invited to go to a Cardinal baseball game for a work function. I was amazed at the number of ads. There had to be more than 100 large ads visible from the seats. And I’m only including static ads, not the videos they pump out on the big screens.

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American Stock Car Gets 81 MPG!

April 30, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More
American Stock Car Gets 81 MPG!

“Have you driven a Ford, lately?” As a charity stunt, Ford had specially trained drivers drive an unmodified stock 2010 Ford Fusion (mid-size sedan) to beat 1,000 miles in a single tank of gas. They reached 1,445.7 miles in 69 hours of driving around the D.C. area on surface streets and highways.

“Your mileage may vary.” Ford readily admits that this was a stunt, and the details of how it was done are available in many places, like here. Oh, and details about why are here. The car is normally expected to get about 40 miles per gallon under everyday conditions.

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Hippo Birdies Triple-Hexadecimal

April 17, 2009 | By | 11 Replies More
Hippo Birdies Triple-Hexadecimal

Today marks 3 x 2^4 years since I made an illegal uterine U-turn and backed into this life. That’s 17,532 days of cardiovascular goodness; circa 2 Billion heartbeats. I’m three times the age I was when I got my first kiss. Presbyopia is now nagging me, and my temples are graying.

TMI, you say? Be that as it may, I have an existential dilemma. This birthday is a round number, arguably rounder than 50 (2 x 5^2). I should celebrate. But how?

“Take the day off!” cry the masses. But I haven’t had a regular job since the late 1980’s. I don’t usually give any of my clients notice for taking a day off, and they rarely notice.

“Buy yourself something nice.” But I have a bad habit of buying what catches my fancy, plus an instinct not to fancy expensive or frivolous things. Ignore my slide rule, camera, and typewriter collections. Also, I recently ordered 10 lbs of aluminum dust, a controlled substance that will be brightly expended. You’ll hear more about that in July. (hint)

“Do something fun,” is good advice. But I don’t have a routine of drudgery to escape from. My aching, aging shoulder is too sore to properly “do” the City Museum, but I may go dancing in the evening.

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Sticker that acts like a credit card

April 13, 2009 | By | 2 Replies More
Sticker that acts like a credit card

An RFID Microchip, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

You can now obtain a sticker that acts as a credit card. That’s right, you read me correctly: you can stick it to your cell phone, wallet, shoe, coffee mug, etc. The possibilities are endless!

Actually, I’ve exaggerated a bit. You can stick the sticker almost everywhere, but the technology is not so new. In fact, the credit-card-sticker has been in use in Japan and Malaysia for some time now. The sticker contains a chip that uses Radio-frequency identification (RFID) to emit a signal. That signal, like the magnetic strip on your average credit card, contains information that allows you to “charge” a purchase.

Sound familiar? You may be using RFID already, in the MobilePass wand that you use at the gas station. The Chicago Transit Authority has been utilizing RFID for years, and the New York Transit Authority is preparing to start a trial. In fact, your very own United States passport may contain RFID technology. So why am I such a scaredy-cat?

I received a replacement credit card today because my account number “may have been illegally obtained as a result of a merchant database compromise and could be at risk for unauthorized use.” I was not informed of the time, place, manner of the “compromise” and if the identity of the “compromisers” or their methods are known, I remain ignorant of them. I’m leery of the credit-card-sticker because where there’s a will, there is a way.

Just Say No! Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

History suggests that RFIDs can be remotely read and stolen, cloned, infected, or otherwise used for unintended purposes. Now, Visa is preparing to launch a product that allows you to use your phone as a credit card (and not just in Malaysia). This means that if you’re using the technology and you lose your phone, you may be losing your expensive toy, contacts, pictures, applications, etc. stored on that expensive toy, and control over the use of one or several of your credit card accounts.

Sure, there are ways to encrypt this information, but with every safeguard comes a more determined hacker. I’m going to stick to the inconvenient plastic card because the “authorities” are used to tracking its thieves and (I would not discount this factor) it’s probably less sexy to steal!

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