The Emotional Emptiness of Consumer Culture

I find routines in life boring, so the other day I did something I’d never normally do. I took an hour or so alone and walked around every floor of the Mall of America and looked at each store and restaurant while observing the people who milled about during the noon hour. I’ve been there many times, but I’ve never paid attention, so I didn’t see what the Mall of America really is – a giant monument to emotional emptiness.

If you’ve been reading this blog you know that I am a big advocate of free enterprise and free markets. I believe these companies have every right to do what they are doing, but what I saw at THE MALL (what we in Minnesota call the MOA) left me feeling sad.

As I looked at each store, the products, the images, the colors, I asked myself two questions:

  1. Is this store interesting to me?
  2. What does this store sell?

I only found a few of the stores interesting enough to describe and I’ll share that with you in a moment, but first…

99% of the stores in THE MALL are meaningless to me. I realize 38-year-old males are not the demographic THE MALL is after, so that didn’t surprise me.

But this did surprise me:

When I looked closely, 90% of stores weren’t selling useful products. They were selling symbols – symbols of youth, health, beauty, sex, happiness, sophistication, and wealth. The next time you are in a mall, look closely and you’ll see what I mean. The products are secondary, it’s feelings they sell.

In the front door of Abercrombie and Fitch was a giant mural of several half naked teenage boys running across a grassy plain with their butt cracks showing. Now, I could show my butt crack too, and I don’t need $150.00 jeans to do it. But If I dressed that way, I think people would just feel sick. I know I would. No pair of jeans is going to make me look like the 18-year-old models in the mural. But I have to ask the question, does anyone want to see these boy’s butt cracks? Even teenage girls? There were a lot of young men roaming the halls, and I didn’t see one of them that looked remotely like the mural. I wondered how many of them bought into this nonsense. I assume if you (un)dressed like the boys in the mural, and went to THE MALL, you’d be arrested.

In many ways the stores aimed at females are even worse. I won’t get into details, but Victoria’s Secret doesn’t sell underwear.

We’ve been conditioned to need certain stuff to feel good about ourselves, but the stuff always falls short, because it isn’t what we really want. It is a Faustian bargain. As soon as you think you have IT, whatever IT is slips through your grasp, because IT’s someone else selling you a lie about yourself. That’s why consumerism can leave us feeling empty and cheated unless we go back for more. It’s a lot like Methamphetamine. People get hooked on it for a reason. And don’t kid yourself, none of us are above it.

The two stores I found redeeming were:

  1. The Apple Store. I played with the Air for a little bit and found the rest of the gadgets interesting. But I am probably biased. I suppose I felt different about The Apple Store because I’m a geek. But I do know they aren’t selling technology. They are selling style and sophistication. A lot of companies sell technology. Apple isn’t one of them. Technology is just the vehicle. We all know Apple products are the sexiest.
  2. A guy who looked like Grizzly Adams ran a gourmet doggy treat stand which was packed with customers even though the mall doesn’t allow pets.  He stood out like a Hummer on Earth Day. And I know why he is so successful – he sells love – a little slice of love you can take home to your dog. I want to go back and interview this guy.

These two stores were also the busiest in the mall and that tells me something about customers. They aren’t as shallow as some marketers believe.

The trip left me feeling sad for our culture. But I have hope. If I can see the problem, so can you and many others, and it is just a matter of time before we evolve into a species which rises above needing a certain pair of underwear to feel complete. It won’t be tomorrow, but It’ll happen. Have faith.

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19 thoughts on “The Emotional Emptiness of Consumer Culture”

  1. Steve,
    You are completely dead on with this article.
    In my opinion consumerism is the worst form of addiction this country faces.

    But while I don’t need a certain pair of underwear to feel complete, is life without a Mac really a life at all? 😉

    *
    “People who are unable to motivate themselves
    must be content with mediocrity, no matter
    how impressive their other talents.
    Andrew Carnegie

  2. Hi Steve,
    “A lot of companies sell technology. Apple isn’t one of them. Technology is just the vehicle.they are selling style and sophistication”

    I am trying to interpret it another way. Can’t the style and sophistication be a wrap around for the technology? 🙂

  3. Your revelation is so simple, yet right on the money. When you think about it, the mall is all about marketing, which is the selling of symbols. There’s a recent research that says people that are feeling sad are more likely to pay more for the same item. They spend money to buy things to boost their poor self-esteem.

    When I go into a mall, I am usually only interested in food and toy stores. But that’s me.

  4. Anyone up for some gratuitous “Fight Club” quotes? You are dead-on, malls are joyless money machines. I feel the same way at casinos. It’s rare to see anyone having a good time.

    I’d like to hear more about Grizzly and his dog treats.

    @Shamelle – Apple is all about style and sophistication. The “user experience” has been the core of their success since the Mac was first released. Part of the user experience is feeling hip in the coffee shop with your Mac Book open while you pretend to write (but really just read BoingBoing). And the cult of Apple practically guarantees a market for any crap they release.

    Anyway, they don’t sell you on their processor speed, amount of RAM, etc… They sell you on “hey, look at how neat this is. Wouldn’t you feel cool with a neat gadget like this?”

    Fortunately, Apple’s products are fantastic, so at least the form HAS a function.

  5. Nice one, Steve. It is all pretty sad when you think about it. Do people honestly believe that the other 99% of the population look like, act like, or have the “alleged” lifestyle that advertising models have?

    For that matter, from a strictly human condition perspective, it is appalling how much money people spend on things that they either don’t need, or that only serve to further cloud their vision about what the REAL world is like.

    Great post, Steve.

  6. Steve,

    Great observation – I actually almost dread going to the mall these days for that exact reason. I know people who go to the mall because “there’s nothing to do”. Hmmm…I could think of tons of other things to do like read, go to a museum, go to the beach…

  7. Absolutely Steve Olson – don’t stop with these insights you are learning much. You’re beginning to see absolutely that something is going on. And us as human beings are following along plainly like sheeps…but now the question us what vehicle catalyzes us do that. There must ve a thing that we do everyday that pacifies us while slowly instilling control within us. We’ve already realized that school is one thing, but you AREn’t in school anymore. Or are you? So as you have been watching this post – what has been putting an image in your mind etveryday that you enjoy maybe it’s family…who knows?

  8. Great article Steve! I have long been an advocate for living the simple life and have found it very satisfying. Some people spend so much energy pursuing the empty dreams offered by the main-stream media that they miss out on the simple pleasures of life. Do we really need so much to be happy? I have observed and experienced that we don’t. You might have an interest in reading this article that covers a related subject:
    Ownership is Bondage

  9. That’s the power of television advertising. It’s brainwashed most of culture into thinking that “things” will solve their problems. They’re not advertising products, they’re advertising feelings, happiness, satisfaction….they’re selling you a perception. Hopefully some of them will realize they’re after the wrong thing.

  10. I think our culture is probably higher-brow than any other in the past, it’s just that all the stupid empty stuff from those eras has been forgotten and all we remember are the Oscar Wildes.

    Just think about this: Not so long ago, almost nobody knew how to read. Almost nobody had access to books (not even talking about Google). Women weren’t being educated (half the population right there). People didn’t have much conversation except what they did that day at work in the fields or at the factory.

    We’re doing just fine. The whole bell curve has been moving steadily to the right. Of course people on the right half of the curve will always think that things are not good enough for them, but that’s true of all ages.

    Romanticizing the past is popular, but I don’t find it useful.

  11. MGR,

    Did I romanticize the past? And how much traveling have you done down here in the states?

    Have you read John Taylor Gatto? He has statistics showing that the US literacy rate has been dropping for 75+ years.

    While romanticizing the past isn’t useful, the past can teach us about the future.

    I agree… we are doing just fine…the culture I describe is over 50 years old and seems to be fading.

    But we need to get over the idea of entitlements. Entitlement permeates every part of American culture and is reflected in places like the MOA. People think they are entitled to everything. Transportation, healthcare, donughts, softdrinks, pizza, Nike sneakers, McMansions, sub-prime loans, get out of debt free cards…

    I don’t have any problem if a person earns the money to buy any of these things. That is his right. But when he fails to educate himself and buries himself in debt and then asks for a government handout and gets it, we all have a problem.

    A huge number of Americans believe they are entitled to stuff just because they exist. And they feel they are entitled to it because it is the only way they can feel good about themselves. Strip the average American of his stuff and he wouldn’t even know who he was anymore because he has defined himself as his stuff and not who he really is.

    I’m not against owning stuff, but it’s just stuff, it isn’t you.

    Certain segments of our culture are higher-brow than ever, but others… well…

  12. Interesting thoughts, but I found your approval of the Apple Store jarring. To me, it seems like they’re selling lifestyle and aspirations just as much as any store at the mall. If there’s a difference besides the fact that you fit more easily in their target group, it’s not obvious to me.

    Also, if you want to see the other side of the coin to people shopping for lifestyles at the mall, go watch people shop fo cut-rate meat and store-brand ketchup at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is the store for people who shop for subsistence, not lifestyle.

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