Oliver Green is a modern life burnout/angeraholic living in Bali, Indonesia and writing about life instead of making things worse by having one.
W A N T
As it stands America is $11.6 trillion in consumer debt, with the average citizen owing $15, 191 in credit card debt. The UK is in similar straights with Japan and China joining the party filled with shopping bags filled with WANTS. We want a lot. All of us. I’m no exception.
But you know what I want? I want not to want – that’s what I want.
I want this gnawing feeling of wanting to bugger off. That’s what I want. But it’s not the only thing I want. I want more. I want all sorts of things. Watches, shoes, jackets, hats, haircuts, technology, stuff, things, experiences, more stuff, that, those, them, theirs, this and yours – I want to take it all and jam it into that gaping hole in my soul where God used to live, until He left to attend to a Jihad and some bake sales, and stop this incessant WANTING.
But that’s not going to happen.
Want to know why? We are hard wired to want. It’s an evolutionary imperative, like hating teenagers. Wanting is the engine that powers us. It’s a legitimate tool to help us survive and has been the driving force in getting us to where we are now – desperately unhappy and wanting a way out.
Ever go onto Tumblr? Have you wondered why it’s so addictive? The brain releases dopamine when it is expecting a reward, and it does that by looking for the next thing to want. I can scroll down a hipster Tumblr page for hours. Girl with tattoo, inspiring quote, Kermit the Frog in a Supreme tee shirt, fixed wheel bike, girl with a bikini… and tattoo, inspirational quote as a tattoo - and on it goes – screen after screen. One would think this barrage would be unpleasant but the brain in the cage is in rapture because I’m giving it what it wants. It wants to search. We are hard wired for the search – searching actually gets us high.
But here’s the bummer – once you’ve seen something you want that distracting gnawing empty desperate pain starts in like your body like your stupid neighbors car alarm at 4am.
That’s the ‘imperative’ part of evolutionary imperative. The brain interprets wanting as pain. Actual pain like stubbing your toe or bashing your forehead against your computer screen until it breaks. So when you don’t get what you want you’re essentially in pain and whatever you currently want is the pain relief.
And that’s where we start this journey. We are geared to search out the things we want and then once we are locked onto it we are geared to get the object of our desire under threat of pain.
Your stupid brain is wired for a time when we carried a pointy stick around and lived under a tree where the only thing to want was something to eat and a rock to comb your hair with. But it’s not like that anymore - now you carry 13 different credit cards and live in a video game called ‘Shopping Mall’ where everything that moves is trying to make you want it. It’s a video game except you aren’t the one with the controller.
Advertisers have two scripts they’ve written to make us spend.
There’s a scary script and there’s a sexy script, and they both work a treat. The scary script is the best one to use BUT it can be a bit of bummer making people feel fear of loss/boredom/loneliness/feeling confused/discouraged/powerless/scared. These are all powerful triggers to get you wanting but advertisers go about it the other way around. Show the world made perfect by the product and invite you in to that world. How will you feel if you don’t come and play? You’ll figure it out.
My job used to be to help write those two stale scripts. Or, at least, shuffle the words around a bit and choose the best looking white person to say them. And that’s good news because I’m a lazy fucking idiot who’d rather be rating the best naps he’s ever had and drawing cock’n’balls on white boards before sniffing the markers than writing any advertising that was ever compelling or that worked. And there were plenty of other empty vessels like me in the industry still milking it for meals sitting on both sides of the table – client side and agency side. Let me give you a glimpse behind the curtain – in my 15-year experience it works EXACTLY like this:
Start with a room and fill it with people and this waste of Oreos is called a ‘meeting’. Half the room is the agency and the other half is the client. The agency half of the room are inconsequential suit-wearing whipping boys and spoilt precious creative types, usually 20-something-year-old men with moustaches and fixed wheel affectations that believe they are making art that will be talked about and remembered for ever. The client half of the room are a bunch of white-bread muggles, usually 40- something-year-old women that that think art is the thing that matches their cushions and carpet. The arrogant agency pricks with the moustaches earn about 5 times more than the she-nerds in with the knock off handbags but the she-nerds pay the tattooed baby-men’s salaries so the she-nerds, with terrible taste in music, fashion and footwear, actively hate the tattooed baby-men, who are just doing this gig until someone offers them the chance to write a genre breaking sitcom/horror/thriller or exhibit their edgy collage/tee shirt range - and the feeling is fucking mutual… Some passive aggressive small talk, some coffee that tastes like boiled cancer, and the meeting would start.
At this point we’d start discussing you as the consumer. We’d talk about you in terms of income, age and media habits. We’d make some crude generalizations about your motivations for doing what you do and maybe engage in some light racial profiling and then we’d sit around scratching our heads for $1,000’s of dollars an hour about how on earth we were going to, for example, sell chocolate to overweight, poor, cat-owning women with shitty jobs and no money.
The agency would want to show a lizard in a suit playing the piano next to a squirrel that would say, “Bring on the beat – Gordon Gecko,” And then start playing his buttocks like a drum – or what ever else they saw on YouTube that week that had over a million views. And the client would want to show who ever their kid’s favorite actor was eating chocolate saying, “This is the yummiest chocolate in the whole world and I am fulfilled now thanks to this yummy (and not too fattening) chocolate.” And then for the rest of the ad you’d just see the chocolate and maybe there’d be a big arrow that points at the chocolate. And a thumbs up… and a jingle… and then the company logo… and a website… and the twitter handle… and maybe the word NEW.
And then someone would mercifully say, “Good meeting.” And the agency would leave and the suit whipping boys would get a call later where the client ordered the agency to create whatever blight on our culture couldn’t be agreed on in the meeting that day.
But although the vast majority of the advertising is woefully ineffectual and skipped on the way to watching a goat that sounds like Taylor Swift, there’s so much of it being made that enough it gets through and does its job of scaring, shaming, browbeating and handcuffing our kidnapped Hippocampus to a radiator while it pisses on it and burns it with cigars.
4% of advertising is remembered positively (I promise you I had nothing to do with that).
7% is remembered negatively (or that).
89% isn’t noticed or remembered (that’s me somewhere in that mess).
But 500billion was spent on advertising last year so that 4% is still a shit load of influence. And a lot of flashing images scaring us or arousing us into wanting - wanting - wanting.
You are designed to pay attention to whatever is moving and making noise in your immediate space. If it was moving or making noise on the African plains it could either eat you or hump you or you could eat it or hump it – both sometimes. So being fixated on movement and noise was a handy survival trick and kept us breathing, burping and happy. Now the only thing moving and making noise in our immediate vicinity is on a screen – and it has our undivided attention. Is it any surprise that happiness in America peaked in the 1950’s before there was a TV in every room and now in every pocket? This screen blasting is yet another way our instincts are being used against us to turn us into Want Junkies.
My role as an agent of advertising was to open your emotional vulnerabilities in such a way that you would have to consume the message at least. We learned to turn objects into feelings. Chocolate is Joy. Shoes are lust. Watches are power. We have coupled what makes us human to what’s made in China.
And as smart as we all believe we are – as much as we feel we can see the strings - none of us are immune to the puppet masters – and the proof is that we all want the same things.
It’s weird that we are all ‘different’ but we all want the same things. We are all unique fucking snowflakes with unique fucking perspectives on the world we live in but yet… there’s the number one song by that same band we want. There’s the Coke we want. There’s the iPhone we stand in queues outside Apple for…just like last year. The only thing that seems to be new and different are the categories on Porn Hub.
So if it’s not the things we want maybe it’s the way the things make us feel that we want. We see an object we desire and we write a scene in our minds that goes with it. We are wearing/holding/standing next to the object and things are different in our lives. We are finally the protagonists and we are in control. Less repellent to others because we arrive to places in a sedan with a hole in the roof. More accepted at parties because our jacket is made of a young cow. Listened to in chat rooms because our glasses are titanium alloy. But we forget in our haze of fantasy happiness about how something changed our lives; things are for Christmas, wanting is for life.
There are 5 stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. 6 if you count hangovers. I reckon there’s something similar for wanting – I call them the 5D’s...
Desperation – You’ve seen that thing. You want it – you always have from the moment you saw it 5 seconds ago. That thing! It’s filling your thoughts. You must have it. You will never be complete without it. You don’t want it any more – YOU NEED IT!
Denial – No. You can’t have it. You don’t have the money for it. Your spouse will become angered at you for buying it because you already have one that they think is similar even though it’s so not! STUPID SPOUSE!
Despair – You can’t believe that it will never be yours. How can you continue? People will think less of you. You will be an outcast and walk in the cold with the heavy-set women and balding men.
Deal – But wait! You remember now! You were promised a raise sometime in the future – it was at the Christmas party and your boss was drunk and trying to spank you but he’s a man of his word – it’s as good as in the bank! You do have the money (coming) so pop it on the plastic for now – it’s really just borrowing from yourself.
Dissonance – The object of desire is yours you no longer want it – you have it and the credit card debt to prove it. Yep. There it is. In your hands… cool? Sigh. Just put it there – in the cupboard… Hey look on this screen – IT’S ONE OF THOSE! YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED ONE OF THOSE!
I recently moved to another part of the world. I put everything I’d ever wanted into boxes and shoved them into an attic space and walked away from it all. I wanted all of that stuff so intensely at some stage. It completed me. It gave me a leg up. It made me whole. Now it’s gathering dust and mold, and I don’t miss it at all I don’t even think about it. I’d like to tell you that I found a way out of the consumerist cycle but the truth is… SALE! FREE! NOW ON! HURRY! NEW! NEVER BEFORE! FOR A LIMITED TIME!