Weekly Edgework #19 - Nov 8, 2004

The Joy of Sales Resistance

We live in a time when technologies and ideas are adapted in response not to need but to advertising, salesmanship, and fashion. Salesmen and saleswomen now hover about us as persistently as angels, intent on “doing us good” according to instructions set forth by persons educated at great public expense in the arts of greed and prevarication. These salespeople are now with most of us, apparently, even in our dreams (Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, by Wendell Berry, p. xi.).

Perhaps the joy of sales resistance, as Wendell Berry calls it, comes with age. But that is only true for those who begin to see how smartly we tend to march most of our lives to the tune of the advertisers in our society.

When one sets out on the road of life it is easy to become enamored with all the things one can buy and do by pandering to the advertising that engulfs us. But gradually, as life proceeds, it is not that hard to see the game for what it is. In most cases enthusiastic salespeople want to sell you something you don’t really need. If I really need something, I will go out looking for it. If advertising would be limited to notifying the public where they can find products they need when they need them, life would be a lot simpler.

But advertisers know that they can create a need for a product or service in the mind of people if they are told often enough, and seductively enough, that life is nearly unbearable unless they cave in to their silly game. And generally we are gullible people. If we are told a lie often enough we begin to believe it, even against our better judgment. What irritates me most about this game is the assumption advertisers make that consumers are mentally challenged, that is, unable to make rational choices with respect to their needs. So they must pull out all stops to flash their wares before our eyes as frequently as possible and with as much sex appeal as the public will allow.

What difference is there between advertisers using sex to sell a car or pimps using prostitutes to rake in the cash? In my mind both are profaning a personal, powerful and God-given drive. Do you ever feel like you are being manipulated when you watch the same commercial during a movie on television twenty times within an hour? If you feel it or not, that is exactly what is happening. You are being brainwashed as surely as cults brainwash their adherents.

By now you must think that I should have stayed in bed this morning. Come on, you say, a consumer-oriented society can’t survive without all the hoopla. Any introductory course in economics will tell you that the laws of competition in a capitalistic system require that we all play the game. Really smart people make up the advertisements, telling us what we can’t do without. The rest of us hum their ditties, rehearse their images in our minds, and march to the beat of their music right into the traps set for a not-so-bright public.

Do any of the advertisers tell us how much their gizmos pollute the atmosphere? Or how many trees they cut down to bring their product to us in oversized packages? Or that the price of their product is so low because it is made in sweatshops by third world children who should be attending school? Is it ever suggested that before we buy we should observe a moment of silence for all the children of the world who have died that day as a result of starvation or violence? Or that we should think about the fact that the multi-national corporation bringing you the product is in the process of dismantling thousands of otherwise sustainable communities even while it embraces you into its bosom? Or that over consumption in our part of the world can only be maintained through military might in regions beyond our borders?

I will grant that there needs to be an exchange of goods in any economy in order to survive. And having said that, I will also admit that there needs to be some communication between sellers and buyers. But that does not eliminate the fact that for the most part I feel manipulated and violated by those up the economic ladder trying to turn me on to whatever it is they want me to have or do. That is why I felt some sympathetic vibrations with Wendell Berry’s quote about sales resistance.

If I can recognize the game for what it is and refuse to play by its rules I can limit the damage the advertising world can do in my life and those around me. One could argue that if too many of us did that the economy would collapse. I don’t think we should worry about that because most people will continue to play the game by the rules. When the system does collapse it will be under its own weight. There simply is no way that the consumption patterns of the developed world are sustainable in the face of the billions of people of the world who are beginning to demand at least a small slice of the economic pie.

So while it may sound subversive to some, I am with Berry when he suggests we should find joy in sales resistance. After all, someone much wiser than I said years ago, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).