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  • Writer's pictureJohn Humphreys

Confessions of a Former Marketer, by Kara Daddario Bown

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

“We must stop shopping, but we can’t stop shopping.”

– J.B. MacKinnon, The Day the World Stops Shopping[1]

This past Lent I decided to stop buying anything new. Surely, I could do without a new t-shirt or book when Jesus wandered the desert for forty days without food and water. Three days into my purchasing fast, the loopholes and caveats began. Of course, our family needed to purchase supplies for an upcoming trip. My toddler, who is growing like a weed, needed new pants. The dog tore through his last chew toy so back to the store we went. My ambitious goal of spending Lent in austerity, of clearing the clutter from my mind and my home to make way for prayer and solemnity, was slipping away. By the time I had reached Holy Week, I managed not to purchase anything new for myself, despite a myriad of items procured for my family. I’m still undecided if I met my original intention.

My story isn’t unique. I imagine anyone who has experienced an ecological conversion and is trying to deemphasize materialism, has also experienced plateaus in their spiritual and ecological journey. I hypothesize that we are quick to judge, scolding ourselves if we purchase something wrapped in layers of plastic packaging or buy something we might never use. God asks us for awareness and conscious effort, but I don’t think He demands perfection. Even by the grace of God and our best attempts to do his will, there are other forces at hand – they’re blaring through our television, our computer screen, our apps, and the radio twenty-four hours a day. I know because I used to be one of these forces. For twelve years I marketed and sold about every product you can think of: convenience food and gasoline, cans of soup, those tasty little cookies wrapped in individual packaging, gourmet coffee, pharmaceutical therapies, books and periodicals, and even some “products” I’d rather not admit I sold (though this is a confession), like lottery tickets and “chances to change your life.” And I struggled for those twelve years, because at the heart of today’s commercial enterprise, companies are all after “targets” and you might just be one of them. There are many ways to entice a customer. The best one is to expose a vulnerability, something lying deep in the quiet of a person’s heart, and have your product be the answer to their yearning. I feel a lot like Screwtape as I wrote that last sentence. C.S. Lewis was really onto something wasn’t he?[2] While there is certainly a need for market awareness, the limitless demand generated by marketers give us, at least subliminally, full permission to over-consume.

This realization made me start thinking about the concepts of “more” and “enough.” Namely, how market forces have convinced us that more is better and enough is rarely achieved. And this message, nowadays, is everywhere. A few decades ago, the average American would have had to contend with advertisements while reading the newspaper, watching television, or listening to a radio program. Today, society has entered an omnipresent, omnipotent digital age, where marketers are meeting people anywhere and everywhere, with regulation several paces behind. And as so aptly put by Pope Francis in his Encyclical Laudato Si, “when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply, and to love generously.[3]” Bombarding individuals with messages of inadequacy or down-right false promises has created a culture seeped in materialism, one that lacks thoughtful reflection about what is “enough.” In the digital advertising age, where we have a voyeuristic window into the lives of strangers, we have far surpassed the notion of “keeping up with the Joneses.” Instead, we are trying to keep pace with everyone, instead of reflecting on our moral, emotional, and environmental relationship with goods and services.

Those with the financial means to indulge the material requirements of this age. purchase more things, bringing them fleeting happiness. For those who cannot afford to partake in our unbridled consumerist culture, they are told they are “less than” because they don’t have “more of” and sadly, they may begin to believe this lie. The emotional toll these sentiments may be as damaging as the environmental impact. “Consumer research consistently shows that exposure to what can easily add up to thousands of advertisements a day, most of them telling us that money, possessions and the right image are a path to happiness, success and self-worth, does in fact tend to make us feel worse about ourselves.”[4] All said, advertising, and its intended effects, are making us less happy.[5]

The environmental effects of consumerism generated from advertising are well documented, especially in the areas of fast fashion and technology made with planned obsolescence in mind. Any product or service we consume comes with a cost, and often the price on the tag hasn’t accounted for the true costs of producing a product. There are undocumented, unseen human and environmental tolls which companies bury beneath glossy magazine spreads and Instagram posts. And be very wary of the green-washing trends, in which customers are told to purchase more of whatever sustainable product is available, when in reality we all need to purchase less. Consuming less, as a way of life, may be viewed as unkind austerity to some. But the earth’s resources are finite; a fact we often like to forget. As J.B. MacKinnon writes in his wonderful thought experiment, The Day the World Stops Shopping, “for decades now, we’ve witnessed a near-continuous increase in the consumption of every major natural resource, from oil to gemstones, from gravel to gold. We are using the planet at a rate 1.7 times faster than it can regenerate. If everyone consumed like the average American, it would be five times faster.[6]

There are some members of the voluntary simplicity movement and some environmentalists, who would advocate for the complete removal of oneself from commercial enterprises. This, however, can be isolating and, in a world that measures success in terms of GDP, unrealistic. Until governments and their policies can fully embrace the environmental and social costs of the products we have consumed / are consuming / have yet to consume, there are steps that can help us protect ourselves from ceaseless marketing and, in the process, deemphasize materialism. As a former marketer, I’ve provided a few of these suggestions below. Who knows what might fill the void left by turning off the pervasive noise of advertisements. In the silence which avails itself, we might rediscover two sounds that today’s culture has made nearly inaudible: Nature and God.

Two existential first steps to consider:

1. Examine your true needs and desires. Make sure you do this in prayerful silence. During this period of discernment, define what constitutes “enough” for you. This will be different for everyone and may need to be done every few years as life stages and seasons change. Once you know what “your enough” is, be scrupulous about not taking on any more. This exercise can, and probably should, include an examination of material, emotional, and temporal demands. For example, I feel the same way about a frantically overscheduled day as I do about those little plastic toys an arcade machine spits out. Both are unnecessary and are something my family can do without. Having a sense of “your enough” can be your antidote when advertisers attempt to define “enough” for you.

2. Take inventory of your belongings. I expect this exercise, for many, might reveal the sheer abundance that surrounds us. Recognize and pray for the material inequities that exist in this country and abroad. Part with the items that you can and don’t replace them.

A few steps to make the advertising stream a mere trickle:

3. Unplug from social media. I made the decision to leave all social media platforms about five years ago. My decision was based on the realization that I have a hard enough time being present in this reality, let alone a digital one. Social media can be a great tool to connect individuals with like-minded interests or stay in touch with family and friends. It can also be a breeding ground for envy and misinformation. If for work, or other reasons, you cannot fully unplug from social media, consider limiting your time on various platforms.

4. Unsubscribe from email promotions: This will feel daunting, but it can be accomplished. Depending on your email service provider (Google, Protonmail, AOL etc.), every email you are sent has an ‘unsubscribe’ link at the bottom of it. It will be nearly visible, and you may need a magnifying glass to find it, but I promise you it must (legally) be there. Try to tackle this in stages by clicking unsubscribe on a few emails a day, for a week or two. Depending on how many promotional emails you receive, you can quickly declutter your inbox. There is nothing quite like a “quiet inbox”, where every email pertains to your interest or is important correspondence. Once you have done this, be wary of giving out your email again for an additional percentage off or while checking out at a store.

5. Put an end to catalogs and junk mail. Not only is junk mail bad for the environment but it can be downright annoying. There are many services that can cancel paper mail (otherwise called direct mail) for you, as well as websites where you can opt out of paper catalogs. I use Catalog Choice, a non-profit that helps thwart unwanted catalogs, and I have noticed a remarkable decrease in paper mailings since I started canceling catalogs using this service. This article by Ann Brenoff, Stop Junk Mail For Good With These 4 Steps, walks you through 4 easy steps to put an end to unwanted paper mail.[7]

6. Clear your browser. Have you ever had that experience where you look at a shirt but decide not to purchase it and then said shirt follows you around the internet, on every single website you visit? This is because companies have noticed you looked at this product and ‘tagged’ you as an interested customer. This tag, or “cookie”, will follow you around for a while. A good habit is to clear your internet browsing history often. For more technical interventions to stop receiving eerily customized advertisements, this article written by Martyn Casserly for Tech Advisor offers many solutions.[8]

7. Beware of planned obsolescence. Just because a new phone or computer has come to market, doesn’t mean that your old phone or computer is suddenly defunct the day an upgraded version hits the store shelves. Use things until they break. Learn a few basic stitches to mend clothing. Extend the utility and life of products you have; it will stop you from procuring more.

8. “Green” doesn’t necessarily mean “Good.” Even if a product you purchased is sustainably made and its components are ethically sourced, you’re still overconsuming if you truly didn’t need it. Please refer back to step #1 on this list. Let green, or sustainable product criteria help guide your purchases when you need something new. Try not to allow these marketing claims to serve as permission to purchase things you might not need.

9. Demand more from marketers and companies. If as customers, we vote with our wallets, try to support companies that are taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. One of the more helpful indicators of a company’s commitment to a sustainable economy is if they have product take-back programs, which can safely and responsibly recycle, upcycle, or dispose of the goods they are producing. Learn about where they procure resources for their products and the working conditions for the people helping to produce their products. Evaluate if they send the occasional marketing email or if they are relentlessly messaging customers. Chances are if they respect their customers, they might respect the places and people that are part of their product’s lifecycle.

[1] MacKinnon, J.B. The Day the World Stops Shopping. Ecco/HarperCollins, 2020. p. 1 [2] Lewis, C. S. 1898-1963. The Screwtape Letters: With, Screwtape Proposes a Toast. New York, HarperOne, 2001. [3] Francis. Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015), pg. 32, Section 47. [4] MacKinnon, J.B. The Day the World Stops Shopping. Ecco / HarperCollins, 2020. p. 117 [5] Torres, Nicole. "Advertising Makes Us Unhappy." Harvard Business Review, January-February 2020 Issue. [6] MacKinnon, J.B. The Day the World Stops Shopping. Ecco / HarperCollins, 2020. p. 6 [7] Brenoff, Ann. "Stop Junk Mail For Good With These 4 Steps." Huffington Post, 26 Jun. 2018. [8] Casserly, Martyn. "How to Stop Advertisers Tracking You Online." Tech Advisor, 20 May 2020.

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