Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What Do We Really Need?

A new app for a hand held mobile device. A quart of water. Polished granite tops on kitchen counters. A 600 calorie-per-day diet. Question: what do these items all have in common? Answer: depending on a person’s location on the planet, each of these items will meet the definition of a need fulfillment, and the huge disparity in the way these items add to the quality of life demonstrates that sufficiency and need fulfillment are markers for a ghastly zero sum game that is being played out on planet earth.

America’s definition of “need” began to change in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. Following the four years of rationing and scarcity that took place during World War Two, pent up demand for life essentials was quickly satisfied by this nation’s robust economy and production capability which had come through the war intact. No other nation on earth could make that claim. Moreover, television also came of age during that time. And when the need for basic life essentials was finally satisfied, people in marketing (a new concept at that time) began to see that non-essential goods and services could be supplied with our excess production capability, and then sold via the new medium of television advertising. The only question was how to sell these non-essential products.

The answer was to create need (or at least the perception of need) where none existed. That meant depicting non-essentials and outright trivialities as being essential. For example, early television ads from that time were disproportionately devoted to the promotion of laundry soap, and the “pitch” always seemed to be that human happiness was intimately tied to the brightness of the whiteness of the shirt that we put on each morning. For the person wearing that clean shirt, fresh breath was also presented as an essential, and so stout mouth wash (mostly alcohol) was hawked to erase “halitosis,” a pseudo-medical term that was coined by someone in advertising. That set off a cascade of pseudo-medicine-speak that continues to this day with abstract marketing concoctions like “erectile dysfunction” and “fibromyalgia” and “restless leg syndrome.” If you suffer from one of these afflictions, you might not know what’s wrong with you, but thanks to television advertising, you sure as hell know that you “need” a drug to fix it.

Once the early television “need creation” marketing got rolling, anything was possible. The meat product, Spam, was positioned as a delicacy, and sales soured even though the product tasted like dog food, because nobody was willing to admit that they couldn’t appreciate a delicacy. The list of examples is endless, but the important thing to understand is that, somewhere along the way, Americans lost their ability to know what was really needed as an essential. The concept of need became tied to whatever was being advertised and sold to them.

The dirty little secret in all of this is that television broadcasting signals are able to reach beyond the borders of the United States, and into every culture on earth. However, in order for every person on earth to have their television-implanted-needs fulfilled, it would require the resources and energy capacity and production capability of six additional earth sized planets. Once the concept of “need” became something to sell, the possibility was there for it to be oversold. That’s where we are now, and there’s no way to put that old 1940s, fresh tasting, Ipana Toothpaste back in the tube.

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