Conservation of misery

I was having dinner with some friends last night here in Berlin and the conversation touched on the whole dynamic of consumer societies and the effects of advertising. I floated a theory (it is easy to float theories when they have very little weight) to the effect that there might be a conservation law of consumer satisfaction. Or more accurately, of consumer misery.

In order to sell things in a consumer economy, you need to create dissatisfaction. For example, you hire impossibly slender fourteen year old fashion models to sell clothing to grown women, thereby accentuating your customers’ insecurities about their own bodies.

This strategy only works up to a point. For it seems to me that if you get people too depressed about themselves, then they will lose heart in general, after which they’ll start to lose all self confidence and appetite for life, and your consumer economy will start to sag.

So a consumer economy needs to keep people at just the right level of being unhappy. In other words, there is a conservation law at work, according to which there is some optimal constant for the sum of desire and misery.

3 thoughts on “Conservation of misery”

  1. Yesterday, I was on a Colloquium defense. The student was very adept at computer animation since the age of 12, winning awards in high school, and combining this expertise with philosophy and social responsibility, as his “area of concentration.” Since he was 18, he worked part-time at numerous ad agencies to help pay for NYU. He made a comment during his Colloquium that is apt in relation to your BLOG post. He said something like this:

    “Over the last few years as part of my advertising artwork assignments (at which I am paid very, very well), I have been asked at many ad agencies to “correct” the way women look” — to make women look younger, to take away ‘flaws.’ I decided a couple months ago to no longer take graphic art assignments where I made women look ‘enhanced” or ‘ideal’.” My girlfriend of 6 years helped me understand how morally, ethically and, well, sad, this is….”

    This discussion by this 21 year old about to graduate and his thinking seriously about how his artwork impacted on many different ways of thinking, women being manipulated or otherwise, impressed me, and has left a lasting impression on me. He decided he did not want to be a part of selling someone in an unreal way….

  2. Having worked on a variety of advertising related gigs I thoroughly believe that you either end up as a cynic (which is good) in that business or are naive. 😉

    I have to agree with Kens observation though. We all have desires, and those stem from (perceived) “misery”. In many cases that’s just “envy”, which can be an extremely motivating factor.
    Desires being obviously quite different from needs.

    As a simple example: You’ll feel miserable even if you’re well off and live well in a nice little house – if you’re surrounded by multi-millionaires in mansions.
    Put the same house in a third world slum and you’re king.

    @Cynthia: Good so see that there’s still some common sense in this world.


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