Advertising and More from the Back-room Boys

I’m thinking about what I already know. And I’m pretty sure all of us in the western world know too.  I’ve spent this morning looking at research into happiness and the consumer society– anyone who has read my previous posts will already be aware that I’ve been thinking about this topic for about 25 years, but still, I like to have a look every now and then at what new research is saying. buy more shit

Thing is, it’s still saying the same things it was saying in the late 80s.  It’s still actually saying the same things we all already know.  We know these things by applying common sense, intuition and looking at the data.  We know.

I like simple answers, I really do, especially when it comes to finding solutions to very complex difficulties.  I well remember liking the concept (although I don’t remember the method) of rationalising an equation.  I might even have the idea wrong and have invented my own definition, but the idea of finding simple answers to life’s problems has great appeal.  For me, it’s about removing all the extraneous stuff (literally and metaphorically), that includes the doubting voices, the lame excuses and most particularly the bad influences and coming up with simple, achievable “protocols” that I believe enhance my life.

You know I like anecdotes, so here’s one.  I was talking recently to someone who has a lot of personal debt and a lot of personal possessions.  She’s depressed about it, and frankly, not on her own.  According to her own assessment her life seems to be dominated by buying things, storing things, paying mounting credit card bills, and feeling guilty.  It’s such a familiar story and really sad.  It’s not surprising that many people who pursue material prosperity often find themselves feeling, if not unhappy, not as happy as they had hoped.

Apparently, according to research, the least happy group of people in the west are aged 46, with men in that group being slightly less happy than women. If you want to read about this in depth, Google “happiness” and you will find thousands of articles and reports about and around this subject.  Interestingly, unlike many other “big” questions in life, almost everyone from psychologists to economists and back again agree that wealth and possessions, above a certain level do not make you happier.  It seems by the time we reach 46 our level of disillusionment has reached its zenith.  We in the west are likely to be at our most economically potent in early middle-age and yet it is at this point that we are unable to avoid the realisation that all our efforts have not led to Nirvana.   In fact, I would go so far as to say that we are fiddling while Rome burns – in other words, no matter how hard we try and ignore the mounting evidence that excess consumerism is literally killing us (our health and that of the environment) – perhaps by this age our inner doubts are too loud to ignore.

Of course there are the climate change deniers who tell us that we are not responsible for environmental damage, but surely the only people who believe the deniers are those who have a more sophisticated personal anti-guilt mechanism than that of the average consumer.  So, not only does buying and having (and throwing away) loads of “stuff” not lead to happy, I think it also makes us feel guilty. But you knew this already.  The young woman with a houseful of clothes and gadgets and expensive handbags knew this already, too.

I really believe in choice.  The trouble is that our consumerist world is built on a “choice” contradiction.  Back in the 50s when consumerism as we know it really took a hold we were led to believe that a free market, full of shiny new things, meant that we would have greater choice, and I can only assume that choice was meant to confer greater happiness on those who had it.  Advertising is a gazillion dollar industry, there to tell us exactly what our “choices” are.  There are banner ads, infomercials, native ads, embedded ads, fliers, hoardings and on and on and on all vying to get our attention.  It is the white noise that is the soundtrack to everyday life.

So we come to something else we all already know.  Advertisers use dissatisfaction to get you to buy things.  Happy people don’t buy as much as dissatisfied ones.  (Google advertising techniques if you want to get the detail – scary).

One voice that is quiet, if not entirely absent, in the clamour of voices shouting “you need me to be happy” and “buy me” and so on is our own voice; the one that says “I don’t need all this stuff to be happy”.  Adverts carry that much authority; enough to close down our own common sense voice.

Of course, back in the day there were a few hippy, brown rice and sandals types who opted out – I’ve sort of done it myself, although I’m more mung bean and flip-flops – and nowadays sustainable living, upcycling and recycling and repurposing is enjoying a revival – but for the most part we, as a society, have started on the road of consumerism and just kept on going, listening, even when we didn’t know we were listening, to the voice of authority that comes from the ads.

So, as I said, I believe in choice.  I want to choose what I buy.  I trust myself to know when I need something and I trust myself to know what it is. I don’t want or need anyone else telling me what’s wrong with my life, whilst applying the emotional thumbscrews.  I choose the authority of my own common sense over the psychological manipulations of advertising.  Filling our heads full of pre-packaged, pre-chosen “wants” and the anxiety of trying to get them, only means we obscure our real needs and goals and desires. I know we can’t avoid seeing ads in a world full to brimming with them, but we can train ourselves to see them as an unwanted intrusion simply designed to make us dissatisfied.  I don’t want to be dissatisfied.

When I see an ad of any kind these days my well trained mental back-room boys pipe up “Doesn’t apply to me”.  I already know what I want. That’s my rationalised equation.

Carpet Burns and Yoda and Just Saying No (or Yes)

After one particularly drunken evening I woke up the next morning with some pretty nasty carpet burns on my back.  I was 24, newly separated from my first husband and living in a small flat in Manchester, UK with my then 2 year old daughter Jessica.  This was the Wednesday morning after my regular Tuesday night out – my parents used to have Jessica to stay every Tuesday – and I had to get ready for work.  If you’ve ever spent the day in a warm office, wearing a clingy blouse that is sticking painfully to your skinned shoulder blades, you’ll know that it isn’t a pleasant experience.


I couldn’t remember how I had come by such accusatory injuries, but I was worldly enough to make a fair guess; nonetheless, the details of that evening’s events will forever remain a mystery.  By the time I had Jessica tucked up in her bed that Wednesday night, I knew something had to change.  It wasn’t the first time I’d been out for a night and ended up with gaps in my memory, but this time the whole thing just left me feeling depressed and guilty.  Not a good way to feel.

I chatted about it with some co-workers who largely seemed to dismiss my concerns with platitudes like “Everyone does that” or “don’t beat yourself up about it”, and I didn’t feel any better about it at all.  There was a glaringly simple answer staring me right in the face.  Never drink more than one drink in a 24 hour period.  So that’s what I decided to do.

Having previously been a bit of a party girl (probably a good way down the road to a serious alcohol problem), many of my friends were a little sceptical when I announced my plan.  I wasn’t actually seeking approval by telling my friends.  I just thought that if I made it public it somehow made the plan more real and harder to go back on.

My Good Life Protocol idea was a good few years in the future at this point, but I did have another secret weapon. Yoda! Yep, Yoda.  There’s a great quote from the 1980 film, The Empire Strikes Back that had really struck a chord with me.  Never a snob about where my principles come from, every time from then on, that I was offered, or was tempted to buy, a second drink I thought of Yoda.

“No! Try not. Do. Or do not!! There is no try….”

In actual fact I spent the next 12 months completely teetotal – and in the process amazed myself – and have only fallen off my self-made wagon twice in the last 30 years.

“There is no try” I think makes a pretty good foundation for one of the GLPs.  Just because something is a social norm doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  We all know that eating a poor diet, drinking too much, disliking others because they are different (to name a very few) are bad ideas and yet are all pretty normal in our society.  “Don’t beat yourself up about it” is all very well and a very good idea, as is “be kind to yourself”.  I have found that it’s much easier to be kind to yourself and to avoid feeling guilty by applying a few principles to the choices I make.

  • Listen to your feelings
  • Research the facts
  • Look unflinchingly at the pros and cons
  • Don’t put off making a decision
  • Once the decision is made, apply it immediately, or as soon as possible
  • In case of dithering, call in Yoda

In this way I think it is much easier to take control of your life.  You are less likely to have to “look the other way” when it comes to some of the things you do, and indeed the things you believe in. Advertisers want you to buy, eat, drink and pretend to be merry and many political and religious organisations want you to be scared.  Between wanting to fit in and fearing the unknown we can end up with pretty miserable, unhealthy lives, making very poor choices into the bargain.  If we let them, these influences can blur our vision, but I believe that many, if not most, of us really know the difference between a good idea and a bad one.  Trust your judgement, be decisive and then call in Yoda.


How the “Win, win , win and then, and then and then” GLP criteria works

So I knew that I couldn’t just put any old random “rules” in the GLP list just because I liked the sound of them.  So many times these days I see people posting stuff on Facebook, – you know the posts I mean, coloured boxes with philosophical content – and doing it pretty much in bulk.  You read the snippet and, without thinking, find yourself nodding in agreement without really thinking properly about what that little nugget really means.  It works on the “knee jerk” as opposed to the “brain work” principle. 

For me, for any ideas to be incorporated into my life they have to fulfil several criteria, not least the aforementioned “win, win, win and then and then etc.” rule.  I remember years ago, when my children were little, having a rather disconcerting conversation with another mother at the school gate.  Her child was rather small and bespectacled and was being bullied by the other kids.  “I’ve told him to just hit them back” she said, and went on to tell me that that was the way she had been brought up. “Yay! Good idea.  Teach those bullies a lesson.  Stand up for yourself”.  Really?

These days we could put “just hit them back” in a coloured box with an image of a little boy whacking a bully and post it on Facebook and I’m pretty sure it’d get likes and shares.  Trouble is, it doesn’t really pass the WWWATATAT test does it?  In fact, give that idea a few seconds thought and it starts to look like a dismal bit of advice to give a child in that situation.  Just a quick “and then” check and the whole idea starts to look a little off.  One result might be that you turn a child with a naturally peaceful disposition into a reluctantly violent one, or that the much bigger bully just goes for a second bigger punch, or that the whole situation just escalates into an ugly schoolyard brawl.  No-one wins. We all know that, in simple terms, this sort of principle has led in the past to many a devastating war involving millions of casualties.   It’s a bad idea, but like many bad ideas can sound pretty good unless you apply a bit of critical thinking. 

Our society is full of bad ideas touted as good and, in my opinion, come in the main from all-pervasive advertising and from religion not to mention the societal norms that are the mutant lovechildren between these two strange parents (and I think that Hollywood schmaltz might be the uncle).  Personally, I take “You are not normal” as a compliment.  A big one. 

If you’ve read any of my previous posts you have probably noticed that, thus far, I may have seemed reluctant to reveal exactly what my GLPs are.  Well here comes a little reveal.  Don’t be disappointed.  The following GLP might seem so prosaic as to be not worth mentioning but please stick with me for a moment as it makes a good illustrator.  

Here’s the little preparatory story…. As a child in the 1960s I was brought up to believe that wasting food was a very bad thing.  We weren’t allowed to leave food on our plates and my mum planned meals on a weekly basis so that shopping had to be carried out with military precision. On one particular occasion, when I was about 8 or 9, at a family celebration, I remember seeing a very alarming sight.  There was a paper plate on the table that contained two half eaten sandwiches (ham and piccalilli) a lump of cake icing and a cigarette butt carelessly ground out in the centre,  the whole thing topped off with a sprinkling of ash.  

To say I was deeply disturbed is no exaggeration.  I only had one reference to go by at that age – don’t waste food – and so I just couldn’t understand what I was seeing.  I had to go and talk to a higher authority and that was my Nana.  Ever to be relied upon for a simple and clear explanation she told me that “people don’t like to seem mean” and also “people sometimes get carried away if something is on offer free of charge”.   This occasion was the earliest time I can remember seeing in action the human tendency to allow social normalcy to override common sense.  So strong is the desire to “fit in” with group that even the most obviously good behaviours and choices are ignored.  I don’t say I thought about this in quite these terms; I was only 8 years old after all, but nonetheless the paper plate image and what it represented played some part in one of my most basic GLPs.  Don’t waste food.


There are lots of “and then”s  attached to this one.  I’m pretty sure we all know them already.  You waste food and then:

  • You waste money
  • You add to landfill
  • You feel guilty
  • You require more land to be used to service your foody needs
  • You set a bad example if you have children

There are more, but you get the idea.  As for the wins, they are pretty obvious too and are pretty much the opposite of the list above.  All win in fact.

If you happen to be invited to my house to eat you can be pretty certain that I won’t be thinking “I don’t want to look mean”.  I don’t care even slightly about that. I don’t always get it absolutely right and the brown banana has occasionally been my downfall.  As for social normalcy – in this case, I laugh in your face and apply my longstanding GLP.