Just look at what advertising does to children

Mary Pipher, in The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families, observes, “Children learn these things from the ads: that they are the most important person in the universe; that impulses should not be denied; that pain should not be tolerated; and that the cure for any pain is a product. They learn a mix of dissatisfaction and entitlement.”

From this, she concludes: “With the messages of ads, we are socializing our children to be self-centered, impulsive, and addicted. The television teaches values as clearly as any church.” And, she notes, children are exposed to 400 ads a day — more than four million in a lifetime. “Children are taught to be consumers and sold products — junk foods, overpriced clothes, and useless toys.”

It all adds up. Here we are, talking about parenting when we set out to discuss money.

As long as we’re in front of the TV set, let’s watch a sporting event. But instead of following the action, zero in on all of the corporate logos and brand names. Jot them down on a sheet of paper. We’re bombarded with a lot more “buy” messages than the ads themselves. We’ll encounter far more than four million product messages in a lifetime:

  • How many product pitches do you count? What are they selling?
  • Do you think sponsoring a race-car team really peddles more clothing detergent? Is the event itself sponsored by a company? What payoff do you think they’re getting?
  • How many of these, such as stadium-rights naming or banners behind home plate, become “free” television advertising?
  • How many build brand-name loyalty?

As you can see, we live in a product-saturated society. It’s not just TV and radio.

You don’t have to buy into any of those presumptions. Not if you’re taking control.

As you use your cash-flow notebook, ask yourself how many times a brand name is involved.

Could you be just as satisfied turning to a generic or store-brand alternative?

Just what is prompting you to spend on this item, anyway?

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Those superstars want your bucks

I hate the term “superstar” and its many extensions. Either you’re a star or you’re not. Ditto athlete, fashion model, actor, actress, musician.

“Celebrity” is even messier. Some of them seem to be famous for no reason at all.

Yet many of them lend their faces and voices to the advertising you see. It’s more than mere endorsements. Some of them become the front for the product. And there they are, speaking directly to you like an old friend.

Well, you know who they are, even if they don’t have a clue about you. We buy into the fiction anyway.

Let’s get down to business. (Sorry for the pun — you see how these money things are everywhere?)

  • Name a “superstar” musician, actor or actress, television host or performer, fashion model, and athlete. What special qualities would you assign to each? Which one would you argue is most important to society? Why?
  • Would you say they’re good role models when it comes to money? (After all, they’re being paid tons for what they do best.)
  • Why do you think they’re getting all that dough, anyway? (Hint: in the end, it’s not exactly for the reasons you would initially suspect, the musical or acting talent, good looks, or points scored. I’ll explain in a bit.)
  • Assuming you watch some television during the week, and it’s not all Public Broadcasting, what is your favorite television commercial these days? Why? And the one you find most annoying?
  • How much of the commercial is about the product or service itself? How much appears to be “something else,” such as music, comedy, drama, atmosphere. What are the hidden messages?
  • Do you ever catch yourself humming an advertising jingle? Do you use that product? How about repeating a line from a commercial? (Who was it who once asked us, “Where’s the beef?”)
  • Which jingles and commercials do you hear children repeating?
  • What other advertising phrases or images come to mind?

Mind-boggling, isn’t it?

Each of these commercials preaches at us, conveying messages that may not be obvious. Superstars are showered in riches because they are the “high priests” of consumer culture. One way or another, they get the rest of us to spend on the products wrapped around them — brands that make us believe we’re buying adulation, popularity, athletic prowess, sexuality, a mansion by the sea, or maybe even extended youthfulness.

Now what about all those folks sporting clothing adorned with the logo of their favorite hometown team?

Count your mail or email for a week, and note how much of it is advertising. Some, like your favorite catalogs, may be desired; the bulk is probably a nuisance. (Have you discovered it’s in your power to throw these pieces away, unopened?) There will be a few bills. Maybe even a personal card or letter. So what’s the score?

Right in your face

One reason many people find it so difficult to get real with money is theological. Yep, you heard right, worship of the almighty dollar. Let me bluntly argue that the dominant religion in America today is consumerism — and it’s based on bald temptation. Before you scoff, let me remind you that some theologians call this condition Mammonism. Among its major tenets:

  • Money makes the world go ‘round.
  • Spending will make you happy.
  • Brand names displayed on your apparel will strut your identity, good taste, or socio-economic status. (If you don’t know the current must-have brand names and products, just ask your kids or grandkids.)
  • There’s a shopping mall within twenty minutes of nine out of 10 Americans. (Think of it as a temple.)
  • Visa has 3.3 billion card users worldwide. Accepted at more than 37 million locations around the globe. China’s the exception — thanks to its own rival card.
  • Billions and billions served. (Do I have to explain? Just think of that happy clown.)

Core assumptions like these are embedded in the advertising messages that bombard us. Pay attention to the hidden tenets.

Corporations invest heavily in selecting a motto, either for the company and its mission itself or for one of its prime products. Just listen.

  • Save money, live better.
  • Expect more, pay less.
  • More for your dollar.
  • Milk from contented cows.
  • Got milk?
  • It’s the real thing.
  • Finger lickin’ good.
  • Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.
  • Betcha can’t eat just one.
  • The best shave a man can get.
  • Snap! Crackle! Pop!
  • When you care enough to send the very best.
  • Like sleeping on a cloud.

How many of these can you identify? Probably all but the third, unless you shop at a family-owned supermarket chain in New England.

What are the hidden messages and underlying assumptions, and how do they match up with your impressions of what’s really offered? What appeals to the emotions and physical sensations? Even the sins of greed, lust, and gluttony? Don’t tell us the Devil made you do it.

It’s not always big corporations, either. Some of the best slogans come from small firms:

  • Yesterday’s meals on wheels. (From a septic tank service.)
  • We repair what your husband fixed. (From a plumber’s truck.)
  • No appointment necessary. We hear you coming. (From a muffler shop.)

Start looking closely around you. They’re everywhere. Trucks on the highway. Logos at the ballpark. Baseball caps and T-shirts. All over the Internet.

What more examples can you add to the list?

Which mottos and slogans do you think are the best? Or the worst?

Sometimes money becomes an amusement park

As you’ve pondered these questions so far, have there been any times your emotions took off like a roller coaster? I seen this happen while leading a discussion group. One comment and the room turns into a Coney Island of feelings.

Pay attention to notice when a question or its answer has you becoming tense or morose, as well as those that have you feeling joyful or optimistic.

In a discussion circle, be alert for twists when the energy level sags, and when it bursts at the seams. These, too, can be clues to emotions.

How quickly the almighty dollar appears at the crossroads of daily rounds! How many tokens do you need to ride the Yankee Cannonball? How many for the Big Pirate Ship?

By the way, I have learned how much fun it can be to scream at the right moment. That first plunge downward is one. It’s always a great group experience. Would it work in these discussions?

In these money workshops, I’ve seen a startling variety in backgrounds, memories, and ambitions. This was the first time some participants ever candidly voiced theirs aloud — an important step in gaining control over money, rather than letting it control you.

Incidentally, I’m not so sure that revealing your incomes within a discussion circle is a good idea. For one thing, getting into some of our topics is difficult enough. Comparing paychecks can erect barriers we simply don’t need. Some privacy, after all, remains essential as a matter of simple respect.

Even so, if you really want to be courageous, have people who are emotionally close to you — your spouse, children, parents, or best friends — evaluate you to see how closely your perceptions and theirs match or diverge. In other words, how honest are you being here?

When’s the last time you wanted to scream about money?

Would winning the Megabucks count?

A word about Muppies

Gee, has it really been nearly 30 years since that dear couple invited me to go halves on a study kit they saw advertised in Utne Reader? It’s hard to believe that much time has passed.  And I thought I was helping them? You can see that it soon was working the other way around. Emotionally, I was a mess when it came to money stuff — at least I wasn’t dealing in debt. I just put a competent face on everything. But inside? There was a volcano.

At the time, I had recently relocated to New England from Baltimore, where a number of my friends were Mennonites. I suppose I should say something about their denomination, since it’s not common in many parts of the country. Remember, half of that couple was a Mennonite.

The faith arose in Switzerland and other spots in northern Europe at the time of the Protestant Reformation but traces its roots back through the underground church to about the year 1000 CE. Unlike the Lutherans, on one side, and the Calvinists, on the other, they refused to bear arms or swear oaths or to baptize their children. Because they believed that baptism was reserved for adults and made as a conscious act, they were dubbed Anabaptists — a name that also applies to several other denominations.

The Amish split off from them in the 1690s.

Discipleship is a major tenet of their practice, and churches range from very conservative, wearing Plain clothes and using horses for farming and transportation, to moderately liberal, with university degrees and professional careers. My friends were among the latter.

At the time, a new lifestyle was getting a lot of press — Yuppies, or young urban professionals. And it didn’t take long for some observers to note similarities and differences to Mennonites like those of my acquaintance. In fact, in 1985 Good Books (published by Merle Good in Lancaster, Pennsylvania) released Emerson Lesher’s The Muppie Manual: The Mennonite Urban Professional’s Handbook for Humility and Success.

That’s right — Muppies.

Its humorous and insightful details demonstrate ways our values can shape our financial activity. You don’t even have to remember the excesses of the Yuppies — young urban professionals — or know any Pennsylvania Dutch to appreciate this examination of decisions facing young Mennonites as they left large-family farms and moved to busy cities. If a Yuppie could play racquetball on Sundays, a Muppie would play basketball on Saturday. If one owned an original painting, the other might own a lithograph. And what do you leave out and what do you hide when your parents are coming over? How about when it’s your friends, instead?

You get the picture. You can begin asking just where you fit in this spectrum, especially when you encounter humorous examples like his. But be warned: Some readers thought it hit a little too close to home.

My fellow Quakers, meanwhile, found it expressing our own situation surprisingly well. A major part of our faith is the practice of simplicity, and like the Mennonites, ours is a peace church. We don’t go along with a lot of the spending practices of the general public around us.

Call it a lifestyle, if you will, but faith does shape the way we handle money. That faith, incidentally, doesn’t have to be a formal religion. I’ll argue everyone has one.

What do you wear to work? What brand, if any?

What can’t you wear?

What do you wear on the weekend?

Back to those personal differences

When I raised the question in one discussion circle, ”Do men’s perceptions about money differ from women’s?” one participant remarked that everything shifts dramatically if you become a single parent. She explained that much of our money outlook depends on the roles we’re expected to fill.

We had already touched on ways that boys and girls have differed in their upbringing when it comes to money skills and identities. That’s another good topic to bring up in your discussions, if you haven’t touched on it already.

For example, I was taught that the man is supposed to provide — and then shown how my father and grandfather had fallen short. Do we need to go on?

Or does anyone else remember when National Public Radio’s popular “Car Talk” program got much mileage out of an observation that men tend to pay store cashiers with folding currency, while women generally use exact change — making everyone else wait in line a little longer? For months, callers offered zany theories about the causes. I’ve often thought when I’m in a checkout line, except these days many folks are paying with plastic.

Seriously, there are serious arguments about sexual differences on the money frontier. Consider our working assumptions. We live in a culture where men have been trained to be dominant and women subordinate. This has meant that men assume authority over money matters, perpetuate the misconception that money matters are a mystery only men can understand, and undervalue women’s work at home and in the workplace. We really do need to transmute this model into one of equality, mutuality, partnership, and cooperation. For women and for men.

What roles do you see yourself filling? How do money expectations shape them, even limit them?

As for those inevitable emotions in dealing with money

Hope you’re still keeping that little notebook to record every time you spend money on something. If not, start now. It’s the paper trail we’ll get to in a bit.

For now, let’s keeping looking at our personal encounters.

  • What are your individual images of money? Good or bad?
  • Are you comfortable with handling it? Uncomfortable?
  • Does money ever upset, anger, or depress you?
  • When does it make you happy?
  • How do your early childhood images and lessons regarding money and wealth affect you now?
  • Do you plan ahead to meet expenses? Budget for income and outflow? Set goals? Do you try to have a little of everything—or focus on a few objectives?
  • How do you feel in the presence of a coworker who’s about to lose his or her job? Or about simply going to the mall? What monetary situations make you the most uncomfortable?
  • Do you undertake major new projects, believing “God will provide,” or do you calculate and prepare in advance? Or, somehow, both?
  • How do you feel when someone tells you that the reason that your prayers aren’t being answered is because you’re not being confident enough, that you need to be more specific and aggressive? Do you take a “name it and claim it” attitude in prayer? Do sinners reap too many of the benefits of God’s creation?
  • At the core of your being, do you feel constrained — or empowered? Cursed or blessed?

If you are to control your finances, rather than the other way around, you need to acknowledge powerful emotions regarding money and wealth. What are your biggest emotions here? Anxiety? Fear? Joy? Comfort? Success?

That’s a lot to reflect on, but it is essential.

Which of these issues hits you the most?

Identify a negative money impression you’ve carried from childhood.

Now that you see it, name a corrective action you can pursue to reverse that trait.