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Creating well behaved consumers

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Lifestyle television has exploded in volume. A lot of the shows want to sell us products. Some take the form of adult consumer education.

Illustration: Irene Kredenets, Unsplash

Unless you have made a conscious effort to avoid this type of tv fare, chances are you have been exposed to it, at least in glimpses. It inhabits a special niche of reality television, liberally dispensing advice on everything from home renovation and gardening to parenting, dieting and household management.

Luxury Trap

One popular format, syndicated to a number of western countries, is “The luxury trap”. In the shows, individuals or couples who over-shop, over-borrow and max out credit cards are confronted with their conspicuous consumption.

In various guises, money experts and tv hosts scold, coach and nudge wayward consumers back on the beaten path. Numbed, often reduced to tears, the over-spenders have to accept a regime of refinanced austerity, more often than not ending up beholden to debtors for years or decades to come.

“The luxury trap” is one of many shows about people trapped by problems they are unable to overcome, be they overweight, parenting gone awry, spouse conflicts, health conditions, extreme untidiness and so on.

Blame yourself

The nicest thing to be said for the genre, is that it points to ways out of misery and bad habits, in a sort of enlightenment spirit. The preachy and condescending tone of the shows reveals an underlying message, however: When it comes down to it, you have yourself to blame. The focus is on individual change of routines and priorities, not the power of advertisement, the allure of consumption and the ubiquitous commercialisation of our lives.

“The luxury trap” enlists financial advisors as mediators or mentors to the unhappy participants. Their patronising care invariably seems mixed with anxiety or nervousness – not, it would appear, on behalf of the people trapped in debt but rather a larger, systemic worry.

This worry is best explained as linked to the perennial dilemma of the capitalist, market-driven economy – namely the balance between keeping labour costs down and making profit from consumer spending. This is the real quandary of corporations, producers, governments, banks and the financial industry.

Non-spenders

One method for delivering continuous growth and profit has been the debilitating idea of comparative advantages. In practical terms, it means paying workers in industrialized countries enough to buy and consume, while having the developing world work long hours in shitty conditions and for next to no pay.

In the foreseeable future, low-paid workers in poor countries will remain in plentiful supply. They will not splash out on consumer goods, however. At the same time, the downward pressure on real wages in the western world continues, resulting in workers having less cash to spend.

Adding fuel to the fire, the weakening of consumer spending is now boosted by Covid-19 related mass unemployment. Already, households all over the globe have lost their income, for the most part facing paltry or no safety nets.

Advising the unemployed

So, what kind of stern but well-meant advice will tv be offering the tsunami of unemployed? Adjusting shopping habits? Fewer theatre visits, less splurging on vacations, maybe sharing the use of your car, provided you have one? How do you discipline consumers without anything to spend?

“The luxury trap” teaches us to be good consumers and obedient debtors, in the best interest of the market economy. It is probably also a potent template for future ‘behaviourism’ tv. Just like the shows about fatness, cooking, gardening and child rearing, the format can be expanded into other arenas, some of which we may think of as abhorrent today.

I am referring to the sort of tv programming on the rise especially in China, teaching citizens about sensible tropes such as hygiene and traffic behaviour, but also about adhering to the wishes and strictures of the country’s authoritarian regime, including social and political obedience. Combine this with the country’s rapidly expanding, comprehensive surveillance systems, and you have powerful tools for controlling citizens, as recently discussed in The Diplomat (China’s Social Control Mechanisms on Full Display Amid Coronavirus Epidemic).

Look to China

Today, the economically successful China offers liberal democracies some serious competition. For countries and global corporations fed up with unfilled promises of the western market economy, China has great allure. Authoritarian and self-serving leaders around the world may be tempted to emulate the recipes of China’s rulers, inclusive of mind control by television, social media and artificial intelligence-driven surveillance.

The means of tracking, watching and registering our lives and opinions are becoming more and more all-pervasive, not only in totalitarian or semi-totalitarian regimes. Under the pretexts of improving health, fighting terrorists, preventing crime and generally promote a safer and sounder society, western liberal governments are jumping on the bandwagon as well.

Maybe the day is near when they knock at your door and ask why your phone is turned off, or why you’re not on social media.