Inspiring Envy

When I was a girl in the 80s I can remember when I first started hearing stories about kids in the Brooklyn getting killed over their sneakers. In the 90s I wrote a story for New Youth Connections about many of the items made in America that supported the Apartheid regime in South Africa. These issues heavily influenced my decision not to buy sneakers, at least not popular ones, period.

A few months ago this year I was in my local AT&T store in Harlem upgrading my iphone 4 to the 5s model. As I was sitting there at the table waiting for young lady attending to me to check on a few things, I looked around the store at the standard set up. I noticed the motto in large print against one the walls opposite from me for the new HTC phone. It read “Built to inspire envy.” My immediate reaction was, why would you want to inspire envy? The two words put together are the evil genius of advertising. Naturally I was implicit in all of this because here I was upgrading my phone, a phone that my husband would repeatedly warn me to never expose in public because of stories in the news about rampant theft of iphones, particularly in the subways. And yes, I realize that the intent of Big advertising has been evil for some time. But for some reason, reading that logo in the AT&T store that day made me realize that we as consumers willingly contribute to the inspiring of envy to a staggeringly larger degree than the inspiring of creativity and self knowledge without even really thinking about it. Our whole society screams out, “Look at what I have! Don’t you want it too? Want what I have! Aspire to look like me and live like me, talk like me, smell, look, dance, dress like me!”

Advertising is smart, sexy, and seductive and as a rule plays on our greatest weakness, the idea that we are not enough. I’m no exception. I may be selective about my vices but I still have them. I don’t watch television very much (except on Scandal Thursdays) but when I get online, that’s when I really have to curb myself. There is just so much information coming at you at speeds impossible to process, and you’re taking in stuff, you’re not even aware of. Because of the ways in which online and television media speaks to stereotyping and trendsetting, definitions of beauty, sex, entertainment and object worship, we as human beings are often walking advertisements ourselves. So advertisement also inspires isolation, because a culture of people who cannot engage with one another beyond the compatibility of product placement on our bodies can never truly connect at all.

Overall, it made me a bit panicky. It was like having someone tell you that although you never pulled the trigger to kill Bambi, you actually made a donation to the foundation of killing Bambi when you bought your cell phone. Do people still care about Bambi? Is that a dated reference? The point is we live in a country that as Chris Rock says commercializes everything. That doesn’t surprise or bother me as much as the desensitization. It would be different if the things we acquired made us happy, jumping up and down like kids and making us want to share that happiness. But that’s not often the case.

More often we buy stuff that makes us feel good, inspires envy in others which by the way is not good, and then we get bored or feel empty and unfulfilled again and need to consume more. This cycle never ends.

I was reading something recently which said something to the effect that a large percentage of people as they become much older, say in their late 60s or 70s no longer fall for the trick of advertising. They know what they need, they get the basics and every once in a while will splurge on something special or impractical. They are not necessarily more fulfilled than younger people. They just don’t fool themselves as much, particularly since advertising targets youth and relies on the idea of “Forever young” in order to get people to spend and invest hard earned dollars in the promise that never pans out. Turns out we get old, not matter what we buy.

I don’t know. I still upgraded to my iphone 5S. I needed more space. Because that has become the new issue in our world. Running out of space on “The Cloud.” God forbid I can’t stuff one more shot of really cute donuts onto my instagram account. Tragic. And while I didn’t feel the need to get the iphone 6 (because I simply didn’t need to) I’m also aware that the promotions for this phone didn’t inspire enough “envy” in me to want to buy it. So I guess the question is, where does the line between the desire to acquire things out of practical necessity and or joy and the need to make others envious emerge and how aware are we of it as a symptom of debilitating inhumanity?

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