In 1957, a perspicacious young journalist from Pennsylvania named Vance Packard wrote a book called The Hidden Persuaders. It was meant to explain to the public at large why they buy the products they do and to warn them about the psychological aspects of consumer appeal that lie beneath the levels of consciousness. A red car, for example, has hidden stimuli, for red is a color that makes people angry. If you think I’m nuts, (I am, but not about this), check with some insurance companies. I was dumbfounded to learn that the collision rate was slightly higher for a red car! Packard’s premise was mind-boggling and insightful for its day. Even he, however, under-estimated the full extent to which modern advertising has penetrated our psyches.
The next time you need a “kleenex" or “xerox" stop and think for a moment. Don’t you really mean a tissue or a copy of a piece of paper? And when someone walking in front of you “shakes like Jell-O, " do you realize that you have created a metaphor using a brand name in vain? I myself used Q-tips for years before I realized they were really cotton swabs incognito, and that by any other name they cost at least $1.50 less per box! How and why did these brands become synonyms for the things that are so much a part of our every day lives? Sometimes I feel like that little kid in the movie, Invaders From Mars, who was the only one his block who didn’t have a strange little mark at the base of his neck which meant he wasn’t “one of them. " Who is “they" anyway? And worse, how did “they" get from our necks to our brains and become a part of us?
The answer to these and other not so penetrating questions lies in the arrogance of the media. Their influence is like a giant, intimidating shadow that sneaks into our brains when we sleep and tells us which products to buy. Lets look at how this works. My child needs aspirin. Am I going to buy some generic brand that I have never heard of or am I going to get the product whose name has been shoved into my memory so consistently that when I think of aspirin only that brand comes to mind? This is true even if the contents in both of the bottles are exactly the same. I want the very best for my sick child that my hard earned money can buy and how could something that costs less be the answer?
Well, the very best product is not necessarily the one you have heard the most about. That may just be the brand produced by advertisers who can afford to saturate the media with Saran promises and DiGiorno delivery. There are other makers of blue jeans besides Levis and other tampons besides Tampax, but who ever thinks about them when the others has been so indelibly implanted (like that little black mark at the base of the neck) into our consciousness?
The other side to that coin is that familiarity can and often does breed contempt. The media today seems to believe as PT Barnum did; “there’s a sucker born every minute. " The only difference is that their influence is far more widespread and millions and millions of suckers comprise their sideshow. Unfortunately, that includes me and everyone I know, even though the old adage that you can’t “fool all of the people all of the time" is still floating around somewhere (probably in a pool of the most effective detergent. )
The unmitigated pomposity of the media is a travesty of human intelligence. It is as if they say to us whether we want to hear it or not: You will buy our product because we made it and because you used to buy our products. It has nothing to do with whether or not our products are better than any others on the market. Ours is better because we have the money to say that it is- over and over and over again. Then our buys become emotional and not conscious. Theirs is a most subtle brainwash; a mental encounter of the forty-sixth kind. It is this presumption which bothers me the most and yet I and everyone I know keep falling into the vortex of polyunsaturated pledges and half told truths.
In my home state of Pennsylvania it is legal to substitute prescriptions with lower costing generics as long as the ingredients and dosage are comparable. Time and again, I have paid for pills and secretly wondered how effective they could be because I don’t know the brand name and if they don’t cost as much as I paid before, how could they possibly be as good? Wake up and smell the coffee, whatever brand you like. Scotch tape isn’t from Scotland and any other brand will seal any package just as well. Brillo is not the only soap pad in the world and cowboys do wear other brands of jeans besides Levis. (Maybe their horses don’t, but they do. ) Search for others that work just as well and you will find that they are also a lot cheaper. I should not have to pay for someone’s advertising costs and that’s exactly what we are all doing when we fall prey to the prestige of name brands.
Don’t get me wrong. I do believe one gets what one pays for in most areas of life, especially professional services of any kind. I am not parsimonious or even frugal by any standards. But what’s true is true. An item is not necessarily better because it is cheaper. Conversely, a familiar and/or more expensive item is not necessarily better either! There has to be a balance between cost and quality and that’s what missing today. Some standards never change and that’s why brand names backed by a solid reputation should never be ignored. For example, if I were going to buy a new television, I would look for a name with a history and credibility such as GE, RCA, Sharp or Sony. Between those examples however, it is an advertising contest to the death as to which is better, and my decision would have to hinge on other factors. I would probably choose the brand I bought before or the brand my father had or one that a friend or colleague recommended. That’s a far cry from purchasing something because the name sounds “familiar. "
Sales in generic products are rising, as the public is becoming more and more discerning and sophisticated. Awareness has crept into the Wall Street market as well. On The Motley Fool (A program of stock recommendations) a pharmaceutical company that waits for the patents on brand name products to run out so that it can purchase generic ones was recently highlighted as a good investment. Although some might argue that this company awaits profit somewhat like an alligator hiding patiently in a leafy glade, others consider the move a simple case of hungry free enterprise. In either case, sales do reflect a trend and a change in consumer awareness.
In the end you may get what you pay for in reference to some things but not others. In this case, the whole isn’t even equal to even some of its parts. (Like my brain. ) The contradiction is not as black and white as being pregnant, for example, which is either a state of being or it isn’t. Gray is an individual color, and each of us must decide what works and what doesn’t.
But if you should awake tomorrow morning with a little black mark on the base of your neck, don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s too late to run to Mr. Packard as he no longer lives in the world of breathing consumers. Just know that the time has come to either join the others with their little black marks or fight them and create your own little black mark. Consider changing the color, name or configuration on yours. Be sure you don’t call me though, whatever you do. I’m having enough trouble living with mine!
Marjorie Dorfman is a freelance writer and former teacher originally from Brooklyn, New York. She now lives in Doylestown, PA with four cats who keep her on her toes at all times. Originally a writer of ghostly and horror fiction, she has branched out into the world of humorous non fiction writing in the last five years. She maintains seven web sites covering a wide variety of topics and writes feature articles for several local newspapers. The author of a book entitled: A Taste of Funny, her website, Eat, Drink And Really Be Merry (http://www.ingestandimbibe.com ) features many well researched and humorous articles on the subject of food and drink.