Don’t those words just grab your attention?
Now that the new year has begun, and the madness of the Christmas shopping season is behind us, let me say it: I hate what all that seasonal advertising can do to my spirit. (Though if you haven’t already seen this viral video, here’s a reason to do next year’s shopping in Germany!)
It starts in earnest the day after Thanksgiving, on so-called “Black Friday,” when big-box retailers pull out the stops to get shoppers into stores, particularly to snap up tech at ridiculous prices. (In an amusing slip of the tongue, I heard a friend refer to the day as “Good Friday,” making me wonder whether the unconscious association was to death or salvation.) The Black Friday frenzy can even begin on or before Thanksgiving. Some stores start their deals Thursday night, prompting people to ditch the family dinner (maybe they just needed a reason?), while the truly hard-core camp out in front of a store for days to be the first in line for that gigantic flat screen.
Smaller stores can’t quite compete at that level, hence the invention of “Cyber Monday,” which offers a more level, online playing field. And it works: 2014 was reportedly a record year, with over $2 billion of online sales, at an average of over $100 a pop. My email inbox was inundated with advertisements and dire warnings not to miss the opportunity to cash in on the savings. “Last chance!” screamed the subject line of one ad. “Cyber Monday deals end soon!”
It was Wednesday.
One retailer tried to solve the naming problem by using the term “Cyber Monday Week” instead, which is at best awkward. A few days later, another website simply trumpeted its own “Cyber Saturday.” And still another seller just skirted the whole issue by announcing “Cyber Savings,” which, if you think about it, doesn’t mean anything more than just “online sale” — a rather ordinary event, and typically, with rather ordinary savings.
And just when you thought Cyber Monday Super Special Savings Week was over, along came Green Monday, cranking up the Internet sales pitches all over again. (Not to mention a company from whom I buy custom embroidered apparel — they announced a sale on fleece jackets with the holiday phrase, “Fleece Navidad.”)
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for saving money on things I would have bought anyway; I was raised in a frugal household and flinch at paying list price for anything. (Of course, retailers know this, and often inflate list prices to where the sale price is what they should have been charging in the first place.) And I also understand that I am a person of social and economic privilege, with a reasonably comfortable life: if I really needed or wanted something, I could probably afford list price. That affects my stance.
The problem is that advertising can turn my idle wants into compelling needs. Today, I might want X, but I don’t really need it, and have no intention of buying it. But suddenly, it’s on sale. Then comes the pressure of a consumption-driven irrational belief: I’d be a schlemiel not to buy it, especially when everyone else is making off with the deals. (Honestly, haven’t you ever bought something you could easily had lived without, because it was on sale?)
And the kicker is that even if I have the sales resistance to not give in, I’m left with a small, lingering sense of regret: Gee, it would have been nice if… Oh, well.
There is, of course, a whole long history to all of this: with the advent of industrialism, manufacturers and retailers had to create new markets for their mass-produced goods. They could no longer afford to wait for customers to come to them with their needs; they had to go directly to customers and convince them to buy — by manipulating a sense of need.
And therein lies the rub. By world standards, I live in the lap of luxury. Life has its problems, of course, but I’m generally content. Then comes Black Friday, Cyber-whatever, and this or that electronic advertisement specifically targeted to my online buying habits. And even if nothing changes, even if I find myself at the end of the week with the exact same possessions I already had, I feel a dip in contentment and gratitude, a slight sense of loss for what could have been if I just had given in and bought the stupid thing.
Lord, have mercy. What a pitiful state of affairs. Am I really that shallow?
Ultimately, I’m not wanting to feel heroic about some superior sales resistance. I’m not even wanting to find contentment in the abundant possessions I already have.
What I want is the freedom of spirit that comes from resting in the gracious and loving providence of God. Jesus taught his disciples not to worry about food and clothing (Matt 6:25-34), real necessities that may have posed a challenge for many of his followers. And he might have had somewhat different words if he were preaching to moneyed believers transfixed by the Home Shopping Network. But the question is still one of desire: do I want God’s kingdom more than anything else? Because if I don’t, other desires will fill the vacuum.
And it’s a sure bet that people with something to sell will line up to help me spend those desires.