This post has been rolling around in my head for some time, but Thanksgiving and all the Black Friday hoopla seems to be an appropriate time to gather these thoughts and put them out on the blog.
On our recent journey to Charleston, I remember at one point commenting about the number of car dealerships clustered around a particular interchange. I think it was somewhere around Columbia, SC but it could be anywhere in the US big enough to have car dealerships. As much as I love and appreciate nice cars, the automobile business has always served to me as a prime representation of marketing-driven consumption. If I wanted to be negative I could say “greed and excess” here, but it wouldn’t serve my point. So we’ll call it marketing-driven consumption. Black Friday is another prime example of marketing-driven consumption to the max.
I specifically remember, shortly after buying a new car several years ago, someone told me “congratulations!” as if to imply that purchasing a new car was some kind of heroic achievement. But that’s how cars have always been marketed, as symbols of success and status. When I was growing up, each September my brother & I would start sneaking into the storage lots behind the local car dealerships to get a peek at the new models to be introduced in the fall. Back in that day, models tended to really change between model years, rather than just another homogenized ToyHoNisOlet, because the manufacturers relied more on the cars to sell themselves. And they all had somewhat distinctive features, from styling to performance.
Today, many cars, at least those the regular folks can afford, all look pretty much alike. So it takes marketing to make us want one over another. And that marketing is usually aimed at making someone feel young, attractive, successful, more interesting or some attribute only accomplished by purchasing a particular product. Because it’s been hammered into our heads for so long, whenever someone sees a friend driving a new car, there is often a tinge of envy (or worse) and at least a little bit of “must be nice.” I usually look at it and think of what I could do with the payment. But that’s just me.
Anyway, the comment that I made when I saw all of these car dealerships was that if there was some way we could be identified and ranked (because after all this is all about judging and ranking – a subject for another post) not by how fancy our car is or the neighborhood we live in, but by the size of our 401(k) our IRA or our savings account, would there be investment offices at all of these interchanges instead of car dealerships? Would we make different decisions if they were based on mindful reasoning instead of marketing? And how would those decisions be reflected in our personal wellbeing if they didn’t involve spending huge sums of money or committing to an endless stream of payments?
In that same vein, why do so many people tend to judge how serious someone is about photography based on the type of equipment they own or the subject matter that they photograph? Have we been convinced by marketing and promotion by the camera manufacturers and retailers that the only way to take meaningful photographs is to have the latest and greatest camera and lens? Perhaps. But I prefer to appreciate a photographer’s work based on the quality of their photographs, and when possible the stories behind the photographs. THAT is what photography means to me, not what brand of camera someone has, or which lens or how big their sensor is. Or even whether they are using a digital camera or film. But that’s hard, just like resisting the temptation brought on by advertising and marketing is hard.
As someone who doesn’t own a television or listen to commercial radio (I usually say that “I don’t watch TV” because saying “I don’t own a TV” makes some people uncomfortable) I’m not bombarded by all of the marketing messages that drive consumer spending. Kathy & I just don’t buy a lot of stuff, and when we do, we buy it because we need or want it. Being on sale isn’t generally a factor in our buying decision, although once we make a decision to purchase something we will often wait on a sale to buy it if we aren’t in a rush. But I still find myself attracted by the “Sale” or “Limited Time Only” mentality, and sometimes have to work hard to curb that feeling I get when something looks attractive because I’m afraid that I might not be able to have it.
As Kathy & I prepare to move into our “downsized” new home, and after having lived for the last 6 months in a rented apartment with just our most essential belongings, we have come to realize that all of the things we have been storing since May are things that aren’t really necessary for our daily lives. And while we did a really good job of paring down the things that we deemed “disposable” before we moved, we now think that maybe we didn’t go far enough. Many of things we have been storing are things that we’re going to have to think really hard about, in order to decide how much of it we even need or want to keep.
So what does this all have to do with anything? In the last few days, like many of us I’ve been bombarded by e-mails from every merchant I’ve ever done business with promoting their Black Friday “Doorbusters.” I don’t know about everyone else, but I haven’t yet seen a “deal” on anything I’d actually buy. I don’t think of camera equipment as something that is an impulse purchase. Most people only buy a camera when they need one, after weeks or sometimes months of analysis or research. I’ve enjoyed several recent exchanges on the blogs of some of my photo friends, discussing things like the aesthetics of a particular camera. Talking about how a camera feels to hold versus another, the ease of use or feel of the controls. Discussions around the mindfulness of talking photographs and cutting out the noise and chatter that distracts us from the pursuit of activities that make us happy. Things that matter to those of us who actually use a camera to take photographs, not just collect equipment or are constantly chasing after the next great thing. But that isn’t stuff you can buy at the mall or Best Buy.
Monte has demonstrated that you don’t need to necessarily buy the latest version of a camera, that the introduction of a new model can mean a good deal on the previous one. That makes the older model a good value, because it will do exactly what he needs it to do for a fraction of the cost of when it was new, or of the cost of the new model.
Chris has spent some time comparing the relative qualities of several mirrorless compact camera models, and has formed an opinion that seems to be contrary to the popular opinion. But if a particular camera meets your needs, then it is the right tool for you. Whether or not something is on sale doesn’t make it a good deal if it isn’t what you want. And I guess that is my point.
And Cedric wrote a similar post about how the ergonomics and feel of a camera means more to him than megapixels and dynamic range. His story about an exchange with a photography professor about the “feel” of a camera was a good one.
Mindfulness is a theme I have been pursuing lately. Decisions made in a calculated fashion, not driven by a marketing frenzy. Just being on sale isn’t a reason to buy anything we don’t want or need. Not buying something means you have saved the entire price, not just a percentage. And not needing a place to store all of our accumulated junk means we have room and resources for things that do matter to us. A purchasing decision made mindfully is a good one regardless of the price of the item being purchased.
I’m looking forward to living even more mindfully in 2014. We’ll see how that actually plays out. But first I’m going to have to sort through all the stuff that the movers are going to deliver in a couple of weeks! I’ll probably decide to start planning a vacation…that’s a lot more fun than a car payment.