Friday, September 26, 2014

Let's wait on the money

            As you may have heard, a month or so ago someone hacked into the photo archives of a bunch of famous and semi-famous actresses and, after retrieving a large cache of nude photographs and posting them in a publicly accessible place on the web, set off an orgy of downloading and subsequent hand-wringing over public morality and internet privacy. Presumably these two things played out among different groups and each had their own type of fun with it (I guess a few hypocrites might have done a little of both).
            The only article I read about this episode was this one by Molly Lambert, an entertainment writer for the website Touching on some of the larger themes spinning off from this episode – internet privacy, mob dynamics, women and media – it’s worth a read. The reason I bring it up, and the whole episode more fully, is that I came away from her article thinking about the subtle role money played in all of this. Entertainment companies rely heavily on a few strategies to grab consumers’ attention and convince them to pay for the movies, music, and games they sell. When it comes to selling women (and that is an intentional malapropism), sex appeal is an easy choice. Provocative photo shoots, barely-clothed struts in music videos, sex scenes in movies, even the glamour and glitz of red carpet interviews all are designed to stoke a biological reaction, to prick peoples’ curiosity, and to get them to pay up in order to see more.
           That more doesn’t have to actually be sex or even nudity. The power really lies in the curiosity and the questions that follow: what are this star going to look like in this movie? What about that show? How about at this awards ceremony? How about when they go to the dry-cleaners? With these efforts the entertainment companies are like shark scientists chumming the water to bring out the sharks. The scientists keep throwing out bloody meat to grab the sharks’ attention, trying to manipulate the sharks’ biological reactions to make them go somewhere they might not otherwise go.
            In this analogy, the Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, etc photo hack and subsequent mob download was like having one of these shark scientists fall overboard and get attacked. The sharks weren’t doing anything different than what the scientists had been priming them to do over and over again – come up to the boat and take some bites. The reaction was already pre-programmed into the system.

            I wanted to touch on this dynamic between advertising and human reactions as a way to talk about money and kids and how kids are supposed to learn to handle money. A capitalist economy demands that all companies scramble for consumer dollars. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. From a business perspective, competition is a great motivator. It challenges people and companies to do things and do them better: to try new manufacturing processes, to reach out to new markets, to improve their product quality, to lower prices, to explore new ideas.
           From the consumer side though, this constant competition for dollars means we get buried by advertising. Our daily existence now contains an endless assault of images, catch words, manipulations and games that seek to worm their way into our consciousness, play with our emotions, and overwhelm our decision-making processes in an effort to grab some of our money. In the face of this onslaught, it’s hard to say ‘Stop’ and harder still to clear away all the noise and make cogent decisions about what is important or how to spend your money in useful ways.
            Which brings me to kids and money. The conventional idea about learning how to handle money is the one I grew up with. I started getting a small allowance as a five or six year old. I think it was a quarter once a week ostensibly for taking out the trash and doing what other chores were asked of me. The idea was that I would patiently save my quarters to buy something I wanted. For a while this was Matchbox cars. Then it was baseball cards. One summer I think I mostly bought candy. At some point my parents took me to the bank to open a savings account so that I could also learn about how interest works and come to appreciate how saving some of those quarters could increase my overall total over time.
            This was all well and good and I guess I learned how to overcome my immediate impulses to buy something in order to save for something else. But, in an era where every website and app pumps out advertisements by the truckload, book order pamphlets from Scholastic come home twice a month from school, PTA events are sponsored by local real estate agents, and the calendars our school requires every student to buy contains a giant ad for a local orthodontist on the back, I wonder if this kind of early exposure to the capital machine might do more harm than good. Isn’t teaching young kids about money by giving them money akin to teaching interns at the zoo to feed the lions by giving them a meat-sicle and dropping them into the lion enclosure? It feels like they don’t have a chance.
            Or imagine a six-year old faced with the allure of an ice cream truck? How can it make any sense to a kid how to decide whether he should buy an ice cream or not? He knows he wants it. The colorful, happy signs on the side tell him how good the ice cream tastes and how wonderful it will make him feel. The only reason to hold off is that his parents say he shouldn’t – because it will ruin his dinner or some stupid thing like that. That’s a no-win situation for everyone but the person selling the ice cream.
            And, even if the kid has decided to hold on to his quarters to buy something else he wants, he still isn’t getting at the real challenge behind managing money. He’s just holding off on one want for another. Since his parents are covering all the necessities, since he doesn’t have to figure out how he’s going to buy food for the next month or afford the clothes he needs for work or the gas he needs to get around or the rent he has to pay, there’s no larger context in which to learn a productive lesson about making difficult choices and living within his means. It’s just ice cream now or candy later.
            Might it be easier to handle if there was no actual money involved? Can you talk about advertising strategies and how they make you feel with a clearer head if there’s no actual chance to buy the ice cream? Isn’t it easier to see the various games that are being played within the system to attract your attention if you start from outside? Might it be easier to ignore the chum if you’ve had a chance to look at what it is designed to do?
           I don’t know for sure, but in our family we’re giving it a try.

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