This is a guest post by ADNAN R AMIN
It was an entertaining skit.
It opens with an animated evangelist (played by a dashing Bollywood leading man) talking about the dangers of stress and how it drains us. To the applause of an enthralled, glazed-eyed audience, he presents a man quivering uncontrollably – tap-dancing even – from extreme work-related stress. With the uproarious consent of the crowd, the evangelist introduces the poor specimen to Askmebazar.com. Miraculously, the man stops shaking and starts browsing through shopping items. He is instantly relieved of his stress and bathed in a halo-like glow. As the plot winds up, he is seen drowning in a deluge of delivery crates and boxes.
“One Click Therapy.”
This is the comical, over-the-top television commercial from Askmebazar.com, an online marketplace. While undeniably funny, the positioning idea is discomforting, if not problematic. Once we get past the comedy and the antics, the message of the commercial is darkly dystopian. It seems to say: if earning gives you stress, spending will relieve that stress. Meanwhile, here’s an app just for that.
This is also a typical example of ‘pushy advertising’ – an outdated, preachy and prescriptive mode of communications that only worked in the past because the level of advertising had not reached the point of saturation. While brand messages are increasingly becoming simple and to-the-point, that hardly means the modern consumer will fall for desperate cries of, “Spend here! Buy me!” Especially the ones armed with Smartphones and transacting on online marketplaces.
But the sense of discomfort evoked by the Evangelist TVC goes beyond the lack of sophistication. The premise, message, media and format are all important elements in analyzing it. While it is not uniquely sinister, it certainly is representative of how pushy advertising still remains in shoving products down people’s throats. If we dig deeper, the institutionalized hyper-consumerist agenda begins to emerge. The following are four criticisms of the content and form of this particular TVC.
1. The Premise is Dystopian
Literary dystopias are alarming because they are suddenly sprung upon us. Real life dystopia sets in gradually. It’s the same case with the hyper-consumerist Society.
Let me oversimplify.
The math is simple: Equation 1 – overwork results in incomes and contributes to the build up of stress. In equation 2 – spending removes the stress, taking the income and leaving behind products (meant to include goods, services and experiences).
In the grotesque model above, ‘spending’ acts as a counterbalance to ‘work’ – eventually, eliminating both stress and income from people’s lives, leaving with them with an endless array of products. It is not enough that our modern production-driven, profit-focused capitalist machinery creates conditions where people are over-worked to the point of being stressed out, it further demands their earnings are returned as a price of what has been produced.
The race for limitless production only makes sense as long as people give in to mindless, hyper-consumption. People comply because everything that they desire, starting from elections, education and religion to entertainment, literature and sports, has been turned into commercial ventures. Almost every act is a transaction. Think about it, even to read this post, you probably have had to trade your email address and personal information at some point.
Naturally, this growth-obsessed system leaves people feeling drained and in need for material rewards. The endless choices of colors, shapes, flavors and variants result in the illusion of choice and reality of decision fatigue. Advertising like Askmebazaar.com’s constitutes and perpetuates what is a self-sustaining, exploitative system.
2. The Problem is not Frivolous
The website is positioned as a remedy to work-related stress. “One Click Therapy”. In the process, it makes light of ‘stress’, portraying it as a condition characterized by uncontrollable crazy feet.
While it is largely scoffed at in South Asia, developed countries recognize stress as a silent epidemic. Sadly, that leads me to base my arguments on information made available in those countries. But the patterns are telling. Childhood stress is now linked to self-harm, anorexia and bullying. In adults, it is a real medical condition that can lead to mood swings, manic depression and even suicidal tendencies. And it is not a fringe symptom; work-related stress is on the rise as people are expected to do more with less in a shorter period.
In the TVC, the misrepresentation of stress is problematic; but it is even more problematic to imply, even in jest, that it may be treated through online shopping. It is an irresponsible claim that the brand cannot possibly deliver on. Stress is a postmodern epidemic, and hardly a laughing matter. For a modern, tech-savvy brand to completely overlook this fact is appalling.
3. The Solution is Misleading
Retail therapy is a dubious solution. It works if you are Keira Knightley. But if not, experts advise caution. Research confirms that it creates temporary feelings of wellbeing and relief. But the way it works is that instead of clearing the mind, it distracts it. It brings in new information to shroud any particular challenge, frustration or grievance causing stress. But unlike with meditation, which can include concentrating on the challenge at hand, the mind is temporarily distracted and unburdened. The stress always returns, often with the vengeance of dissonance and remorse of impulse purchases.
With retail therapy, resources are often diverted away from more pressing causes. When purchases are made mainly, and chronically, for mood enhancement, side-effects can also emerge. Those given to compulsive buying can experience high levels of anxiety, powerlessness, conflict and frustration. And that is to speak nothing of the month-end credit-card bills. Everything in retail therapy detracts from a closer inspection of the origins of stress.
Even if retail therapy is assumed to be the best treatment for stress – over meditation, psychological evaluations, consultation and therapy – Askmebazaar.com appears guilty of callous behavior. To unequivocally claim, that its online marketplace has the capacity to allay stress, is scientifically and medically improbable. That the format is comical, does not mitigate the seriousness of its claim.
4. The Insight Ignores Emotions
Lastly, let us acknowledge that the TVC was meant to be theatrical and crass, a spoof of multiple genres. But even its attempt to be crass lacks sophistication. Advertising magazines and blogs have lauded Askmebazaar.com’s unique insight of ‘retail therapy’. But what they have missed is that the subject i.e. the stressed individual – so easily pacified by things to buy – is in fact a caricature of the common working-man.
That, in turn, makes the audience feel belittled. We all consume, but we never want to be reduced to mere, gullible consumers. This emotional aspect was altogether ignored in the advertising. Yes, it may be seen as clever. But is it clever for its own sake? Is the joke on its own consumers? Are we supposed to identify with or feel sorry for the shaking man? Is it promoting Consumerism, and a social satire of it, at the same time? Should we be encouraged into, or offended away from, retail therapy?
There is little sense in picking out Askmebazaar.com out of thousands of similar pushy brands that are constantly urging people to spend. The pressure to conform to expectations of hyper-consumption is manifesting itself through politics, commerce, art and culture. This is the price of infinite growth.
Personally, I do not advocate greedily hoarding every penny earned. Spend, by all means. But when we are pushed to buy and then buy some more, we need to stand back and consider what we are being asked to give up in return.
Adnan R. Amin is a brand and strategic communications consultant. He has worked with McCann Worldgroup, Unilever and Saatchi & Saatchi. Connect at firstname.lastname@example.org, @adnanramin.