It is just another Saturday afternoon in Paris. I am being pushed along with the hoards of tourists near Opéra, admiring the sales of 30, 50, even 70 percent off! As fashionistas stroll by me effortlessly by the dozen, I grab my purse with a death-grip and keep on walking…
Madonna said it best when she sang, “’Cause we are living in a material world and I am a material girl.” Try as we might, we are all products of our culture, which in the West has come to favor consumerism and capitalism and all the nasty things that come along with them. Unless, of course, you are French, and then you might be able to proclaim socialism (which has become a serious gros mot in America) and weasel your way out of the blame-fest.
Lately, I can’t step foot into a Monoprix or Galeries Lafayette without enduring the wrath of insults about Americans and their spendthrift ways. As a friend said to me a while back, “I don’t understand you Americans – you make tons of money for the sole goal of spending it on more and more things.” Unnecessary, gratuitous things, is what she meant.
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Maybe my friend is right. Maybe we Americans are just gluttons for the latest new lipstick, speedboat or washing machine. But in the past few years, it seems that the French are catching up.
At a recent babysitting gig, I couldn’t help but choke over the inane amount of miniature plastic Petshop animals lying about the little girl’s bedroom. This was only seconded to her brother’s piles of Playmobiles, which threatened to burst out of the toy box. Granted, the family came from a certain moyen, but the consumer-driven sickness of wanting “more, more, more” seemed to be descending upon this innocent French household.
Cases of “The Wants” are even more prevalent in the French countryside, where home fix-ups and expansive yards give way to the ever-present desire for more useless stuff. A friend in the southwest told me she felt a thrill every time she made a purchase, whether it was a sparkly top for herself, the jungle-gym for her 2 year-old son or that new dryer for the garage. Some of the items still had the price tags on them months later, leaving little reminders of the sheer joy of spending her hard-earned cash.
In his article, “Consumerism and the New Capitalism,” American-turned-Switzerland resident Rip Cronk writes: “Consumerism is the myth that the individual will be gratified and integrated by consuming…. Self-worth is gauged by buying power.” Yet, the more we spend, the more empty we feel. We don’t ever seem to have as much as what’s-his-name next door, and the envy greens us from the inside.
The issue of Big Business and mass media controlling our consumer habits is not just an American problem anymore. A quick flip through French TV channels offers a bombardment of French and foreign-born ads hoping to catch you or your little one’s eye. Advertisers have even snuck into the cinema with us, eating up our 10-euro ticket with over 15 minutes of commercials for everything from the local pizza joint to the latest Fanta flavor.
But maybe I should just hold my tongue and wait for better days ahead. After all, President Sarkozy has promised to eliminate TV ads from public channels by 2011. The phase-out has already begun, with ad sales dropping 5% in 2009 from its $4.6 billion of spending in 2008, according to ZenithOptimedia. The change is estimated to cut $700 million in advertising for state-owned stations, nearly 15% of France’s total ad dollars – bad news for business, better news for the average Joe.
So, while there’s still hope for the French, it would seem that we Americans are just too far gone to save. With our super-size mentality and increasing dependence on corporate America, all we can do now is hold on tight to our La-Z-Boys and giant slushies and hope for the best. Only our TiVOs can help us now.
Also published in Brit’mag