Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Market Is My Matrix Brain Vat

The inner geek can sometimes screw reality up by looking at things in a not so normal way. But I like.

Take Ekman's work for example. He's spent years mapping out the facial muscles on the human face to create a specific coding system for emotion so that we know exactly what is going on when someone smiles - it's not just a smile; it can be a sly smile, a meek smile, a genuine smile, and so on. This means that, if we are trained enough, we can actually look past a person's overt facial display and pick out the nuances that really tell us what he or she really feels. And once we're adept at it, we can be better judges whether we want to or not. But I guess sometimes we're better off not knowing exactly how people feel, especially when people want to conceal their feelings so that life would move along more easily. It's just not cool when you're trying, and always able, to decipher the underlying emotion behind every smile, frown or laugh. Everyone's just going to become a lying bugger to you after that.

That aside, I spent Sunday morning grocery shopping with my family and I noticed quite a number of things beyond the ordinary. For one, studying the sociology of food this term has kept me on cynical toes about the credibility and health claims of the food products sold at supermarkets. Information on the packaging, at the end of the day, still has to serve a commercial interest, and that is to get people to buy the product even if it means tweaking the truth to consumer fancy.

On sale are all these supposedly top-notch eggs, sugar-free fruit juices, low fat milk and meat that looks so innocuous now but could've come to you via a slaughterhouse that treats the animals there like dirt, driving them batshit crazy and rendering them lame before they are put to death in the most pathetic manner possible. Sigh, it's a good enlightenment nonetheless, but my lenses have altered and in the end, this is the modern day reality - if not these foods, then no foods at all. Wet markets are dying out as convenience becomes valued more and more.

Then, I passed by a shop lady who was serving samples of a drink, which I later learnt to be an orange juice-like health drink that can aid in sore throats and ulcers. I accepted her offer, sampled it and listened to her explanation of the benefits of drinking it, before kindly declining to purchase it. I know from research that the mere act of sampling a product raises one's likelihood of purchasing it, so I decided to linger around and observe her attempts at selling the drink. A mother and her two children passed by. The mother rejected the shop lady's sample offer and continued walking on, but one of her kids trailing behind tried the drink. The mother, who had no interest initially whatsoever in the product and upon seeing her child try a sample, stopped to entertain the shop lady's explanation of the product. A while later, she bought one box.

That was a more complex case, but in general, almost everyone who tried a sample and had a chance to listen to the shop lady's description of the product bought it in the end. Did these people even need a sore throat/fever/ulcer treatment drink in the first place? No. But the wonders of marketing once again makes us aware of our 'unarticulated' needs and buy things.

On top of that, I have no idea if the product really is all that brilliant. It is really just a bunch of chemicals put together which supposedly have medicinal properties coupled with other stuff to make it taste like orange juice, in the pretext of creating a formula that will aid ailments of heatiness.

Later on, my folks went ahead to complete the grocery purchases. The bill came up to $72.50 - voila, it was $2.50 short of rebates! That 'purchase $75 and get points' deal resulted in a moment of excited frenzy as my parents instinctively turned around from the counter to scurry for something convenient to fill up the price deficit. And scurry they did, because it's always not nice to keep other people in the queue behind you waiting, hoho. I turned around too, and realised that I was immediately confronted with the supermarket's brand products, most of which wouldn't have been considered by shoppers in their right minds to purchase. Stuff on the convenient shelves can get as ridiculous as party toys. There were also less popular cup noodles, which is very sly because there really is a permanent section for cup noodles somewhere else in the shop - the supermarket just wanted to try and take advantage of this moment of frenzied, 'just grab anything' buying behaviour to sell off certain products. Shoppers wouldn't have, endowed with the luxury of reason, considered buying these products, but because of the need to get a rebate one ends up buying unnecessarily and, I guess sometimes even worse, rationalises the purchases. I'd love to see someone rationalise the party toys.

Aside from the supermarket, it's amazing what can get on sale in malls all over the world, ranging from products to services to entertainment. I don't really have a term to combine the ideas of consumerism, capitalism and evil marketing together, but this whole thing to me often seems to be the root of people's general unhappiness and discontent. We see all kinds of funny goods, all of which are designed to make us want them, and when we don't buy all these things it makes us unhappier, when in the first place in the absence of these unnecessary things we were really doing just fine. Oh well, the lines drawn on the ethics of selling aren't clear, and for the benefit of capitalism we really do have a much wider variety of ways to spend our cash now. Whee for that.

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