Before writing my thoughts on Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide To American Consumer Culture by Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky, I should note a few disclaimers.
I know both of the authors. One is a refugee from the music industry who occasionally appears on NPR to discuss advertising, mind control, and consumer culture. The other is a comedian who writes for The Onion.
The book is based on a number of essays written in the highly regarded but defunct glossy magazine Stay Free! Many, many years ago, before Stay Free! was highly regarded, glossy, or defunct, I was one of a number of people who wrote for it. In those days it was a two color "zine" circulating in college towns in North Carolina that covered music as much or more than its later concerns of how the advertising industry encourages us to manipulate ourselves. While nothing that I wrote, or even thought, appears in Ad Nauseam, I am sort of proud of this parody of a noxious Gap ad rampant in the 1990s, which did appear in Stay Free!:
One of the authors (I won't say which) is married to my co-blogger Charles. Charles played no role whatsoever in writing this review, nor do I care about offending him if anything that follows does so. But you shouldn't necessarily believe that.
I received my copy of the book for free. I paid nothing for it. My review has been delayed because my wife commandeered the copy.
All that said, I still would have bought it, based on what I knew of the authors' writings and ideas. I recommend that you buy it. You should view this recommendation skeptically, in light of what I told you above. You should view this recommendation especially skeptically, because of what I told you above. If I were just some liar, or book reviewer, I wouldn't have mentioned any of it. I'd just tell you that this is a well-researched, uproariously funny, book about why and how you have trained yourself to buy stuff you don't need, or even want.
So I must really want you to read this book.
If you live in an industrialized country you have been trained, from the time you were able to talk, to manipulate yourself. In some industrialized countries, this training teaches you to convince yourself that the state is your friend, and that you owe it your support. But since you probably live in America, Europe, or Japan, that's likely your secondary training. Your primary training is to convince yourself, to manipulate yourself, to believe that buying things will make you happier, healthier, a better person than your neighbor, or at least not inferior to your neighbor.
Now you're a smart person. You know all of that. In fact you have a rich inner life. So rich that when you're exposed to advertising you do your best to ignore it. When you can't ignore it, you comment to your friends ironically about it. Your friends are the same. None of you pays the slightest attention to advertising, even the cool ads, because you're smarter than that. You've grown up around it. You know when they're trying to manipulate you.
And yet you buy the stuff anyway. You own one or more of the following: a newly purchased car; an iPod; a Vista-equipped PC; a laptop that you don't use for travel or portability purposes; dvds that make you wonder, "Why do I have this?"; a pair of shoes that doesn't look good and isn't comfortable; a house you can't afford; a gaming console that you never play; a high-definition television; a smart phone whose capabilities you don't utilize; a Kindle; any number of foods you don't intend to eat; and bottles of wine or liquor that you had to train yourself to enjoy, because they're an "acquired taste".
You don't need any of this stuff. You know, when you buy it, that you don't. And yet you buy it anyway. Not because THEY told you to buy it, but because you told yourself. You are a self-domesticated animal.
The difference between you and your dog? He's happy to be a domesticated animal. He'll eat the same food every day, and he's happy as long as you spend time with him and take him for walks. You, on the other hand, are perpetually unhappy. You buy off unhappiness, in small doses, but never banish it. No, you're a medieval peasant, paying the Dane his geld, except that unlike the peasant you know the Dane will be back tomorrow or next month, demanding that you pay more geld.
What is the solution? Are we to keep paying the Dane his geld? Are we to keep buying his stuff? NO! Are we not men?
Well, actually yes, we will keep paying the geld. We're not men. But we can be a higher order of animal. We can build ourselves a more spacious cage, one not so crowded with useless stuff.
Here's where McLaren/Torchinsky's book falls down. We're primates. We like our stuff. We'll kill other primates to have more stuff, or keep the stuff we have. Most of us don't want to be Shakers, sitting at a loom knitting rough, homespun underwear that chafes our asses. Unfortunately Ad Nauseam is long on diagnosis, and short on cure. Some of us simply can't sit in our apartments reading used paperbacks to our children and drinking our Victory Gin and eating our organic Seven Reasons Too Good To Be True bran cereal, like peasants in some God-damned people's collective grain farm.
But we can think, like the higher animals we are. Before we buy this next gewgaw, we can ask ourselves why we're buying it. Ad Nauseam is full of studies, stories, and anecdotes about our behavior in this regard, from those that are obviously revolting to us higher animals (the inner-city kid who pesters his grandmother for $150 to buy a badly made pair of shoes) to those that make us look in the mirror and say, "That's me," to those that the authors, hipsters that they are, don't even consider themselves. Think about it. Is a Baby Einstein dvd really more likely than a diet of Spongebob Squarepants to make your child a baby Einstein, or is it just television?
It's difficult to be a primate. We're acquisitive creatures, we're social, and we have some level of self-awareness. Therefore, we will accumulate stuff. That's what primates do. But the least we can do, for ourselves if not our fellow primates (honestly, fuck them), when accumulating stuff, is to ask, "Why do I want this?", "What will it do for me?", and most importantly, "How did I wind up here, looking at this thing in the first place?"
Despite its lack of solutions, Ad Nauseam, written in an entertaining happy-collective farmer's style, with lots of diagrams, parody, and Onion-esque humor, may cause you to ask those questions a little more frequently, and perhaps even to put the stuff back on the shelf, walking out of the store without having spent a penny.
That may be the best solution there is.