Before I had kids, I despised Christmas.
I thought the holiday was symbolic of everything that was fake, exploitative and wasteful about our culture. And nothing symbolized our population’s sheep-like inability to think for itself than millions of economically strained people stampeding into debt because Television tells them they will offend Christ if they don’t buy thousands of dollars of worthless crap.
A consumer Christmas, after all, is a bigger political shoo-in in America than an expanding defense budget. There will never be a meaningful movement in this country to make Christmas about peace, love and hand-made gifts. Even though many or perhaps most of us would like that, an avalanche of messaging would always intervene to prevent the holiday from ever being divorced from the ad-driven anxiety that’s needed to keep spending levels high.
All of this used to drive me crazy, but now? My little boy likes the tree. He’s getting Matchbox cars Friday, and he’s going to love them. I can live with the political downside.
As for the rest of that shopaholic, mall-rushing craziness that can make this holiday so stressful, it turns out that it’s optional. Switch off the wi-fi for a few days, turn off the TV, and it’s amazing how much more reasonable the world instantly seems.
This has been a bad year for America, largely because politically, we’ve lost the ability to tune out. We no longer know how to calm down and appreciate what we have.
Though our economy may not be what it was, we’re actually safer and less susceptible to crime or war than at any time in our history. But in the same way retailers want us buying on Christmas, others want us scared to death and addicted to news of threats at home and from abroad.
Media companies and politicians alike want us buying stories about terrorists, Ebola, immigrants, crime, hurricanes and whatever else gets the blood rushing to the fear center. And just as retailers sell us things we don’t need, news writers and presidential candidates alike will sell us scare stories, whether we need them or not. They will never not need us to buy.
And we’re obliging. We’ve become fear addicts. Not that this world is without threats, but what there is to worry about – even the threat of being killed in a terrorist attack – exists on a level nowhere near in proportion to our anxiety.
Madison Avenue has always understood that scaring people is a fantastic way to sell things. Decades ago, the worst abuses on this front tended to be relatively mild appeals to social neuroses, things like the classic “ring around the collar” commercial that made a generation of Americans frightened of being the dope with the sweat stain around his neck.
As the years passed, advertisers learned a lot about how not just to use existing fears, but to create new ones. How do you sell Head & Shoulders in China, a country that traditionally never gave a thought to dandruff? Easy: You run ads to create the social stigma, then sell the solution in the same message.