Monday, January 10, 2011

GADFLY: Oh Oh Oh! Santa Didn't Clear the Chimney This Year

Commercial receipts indicate this was a humbug Christmas at the cash register.

Posted By on Mon, Jan 10, 2011 at 7:49 AM

Santa_Claus_stuck_in_chimney.jpg
Well, the results of the all-important Christmas buying frenzy are in, and guess what—-yup, they weren't what everyone predicted they'd be back when every media outlet, including The Flyer, was touting what a great holiday shopping season this one was in the process of being. Wow, what a surprise!

The excuse this time? Weather. Hmm, where have I heard that before? Christmas takes place in the winter when weather is a problem somewhere (and frequently many somewheres) every year. Using weather as an excuse for a disappointing Christmas shopping season is almost as cliched as using “spending more time with family”as an excuse for prematurely leaving a job. Every year we're treated to an onslaught of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed stories about how brisk sales look in anticipation of Christmas, and every year (or at least for as long as I can remember), the results are worse than the rosy projections that preceded them. When will we learn? It's almost like Charlie Brown believing, one more time, that Lucy won't snatch the ball away when he tries to kick it.

Retailers obviously believe that telling folks how crowded the stores are, and therefore how many people are going into debt to pay for Christmas, will stimulate sales, and media outlets certainly have a one-hand-washes-the-other interest in promoting their advertisers' success, even at the expense of the truth. Year after year, we can expect to be bombarded by TV news reports from one mall or another suggesting shopping emporia are as crowded as ant farms, not to mention the de rigeur reports on the day after Thanksgiving of nincompoops lining up at 4 A.M. to get into some “big box” store or other. But does that mean we either have to believe their bullshit or let it influence our behavior? The real question is, does this appeal to the herd mentality work, and the answer increasingly appears to be, no (which is also, coincidentally, the answer to the question “will anything about these bogus projections change next year?”).

Retailers and the media outlets who serve as their handmaidens need to consider the possibility that stories like these have achieved “boy who cried wolf” status, and come up with something else. Maybe a campaign based on fear instead of ebullience would work better. Look at how well it works to make us believe that unless we allow some stranger at the airport to grope us, we're going to die in a fiery plane crash.

Maybe something like “research has shown that people who don't spend at least $1,000 on Christmas shopping are ten times likelier to die prematurely than those who do.” Who cares if that's false. Most advertising is anyway, and it's not like some ivory tower scientist is likely to chime in that such a study hasn't been subjected to rigorous peer review. Of course, a crappy economy, 10% unemployment and an epidemic of foreclosures will trump cockeyed optimism every time. I just wish retailers would stop using these phony feel-good projections as a way of manipulating us into joining the Christmas feeding frenzy. But, it could be worse: subliminal messaging could make a comeback instead.

In a related sign of the times, every year when the new Yellow Pages phone directories come out, I do my own macro-economic analysis of them. I count the number of pages, and the number of listings in two particular categories I consider to be bellwethers, and compare them to the prior year. Since the new Yellow Pages directory has just come out, I thought I'd share some of what it reveals. First, the overall number of pages has dramatically declined this year, more than in any prior year of my unscientific survey.

That's not a promising development, in my not-so-humble opinion. In addition to being an effect of the economic downturn, it may also be a symptom of population loss, or it could be a function of the fact that ad dollars are being shifted to non-traditional media, especially since our 24/7 electronically-obsessed culture threatens to make printed phone directories extinct. If that happens, one side-effect will be the extinction of alphabetization as a necessary life skill, joining multiplication tables and longhand division in the scrap heap of things it turns out we didn't need to learn in elementary school. Of course, I'm the wrong person to bemoan this kind of modernization; I still hate it that crappy solar-powered calculators displaced the noble and elegant slide rule. Alas, trusty K & E Deci-Lon slide rule, I knew thee well.

The good news, though, is that the two categories of ads/listings I most like to monitor, the canaries in the mine of self-aggrandizement if you will, attorneys and churches, have also declined. Attorney ads mortify me, maybe because I still live in the deluded belief that the practice of law is a dignified profession. But, when one local law firm can sponsor a TV ad that takes ambulance chasing to the new level of having its spokeslawyers arrive at the scene of an accident in a helicopter before the victims' bodies have even been extricated from the wreckage, I guess I should be permanently disabused of that delusion.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised by the tactics lawyers use to get a competitive leg up in the dog-eat-dog legal world when, as it turns out, law schools, long one of the cash cows of the educational system, are apparently willing to do anything they have to to perpetuate the myth that a legal education is a guaranteed ticket to the brass ring. It seems appropriate, then, that there are fewer attorney ads in the Yellow Pages this year than last. That is a tectonic shift, especially since this is the first year, in my experience, that's happened, and should make a lot of lawyer bashers happy.

In a related development, there are roughly half as many churches listed in the Yellow Pages this year than last. I haven't figured out how to account for that, though. Is it further proof of what Fox News types call the attack on religion, or a reflection of the fact that atheism has become
increasingly popular, even if it doesn't yet have its own Yellow Pages listing. Whatever the reason, is there anyone who doesn't believe there are too many churches in this town, and not enough to show for it? It's not like, thanks to churches, poverty in Memphis is on the verge of being eradicated.

I remember how disheartened I was when I first came to Memphis to find out there were more pages of the directory devoted to churches than to lawyers. Maybe that was because, in many denominations, it's much easier to become a preacher than it is to become a lawyer. I have yet to understand the contradiction between the high number of churches and the high divorce, child pregnancy and crime rates we suffer from. I guess repression still isn't selling very well, even though religion is one of the products that benefits the most from a campaign of fear. Oh well, if being threatened with eternal damnation isn't enough to turn folks into believers, maybe, with the right ad campaign, it can be enough to turn them into shoppers.

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