Opinion: A sip down the rabbit hole

By JEAN STIMMELL

Published: 05-28-2023 7:00 AM

Jean Stimmell, retired stone mason and psychotherapist, lives in Northwood and blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.

I wrote in my last My Turn column about the power of advertising to seduce folks into buying things they don’t need. I foggily remembered reading a great description of why that happens.

To refresh my memory, I dug out what had once been my bible, “Your Money or Your Life” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, written in the 1990s. Regrettably, over the years, I’ve let slide much of their advice about the advantages of practicing voluntary simplicity and living below your means.

The beginning of the book gives a brief history of how we sell things in America. During most of our country’s history, we primarily bought only items we needed, but that changed when advertising came into its own in the 1920s. At that point, modern manufacturing advances came, providing the products Americans needed at lower and lower costs. Having their needs more easily satisfied, workers instinctively began asking for a shorter work week and more time for leisure. It didn’t occur to them to work longer to get things they didn’t need.

As a result, economic growth started going down.

The tycoons of big business were apoplectic because their profit margins were suffering. Into the breach to save the day came modern advertising, based on a brand-new premise: while real needs are limited, the sky is the limit for our wants. This notion was incorporated as a mantra in Herbert Hoover’s 1929 economic report, celebrating the discovery that when we satisfy one want, it makes way for another. “The conclusion is that economically, we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”

And so it came to be. We became a nation of consumers chasing each new want concocted on Madison Avenue. They have shown no mercy, pushing ever more absurd products to shrill. A perfect example is the campaign to sell us new beverages.

For tens of thousands of years, people had no qualms about drinking water for free from lakes and rivers and, more recently, right out of the tap. Unfortunately, by the time I was growing up in the 1950s, modern advertising had already made water obsolete. Coke and Pepsi were kings by the time I came around. But as we all know, that didn’t last forever. The health craze came along and poisoned the soft drink well.

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Drinking water once again came back in vogue to appease the new god of hydration, but only expensive bottled water was deemed appropriate, not free water out of the tap. And so it stood, or so I naively believed, until I recently read about advertising’s latest triumph in the New York Times. Over the past decade or so, water-flavoring offerings have exploded across our country and the world.

I missed the trend because I was drinking beer.

This part of the ready-to-drink (RTD) beverage market has been skyrocketing, with sales increasing by 42% in the last three years. Globally, the RTD market is expected to approach $100 billion by the start of this year.

These water additive companies pitch their drinks — often made with artificial sweeteners and flavorings — as a means to help people hit their hydration goals. “It’s Mary Poppins logic: A spoonful of (sugar-free coconut syrup) makes the (tap water) go down.”

Yet it’s strikingly effective as one true believer, a history teacher from South Texas, confessed. She said going back to drinking tap water would feel like “drinking my own saliva.”

In the opinion of this old Yankee curmudgeon, this advertising blitz is not a Mary Poppins’ story, it is a bad trip from Alice in Wonderland, where corporate capitalism in cahoots with modern advertising is cajoling us to dive down the rabbit hole of insanity.

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