Online with
Louise Ripley

Home Teaching Research Service Personal Other Links Index
 

Shopping Mall Values

The Reverend Dr. Donna Morrison-Reed
former co-minister at
First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto


(a Unitarian Universalist Sermon on Marketing)

 

 

Read more about the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto

Barry Schwartz went to his local grocery store to buy a snack. It doesn’t matter where Barry lives, for the shelves in his local grocery store probably look much like yours and mine. He had a lot of choices: 95 different varieties and brands of chips and pretzels, 85 types of crackers, including 20 different kinds of Goldfish, 285 varieties of cookies, among which were 21 options for chocolate chip. All those choices made him thirsty, so he cruised over to the drinks aisle where he found 13 different kinds of "sports drinks", 65 "box drinks" for kids, 85 flavors and brands of juices, 75 iced teas and adult drinks along with 15 "flavours" of bottled water to choose from. Heading down another aisle, he took note of 230 soup offerings, including 29 different chicken soups, 120 pasta sauces, 75 kinds of instant gravy, and 175 salad dressings, including 16 different "Italian" dressings. He found he was getting a headache. In the pharmacy section there were 80 different types of pain reliever, 90 colours of nail polish, 116 different kinds of skin lotion and 360 types of shampoo, conditioner, gel, and mousse.

We live in a shopping mall world, local distinctiveness having given way to a global abundance and variety that at the same time has a disturbing sameness to it. We human beings have become customers, called by the marketing gods to do the work of deciding what to buy and consume from among an overwhelming array of options.

When I was a child there was one local school and every child attended it. There were three American networks and two Canadian television stations to choose from. I was really lucky to be able to study the violin. Most children took piano lessons. Jack Benny was the only other violinist most of my high school classmates had ever heard of.

We live in a shopping mall world. Our ideal of individual freedom and autonomy has been realized, but at what cost? Along with freedom has come a terrible responsibility and burden. We human beings have been seduced into becoming perpetual customers, overwhelmed with options and choices in almost every facet of our lives.

How do you want to communicate with the rest of the world? What kind of telephone do you want, and what kind of telephone services do you want to go with that telephone? Have you chosen your utilities provider yet? Do you want cable or internet?

How do you and your children want to express yourselves? Music, art, sports, clubs, classes. Ah, music you say. Will that be vocal or instrumental? Violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, oboe or French horn? Classical, jazz, blues, folk, guitar, drums, trumpet or trombone? There are so many potential activities to choose from.

And what about your personal appearance? When I was a child, you could get braces on your teeth. Now, cosmetic surgery fixes noses, eyelids, faces, breasts, tummies, and almost every other part of the human anatomy. Of cosmetic surgery, a spokesperson for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons says, "We think of it like getting your nails done or going to a spa" no different "from putting a nice sweater on, or combing your hair, doing your nails, or having a little tan." Where once our paternalistic doctor told us not to worry our little heads about our own medical condition, now we are offered all the options and asked to choose our own treatment.

A number of years ago the comic strip Doonsbury followed the trials and tribulations of a modern young couple who were church shopping. One congregation offers racquetball, but another one has Tae Chi. How to choose?

In 1979, when we moved to Rochester New York, home of Kodak, the conventional wisdom was: get a job at Kodak, and that’s the last decision you will ever have to make in your lifetime. They certainly had gyms and sports teams and theatres for their employees. Perhaps they did have a company graveyard as well. We lived there during the ten years of Fuji Films emergence, and did that picture ever change. Today the average 32-year-old has worked for nine different companies.

We have achieved our goal of individual freedom and autonomy. We have personal authority over the decisions guiding our lives. We can choose where we live and work, whom we love and how we love them, what we wear and how we look, how we communicate and entertain ourselves.

Freedom gives us a feeling of control over our own lives. It allows us to fully express our own individuality. It keeps us engaged in life. And yet, this freedom is illusive. It comes with a price. We are inundated with people trying to tell us how we ought to use that freedom. We have ceased to be human beings in this world, we have become customers offered thousands and thousands of dazzling, mouthwatering choices at every turn.

Last year at this time, about a month before Christmas, Mark and I went to Yorkdale Mall after service one Sunday. Mark wrote a column in Horizons about the experience. The place was packed. Multi-generational families, hoards of teenagers, couples, the elderly, not one bench was free, sales people in perpetual motion, customers waiting four deep at every cash register, and, at 2:30 in the afternoon, a 15 minute wait for lunch at every restaurant in the Mall.

Yes, choice is great. Yes, freedom is wonderful. Who wants to give up their autonomy or personal authority? But this morning, I have a few questions to ask: What are the trade-offs? What do we risk losing as we gain freedom and choice? What are we really looking for? Or is it something we are running from? And how will we find what we truly want? How might we live fully in this shopping mall world?

Problem number one: Choosing takes time and concentrated energy. Infinite choice means infinite research. And infinite research can mean infinite anxiety and even depression. How long does it take to determine which box of Goldfish Crackers we ought to buy from among those twenty options? Multiply that amount of time and energy by a factor of infinity and it is not hard to realize that we could spend every second of every day deciding what to buy. How often does your phone ring with someone else trying to sell you something? Yes, we live in a shopping mall world and if we are not careful, we could easily slip into being customers all the time.

Barry Schwartz suggests that we counteract this onslaught by becoming satisficers instead of maximizers. The real demon is our society’s subtle message that only the best will do. From our earliest years we are seduced into maximizing. Only the best cola drink, only the highest status car, only the way coolest jeans. I’m talking about that anxiety our kids feel if they can’t have the best sneakers and the anxiety we feel if our kids don’t attend the best school. Maximizers drive themselves crazy trying to pick the best Goldfish Cracker when they stroll down the snack aisle in their local grocery store. How long do you want to spend picking from among the 90 different nail polish colours? How will you know when you have found the best colour? Instead of maximizing, try satisficing. Sure, we need to buy some things. Set your minimum standards and go out to meet them. I need a pair of jeans. Would you like slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy? Will that be stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Button-fly or zipper-fly? Faded or regular? Maximizers agonize over which to choose. Satisficers find a pair that’s good enough to meet their standards, buy them, and get out.

Problem number two: A shopping mall world tries to convince us that buying things will give our lives meaning and owning things will make us more fulfilled. Marketing emphasizes instant gratification and tries to convince us that one Goldfish cracker variety is actually better than another variety. And yet, self-esteem cannot be authentically bolstered by the things we own. Is there really one kind of Goldfish cracker that will make me feel better about myself? Will I be a better person wearing one particular brand of sneaker, driving one particular model of car, using one particular kitchen gadget?

Instead of measuring value via price tag, ask yourself "what is precious to me?" Valuable, precious: we need to know the difference between these two words. Valuable is measured in monetary terms. Value is interchangeable, it is universal. Despite the diversity of 90 different colours of nail polish and 21 different kinds of chocolate chip cookie, there is a sameness to it all, like the sameness of one Loonie with another. In fact, the point of value is that each unit is identical. We want a guarantee that each chocolate chip cookie has the same number of chocolate chips in it, that each can of Pepsi is exactly 355 mls. When you buy something, you know how valuable it is, because it is exactly the same as something of equal value.

Precious, though, that is unique, particular. The word precious uses a whole different vocabulary. It speaks from the context of a completely different world view. This is not the language of science, but the language of culture, religion, and personal meaning. Your grandmother’s rocking chair, the bookshelf your daughter made in school. Wendell Berry writes: "It is not derived and it is not derivable from any notion of egalitarianism. If all are equal, none can be precious." Berry calls this the "ancient delight in the individuality of creatures," which is not the same as our twenty-first century notion of individualism, the kind of individualism that turns us into free and autonomous customers inundated with an onslaught of products in our shopping mall world.

Problem number three: Freedom and autonomy, personal authority and responsibility, combined with almost infinite choice decreases shared experiences, weaken social ties and community.

Billy has hockey, studies clarinet and swimming. He goes to Waldorf. Sally takes ballet, harp, Tae Kwon Do and attends the Arts School. Beth works for IBM, volunteers at Out of the Cold, belongs to Curves and has a subscription to the Tarragon. John works at Sick Kids, is studying for his MBA and takes French lessons. And when will this family have dinner together? And what will they talk to each other about at the dinner table?

All social ties decrease freedom, autonomy and choice. Establishing and maintaining meaningful social relations requires a willingness to be bound or constrained by them. Once people make commitments to others, options close. In a shopping mall world, when we become dissatisfied with one type of goldfish cracker, we simply choose another brand. But, as Barry Schwartz says: "Social relations are different. We don’t dismiss lovers, friends or communities the way we dismiss restaurants, cereals, or vacation spots." Or do we? I have seen this confusion here, in this community, people bringing their shopping mall ways of thinking and deciding into places like this community, filling out their pledge card as if they were buying a plethora of services, always hoping for more options in adult programming. More options? Are we crazy? No. We’ve just been seduced by the shopping mall way of being in this world. Community, commitment and connection do not flourish thus, for they live by a different set of values and ideals.

Stop being a perpetual customer. Be a satisficer, not a maximizer. Set your minimum standard, and when you’ve found something that meets that standard, buy it and get out.

Orient your life in terms of that which is "precious" to you, rather than "valuable." Who do I really care about? What is precious to me? A whole new way of being in the universe emerges out of that one simple change in outlook.

And finally, take the time you’ve saved and invest it in your community. Don’t exit when you are dissatisfied. Practice working things out. Use differences as a delightful opportunity to grow with those you love.

Yes, in so many respects we have achieved our goal of individual freedom and autonomy. We have personal authority over the decisions guiding our lives. We can choose where we live and work, whom we love and how we love them, what we wear and how we look, how we communicate and entertain ourselves.

Freedom gives us a feeling of control over our own lives. It allows us to fully express our own individuality. It keeps us engaged in life. And yet, this freedom is illusive. It comes with a price. We live in a shopping mall world, local distinctiveness having given way to globalism. We human beings have become customers, called by the marketing gods to do the work of deciding what to buy and consume from among an overwhelming array of options.

Stop listening to the shopping mall gods. Take back your own life. And invest it in those individuals and communities and whole worlds of being and doing that are most precious to you and yours.

The Rev. Dr. Donna Morrison-Reed
First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
Sermon: November 28, 2004

York University, Toronto
M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.