About 50 years ago, I had an epiphany while riding on a 5th Avenue bus in New York City. I was studiously reading all the ad placards placed above the windows in the bus. I couldn’t figure out what it was about them that bothered me and I brooded on that for several weeks. One day, or in the middle of the night, it hit me like the proverbial bolt of lightning. Almost all the ads were in the imperative! They were telling me what to do, something I had resisted most of my life and still do.
They were saying things like Buy This, Call Now, Get This Deal, Smile, Drink More Whatever, Eat Here, Drive One of These, Live Here, Travel More, Replace Your Old one, and so on.
How about Enroll Today? Subscribe? But why did all of these sales messages bother me so much? Why was I resisting joining the hordes of conspicuous consumers?
The messages were clear and they are the ones that have taken us to where we are today. The messages were SPEND, BUY, WASTE, WANT and BORROW and start all over on the cycle of acquisition as often as you can. Those values and behaviors are based on more is better, bigger is better and the most and biggest are best of all. Remember the bumper sticker, “The one who ends up with the most toys wins?” We certainly have the most toys but I am not sure that we are winning whatever winning would look like. Maybe we have reached a point where less is actually more.
What I discovered then from the experience of riding on the bus was that those beliefs and subsequent actions were in direct conflict with what I was taught in my early years. Each one seemed to have its corollary opposite. Those post-depression, World War II values were SAVE, USE, KEEP, HAVE and GIVE. We had to INNOVATE in order to win the war.
So automobile assembly lines were converted to manufacture tanks and other military vehicles and equipment and Rosie the Riveter went to work in the factory to replace all the men who were at war in two theaters. What if we could recapture those values and behaviors now? Would they make an economic difference?
Each one of the imperatives and the choices that follow have their direct consequences, for good or ill. Which of the imperatives do you think dominate the majority of our kids and adult culture today and which have led us into the greatest debacle of debt in our history?
That may well be a rhetorical question but it’s time for a paradigm shift and some innovation in consumption. Maybe it will be forced on us as it has been previously. The challenge is not only how to review the results of the first five imperatives of spend, buy, waste, want and borrow but how to get people on a massive scale to consider the second set of imperatives of save, use, keep, have and give.
Perhaps we can put them side by side and ask people to choose. Spend or Save? Buy or Use what you have? Waste or Keep and recycle? Want or Have already? Borrow more or Give more?
That would be innovation to the max. Our kids have grown up in an era of ready-made, fast food, instant, throw away, newest model, have to have now. Learning, re-learning and understanding what history has to teach us is seldom easy but it could become imperative for survival. It will require some serious innovation and reshaping of our way of life.
Gary Gruber is an educator and consultant to the education industry.