Anybody who knows me can tell you that I do not like to shop. It’s true. I’d rather be in a hospital than a shopping mall, and I dislike hospitals almost as much as faculty meetings. But it just so happens that I found myself at the Herald Square store of Macy’s the other day. They are getting ready for another “magic” season in which they promote the magic not of Christmas but of Macy’s.
I am not sure what that means except it involves people like you spending billions of dollars. They even have what they call “Macy money” to help you do that. A clerk tried to explain it to me, but my eyes glazed over.
As they hung garlands and Christmas lights (yes, it’s mid-October), I wandered around the store, which is supposed to be the biggest in the world. At least that’s what the sign says. I discovered that Macy’s is a great place to study people. There are all kinds, as you might imagine, and they come from all over the world. It’s like the United Nations of consumerism. I got to speak with people from Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and the Bronx. That last one was a woman showing out-of-town family around who needed the bathroom. I helped her find it (7th floor).
What I find even more amazing is that people do not shop as themselves; that is, they do not remain in their own persona and then perform transactions, whether out of need or want. They become other people, taking on a new persona that I call homo emacitans from the Latin, emacitas, which refers to an obsession (mania) with shopping. You’ve heard of Burning Man? This is Shopping Man.
People do not buy consumer goods as Joe and Jane Doe, the museum curator and bookkeeper, or even Joe and Jane Doe, members of the Cleveland Rotary. They assume new identities based on the offer, discount, or deal being presented to them. Add an atmosphere of Macy’s magic, and voilà, they’re part of that new human species.
I suppose advertisers and marketers have known this for years. Some of them even have anthropology backgrounds (I know one). But what I find disturbing is that such marketing is based on propaganda and coercion. It creates another reality into which consumers are lured with promises of beauty, perfection, and success with the hope of becoming worthy enough to be loved.
The father of this kind of thing is Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and known for writing about the “invisible government” that is the “true ruling power of our country.”
That may be stretching the point, and I don’t want to suggest that all advertising is bad. But I can’t help feeling that Macy’s and the rest of the retail world is a giant Matrix that makes the one from the movie look tame. Certainly, walking around nine floors at Herald Square with the displays, lights, music, mannequins, saleswomen spritzing me with the latest celebrity cologne, and near fever pitch of shoppers was enough to make me think I had entered a Fellini movie.
I am not an economist and do not dispute the need for consumer spending to jump-start the economy. What troubles me is not that we are creating opportunities for people to buy. We are creating a new human being for whom the question of the relevance of the purchase she just made never enters her mind.
Does buying more and getting more move me any closer to the human being I am or could become? No, they do not.
According to one famous New Yorker from Queens, they move us one step closer to the “dumper.”