The Dark Side Of Stuff

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

Few things irk me more than the use of the word "care" in advertising — and I'm easily irked.

"We care about you!" zillions of ads declare. Of course, they're all big, fat lies. They're lies by definition. Multinational corporations do not have feelings and caring is a feeling.

Furthermore, an entity can't care about me if it doesn't know me and I have actually never been introduced to a corporation. I've never had a drink with a brand, played poker with a product line or gone fishing with a customer service department. (OK, I did date a retail chain briefly once, but that was in the '80s.)

Marketers use the word "care" because they think we are dim-witted suckers. They know we resent lousy service and impersonal commerce and they prey on those frustrations. They think we can be subliminally seduced by the c-word.

Egregiously dishonest marketing aggravates me disproportionately to any material discomfort it brings me. And a certain kind of marketing Big Lie that preys on a simmering social irritation — "We Care About You" — is my special nemesis.

That is why it is a bad thing that my wife was given a subscription to Real Simple magazine by a well-intentioned but misguided friend.

Real Simple's motto is "life made easier." The magazine in fact offers a mind-boggling array of ways to complicate your life. It forces you consider chores and body parts that you've never thought about for more than a nanosecond because Real Simple wants you to make aesthetic and consumer choices about, well, everything.

Thus the magazine helps foster, as it might say, a frisky potpourri of anxieties about making bad choices — albeit about extraordinarily trivial things like "the best" flower pots, nail enamel and cropped pants. What if you don't get the best? Real Simple palpably makes life harder, not easier.

Real Simple's Big Lie is that it exacerbates a problem it promises to help solve. The publishers certainly know that many Americans in their target demographic group (I'm guessing it's women 34-59 with household incomes over $100,000) are stressed by the complications of everyday life.

They do not have enough time to juggle work, family home and, often, parents — much less a social life and fun. They are, to use the title of an interesting, new book, "Crazy Busy." They are also, though far less consciously, mind-fried by a pornographic range of choices available for every consumer decision: Plasma or flat screen? What kind of hair conditioner? Latte or cappuccino? Carbs or no carbs? Sienna or burnt umber trim? Viking or Aga? It all matters so very much.

Time Warner, the publisher, knows about these anxieties with precision; market research was invented to know stuff like that. That's why they call the magazine Real Simple. They want to prey on that anxiety.

It is painfully obvious that Real Simple simplifies nothing. It complicates everything it touches. It does so gluttonously.

No magazine that contains 129 separate ads, as the April edition does, can simplify anything. And this is not to mention that most of the articles are simply disguised ads that recommend specific products in the context of how-to journalism.

The June cover story was "34 delicious grilling ideas." Please: 34! The article is so chock full of tips and pretty pictures, you could easily never grill again out of pure despair. Here's a real simple way to make grilling easier, and it's a brief article: steaks, chicken, ribs and chops are good on the grill but don't burn them. Does a magazine devoted to "life made easier" really need more than that?

Hell yes. And you need to get clear about this: "Exfoliation. Everything you need to know — from how to apply a facial peel to the best scrubs."

Radical Martha Stewartism is also no path to the Zen of a simple life. Yet the June edition offers a three-step program to make "the biggest bow on the block in minutes." Oh, no, must I have the biggest bow on the block? Or how about the "Aha Use" for that cute microbrewery six-pack container: "transporting condiments, silverware, napkins and picnic supplies from kitchen to patio." It would be wrong to transport utensils in a way that wasn't cute. And it would be wrong not to maximize that cute microbrewery six-pack.

Have you spent enough time on sponge selection and maintenance lately? I'm guessing not. Never fear: Real Simple offers "Super soakers: tried-and-true sponges for every job (and how to keep them at their at their germ free best)." The tips are key: "know when to reach for the paper towel" and "learn when to let go." The best one for large surfaces is the Williams-Sonoma Pop-Up Sponges, six for $10.50.

To maximize the beach experience, Real Simple tells you what "beach essentials" you need to buy. There are 16 products costing a total of $397.10.

I'll embarrassingly confess to having a real bad Real Simple moment. I randomly picked up the magazine off a table one day and was immersed in April's expose, "Clean By The Clock: Easy steps to tackle any room — no matter how much (or how little) time you have."

As I read this, I became very concerned that we didn't have the optimal clean products for the highly specialized tasks our house demands. So I folded down page corners to remind myself to get Wieman Cook Top Quick Wipes (5 for $30), a Swiffer Duster with Extendable Handle ($8 for the handle), Caldrea Linen Spray ($12) and, of course, Don Aslett Microfiber Towels — "a must for any room" ($10 for four).

When I got excited about the microfiber towels, I realized I had gone off the deep end. What did I care about any of this nonsense? Would my family be better off in any way if we used Windex instead of the recommend Oxi Miracle Foam Spray? This is diseased thinking.

We have been brainwashed into believing or acting as if the most minute consumer decisions should be both optimal and expressions of our individuality and taste. Marketers have infiltrated status, brand worship and lust for "the best" into the most trivial corners our lives. There is a Real Simple for almost everything you can imagine: computers, home entertainment technology, clothes, shoes, gardening, sports equipment, travel and, absurdly, even storage.

There is a lot wrong with identity-building through consumerism. Real Simple does this especially surreptitiously, in the name of simplicity and escape. It is a brand of false hope self-help that is really just gross materialism that further insinuates the market in to the soul. That, of course, is the great and secret ultimate conspiracy of capitalism.

On a slightly less cosmic level, making all these decisions is going to kill us. Choice overload, thanks to Barry Schwartz's terrific book, "The Paradox of Choice," is now a well-diagnosed social disease. Some choice is good; too much creates anxiety and frustration. Eight types of sponge is too much choice.

And I'm telling you this because I care about you.



Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com.

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By Dick Meyer