Amazon Dash: The New Epoch of Consumerism

Amazon Dash

When you buy an Amazon Dash, you buy a specific brand, e.g., you can buy a Tide button or a hundred different other brands.  When you press the button the button automatically places an order for the corresponding brand.  So when you come to the dread and anxiety faced when you realize you are out of some K-cups, you can press the button and the Dash orders more K-Cups by connecting to your smart phone through your home WIFI and places orders in the Amazon app.   This button serves nothing more than a shortcut, by cutting out the tedium of pulling out your smart phone and pressing a few different prompts and digital buttons to order new items.

Amazon has been quiet on if these buttons are subsidized by the brands that adorn their plastic facades, but it makes sense.  Not only do these buttons serve as free advertisement in your home, they also dampen choice.  If you have a dedicated button for Nature Valley, chances are you are not interested in seeking out alternatives.   Brands like this button because they foster customer loyalty.

The mixed news is, this is still largely an experiment.  Analyst suggest that the users most interested in this are prime members who do most of their grocery shopping online, which only amounts to 15 percent of Prime members.   Consumer intelligence suggest there are 54 million Prime members in the US, which means we have around 8 million members that use the grocery service frequently.  We can assume then, that there are less than 8 million Amazon Dash members.   But, marketers and Amazon will be sure to figure out more ways to make us into infantilized consumers, too inept to go to the store or even open a web browser to order bottled water.

 

Amazon Dash Button Tide

 

When the Dash was announced last year, it was just before April 1st, the international day of the internet prankster. Many thought that this was an April Fool’s prank, but alas, it was not.   The Dash market is growing, it currently has a little over a hundred brands to choose from.

The Dash embodies the worst qualities of the modern consumer, it fosters unprecedented laziness, while simultaneously seceding any semblance of consumer control.  While shopping can be a chore, we are endowed with a myriad of digital tools to help organize shopping trips and we can ultimately order things from the confine of our computers.  Second, as I already mentioned, this device basically incentivizes you to double down on a brand.  Everyone hates when the government does no-bid contracts, don’t be an inept bureaucrat and always make sure you consider alternatives.

Why Anti-Consumption?

Anti-consumption is often misunderstood, often taken by some to mean some sort of life trapped in a cabin in some remote mountain, guarded by leagues of pines, concealing your fate to a remote corner of the world.  In fact there are some good reasons to jail the Visa, serve a pink slip to the mall and quit drinking wheatgrass.

1) Money

Money, money, money. The oxygen of our society, the oil of our culture.  Money binds us and keeps things going. It keeps some crawling over a desert of broken glass to obtain it. The absence of it has turned some into emaciated dogs, starved of the simplest material pleasures.Realistically, any stab at having a normal life requires keeping the lines filled with some money.  Money is the electrical pulse that keeps modern life ticking and we have a ridiculous amount of ways to blow our money.  The fundamental problem that confronts us, we are beings with many wants (or unlimited, according to orthodox economics) with a very finite amount of resources.

Atop our prism of self-control, many spill their bags of coin on the short term.  Short term gratification versus long term gratification, is the paradigm that helps explain why some are so recklessly careless with money.  Some of course will say, “you can’t take it with you”.  That’s true, you can’t take money to the great “beyond” (or great nothingness), but for many who do make it to old age, there is one day where you cannot work anymore.  One day your bones will grow old, your ability to sense oncoming storms will be greatly improved.  Walking around will become an arduous chore, a harrowing adventure.  All of sudden clocking in 8 hours at the dirt factory will be a hellish experience, befit to the damned.  Anti-consumerism, anti-consumption, frugality, all help you control the cash injector valve.   There is probably a hundred trillion ways to better spend money than buying some bull shit.  A place to live, a vehicle maybe, freedom from work, retirement.   Anti-consumption allows you to appreciate the value of not endlessly consuming, the positive externality is that your wallet potentially is flush with money that would’ve been spent otherwise.

 

2) Happiness

Happiness™, it’s what we’re after right?   It’s a business unto itself.   Some have become personal tyrants, rampant consumption, constant consumption to keep the negative feelings away.  Like a heroin addict looking for one more hit, consumption hits off the dopamine.  The life of the consumer, one where the consumer is obsessed with the endless pursuit of buying things will not increase happiness.

Anti-consumption allows people to cast off the unnecessary impulse of constantly buying stuff and lets you focus more on things that make people happy, relationships, community, and self-improvement.

 

3) Minimalism

Focus less on materialism, focus less on acquiring things, a minimalist life is one about having less.  Things get simpler with less things, like a computer trying to render complex scenery, the less items, the easier it is to do so.  Things are cognitively taxing.   More things don’t equate to happiness. You probably know someone who has to have the newest toys, appliances, or whatever.  The endless pursuit of acquiring goods is tantamount to rolling a boulder up a hill, just to see it roll back down.

4) Responsible Ownership

Anti-consumption, isn’t necessarily anti-stuff.  I think many in the anti-consumption crowd would advocate for people to be better informed about the stuff they already have or seek to have.  Anti-consumption means, better knowledge about what they have, how to fix it (if possible), and ultimately take better care of what you have.  For most things, it’s a smart idea to buy something that lasts for a long time rather than re-buying it 20 times.  Although, I’ll add as an aside that the BIFL (buy it for life) crowd isn’t a perfect paragon of anti-consumption virtue (more on that in an upcoming article).

5) Environmental

Notice, my first four points are focused to you the individual, but there are ways that consuming less is better for all.   Our way of living is focused on the short term.  Corporations live and die by the quarterly earnings, meaning that  there aren’t many incentives to think long  that’s not to say that corporations never focus on the long term, but they always have incentives for the easy route.  We know that rampant production has caused grievous environmental harm, with so many examples it is difficult to know where to start.  For instance, mining for electronic elements is extremely toxic for communities that have to suffer it.  China, where much of global production is occurring, is largely powered by coal power, coal is one of the largest contributors of carbon.  Unless you’re the Heritage Foundation, the rest of us in the real world know that climate change is a pressing challenge and our way of life will be challenged at some point.

6) Ethical consideration for labour

The sweat shop paradox.  Sweat shops have enabled disenfranchised people to have some very limited economic prosperity.  While many might just shrug their shoulders They would be worse off without the sweat shops, there are many who think their predicaments are a travesty of justice.  Some embrace anti-consumption as a way of protesting treatment of labour in the global south.   Some with anti-consumption mindset might take to buying more ethical commodities.

Book Review: Consumed

Consumed – How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole, Benjamin R. Barber, W.W. Norton, 2007, 406 pg
Consumed by Benjamin BarberBenjamin Barber’s sortie against consumerism is sure to reverberate from the glass tower offices of big box USA to the indolent consumer buying pre-peeled oranges (a real example of infantilization of society).

As way of general review, Barber’s main avenue of assault is by drive by shooting.  Barber has a lengthy list of target and what he does is drive up, unloads his quick assault and then drives off to the next target, in other words, Barber’s pages are packed dense with many ideas and examples, but often he only spends a few sentences discussing them.  His writing sometimes feels like being in a swamp, a humid, slow trotting affair, that takes time to get through.  Other times Barber writing is lucid and reads like a car drives over fresh highway.   In other words: Barber writes like a political theorist, fitting because he is a political scientist by trade.  Barber divided his book into three sections: The Birth of consumers, the eclipse of citizens and the fate of citizens.

Barber’s main theme is fighting against the hyper-consumption in our contemporary era .  Consumerism, according to Barber is the latest stage of capitalism, one where needs are no longer met by producers but our needs are being produced by producers.  Advertising and marketing serve to enhance our wants, thus, producers can produce more.  The greatest threat to producers, is not over-producing, but people not buying enough. An ad in 1926 from Life magazine had the header “GO AHEAD AND MAKE US WANT” (pg.291), which shows us the early recognition of advertising in society.  This is the spine of his argument, to which Barber navigates various aspects of the rise of consumerism, the pass-over of the Protestant ethos to an infantilized ethos, the ascent of markets and the supremacy of the private, then Barber closes with some words on what can be done about this consumer melancholy.

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Free Run Eggs, Ethical or Marketing Bluster?

I had this interesting conversation with a colleague at work.  My colleague was telling me adrenaline pumping tales about how he became a vegetarian.  But he had an odd caveat, he still ate eggs.  He was careful to note that he only purchased eggs that were “free run”, he lit up and told me that the hens that laid his eggs were treated well, could go outside and were better off than what everyone else is eating.  I thought that was neat, but I was fairly suspicious. First, he bought his eggs from a very large international grocery store.  I thought immediately that any supplier that was able to supply this chain isn’t a ma and pap operation.  In fact, the eggs in question are “Gold Egg”.  From what I gleaned, Gold Egg is a label under the National Egg Inc. coalition.  In each province a different egg provider provides eggs under the Gold Egg brand, in Ontario it’s Gray Ridge farms, a fairly large egg operation.  But it’s worse than that.  Here’s what I came up with:

Free Range and Free Run
The truth of the matter is rather simple, free range eggs are eggs that come from hens that live in open barns i.e., no cages.  This ostensibly seems great, but some of the population densities in these barns are packed tightly.  Free range eggs have some access to the outdoors.  This seems to be legally ambiguous, as in, there is no strict legal threshold to how many hours would constitute free range vs not free range.  There are some hurdles to offering hens outdoor access, such as the weather and winter.

Free run on the other hand, sometimes known as “barn eggs” are from hens in open barns.  They do not have access to outdoors and do not necessarily have more room than birds that are in battery cages.

Both labels are not audited or externally verified unless it is certified organic.  This is an example of industry regulating itself.  We can see here, that most of the buzz around free range and free run eggs is mostly marketing bluster.  Free run sounds great, but doesn’t offer much except a cage-free experience.  Free range is better, but there is no legally binding definition of outdoors time.  This is all compounded if you buy eggs that are not externally verified, which they do not have to be to carry those labels.

In the end, this is a clear example of marketers trying to capture the anti-consumption market.

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Sources:

Cage-free eggs: A comparison of labels Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals 

Photo credit: bgottsab via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC

Ridiculous Superbowl Mortgage Ad

The bright minds at Quicken Loans put out this border-line satirical ad about mortgages.  Quicken Loans want mortgages to be as easy to get as buying music off iTunes, all within your phone.  Get a mortgage in eight minutes.

Totally tone-deaf, and to resort to an overused piece of historical advice: those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, here we see Quicken Loans gunning for easy mortgages, 2008 is hardly in the rear view mirror.

I also thought it was funny, they suggest that more mortgages means more consumer buying via having to fill their homes.  I actually hear this a lot, but many of the consumer good producers are overseas.  So it’s not like these goods are supporting vast production onshore.  While these things are sold in physical stores, stores that employ and pay taxes, that is not what the ad is suggesting.  But anyway, here’s the ad in question.

Experencies vs. Things

I think it’s time to talk about the experience vs. things dichotomy.

If you’re unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, here’s the cliff notes:

Forgot guns vs butter from the econ classroom, this is about vacations versus iPads.  It’s about consumer goods from big box USA versus a rum fueled night at the beach in Cuba, or a stroll around the Eiffel Tower.

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Beats suck.

A survey in the Spring of 2014 found that 46.1% of teenagers pegged Beats by Dr. Dre as their preferred headphone brand for their next headphone purchase.   Beats Electronics controls 27% of the headphone market and 57% of the premium headphone market (premium headphones are headphones that are $100+).   Before Beats got in the game, high priced ‘premium headphones’ were exclusive to the realm of audiophiles.  Beats by Dr. Dre has disrupted the fabric of the headphone game, it’s no wonder audiophiles are outright hostile to Beats presence.   The effrontery of Beats by Dr. Dre is not just about inferior headphones, it is about strong marketing forces. This is not new, but rather just a continuing tradition of an unstoppable force of celebrity endorsement, heavy advertising, ostentatious appeal, the pursuit of status: all the tricks of modern day consumerism.red-hand-apple-desk

Here’s the TL;DR on Beats headphones, Beats are really not about the sound, they are about fashion sentiment, the ‘coolness’. Dre promotes the idea of good music but Beats arguably don’t deliver on that note.

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Interesting Article: Holiday gift-giving between adults is a needless, consumerist chore [Quartz]

This article recently published on the site Quartz talks about how Christmas for adults is more like a chore.  Instead of fulfilling its rich normative goals about togetherness and solidarity with the family it is more about receiving gifts.

Flanagian notes aptly that gainfully employed adults often buy the things that they want when they want them. This makes buying for them more aggravating than a Vodka-fueled night of Clue.

“Nevertheless, we partake in the grand charade every year. Unwanted gifts are exchanged, Academy Award-worthy shows of thanks are displayed,”

Instead of trying to navigate the byzantine layers of people’s desires to get gifts, the author exchanged goofy gifts with his sister to make the holiday about thinking “whats in the box”, with a goofy laugh, rather than a serious effort at intelligence gathering, which may or may not lead to happy results.

The Aftermath of Black Friday 2015

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, now squarely in the rearview mirror, how did the merchant class do?

Well, reportedly retailer sales dropped 10 percent to 10.4 billion from 11.2 billion from 2014. 

Are people realizing how ridiculous this faux-shopping holiday is?  No, not really, instead of rushing to stores , people are now just buying online.  There was an uptick of 14.3 percent of online sales.  So in an overall sense there is growth.

That’s not the only reason why sales were soggy this year, retailers have extended this faux-holiday to a whole week, diluting the number of would-be shoppers by offering “sales” all week.

In other news, the FBI received a huge amount of background check requests, which means a lot of sales for gun sellers. The surge in sales seems to be related to recent shootings.