Snowflake, You Need This!

closeup of snowflake
Snowflake Macro: Spark by Alexey Kljatov (2014) CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

Yesterday, I heard this piece on NPR about marketing to millennials(for the purposes of the piece, “millennials” refers to people currently under age 35). I have been thinking a lot lately ’bout my generation, and how my experiences over the last few years fit into the overall picture of how people my age approach the world.

I am not trained as a social scientist, and have often been leery of generalizing about large groups of people. The irony is that my inclination toward both introspection/self-absorption (I *am* a special snowflake!) and the need to proclaim my thoughts on the internet (and social media) is about as characteristic of “millenials” as you can get. Heck, I’ll embrace the labels as long as I can get the solidarity of the tribe.

We live in a consumer culture saturated with advertising, with which I have a long-term love-hate relationship. I want to be dazzled and entertained by commercials (some consider them to be the best part of the Superbowl). I love innovative print images in magazines that I can upcycle into my collaged envelopes. Occasionally, I even accept that the purpose of ads is to make me want to buy stuff.

This is where the “hate” part of the relationship comes in. When I was a kid, I convinced my parents to get me a subscription to Zillions magazine (which was like Consumer Reports for Kids.) It was an awesome magazine, explaining how marketing and advertising worked, as well as empowering kids to make consumer decisions. (If you haven’t clicked the hyperlink of “Zillions”, please go back and do it to read Christine Driscoll’s review of this nifty ’90s thing.) Around this time, I realized that other people (on TV, friends, etc) might not have my best interests at heart. Not that they were exactly lying, but people weren’t always telling me the entire truth either, in order to influence me to think a certain way or want a certain item. As an adolescent, I became aware that media standards of female beauty were also unrealistic and unhealthy, even while still being influenced by them.

Part of growing up is learning to take new information with a grain of salt. This is true for advertising and media, as well as school, organized religion and stuff your parents tell you. What you choose believe and the branding you accept (“Star Trek! Columbia University! Converse Chuck Taylors!”) are as much about identification with a particular subculture as any independently considered rationale.

Teva educators have a long tradition raising awareness of consumer culture, especially as it relates to generating waste. There is a the classic Teva “You Need This!” skit lampooning advertising. Resource Revolution (which began life as the Garbage Show) aims to get kids to rethink their usage of consumer items (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink – ’cause there’s no such place as away).

Eco-Shopping is an activity where groups of kids have to compare similar imaginary items and decide which one they want to buy. For example: The sneaker table includes 1) Zoo balance (made in the USA) 2) Hikee (made in China, with 25% recycled materials, company does corporate philanthropy) or 3)Tods’ Treads (Made in Pennsylvania, vegan, donate a pair of shoes for every one you buy). The individual kids in the group would debate the merits of each item based on what they thought was important.

The first time I went to a grocery store after helping run Eco-Shopping, it took me 2 hours to buy 10 items as I read labels and weighed the relative values of local v. organic, fair trade v. major brand, etc. It made me look at my purchasing power in an entirely new way.

These days, I realize there are marketing strategies that are designed to circumvent my skeptical filter and hit me in my squishy & (paradoxically) crunchy little heart: “Local. Fermented. Probiotic. Biodegradeable. Reusable. Made from Recycled Materials. We donate X to Y thing!” “Natural” still gets me, even though it’s functionally meaningless. Also, to quote Dr. Bruce Katz of Mt. Sinai Hospital: “Just because something is organic doesn’t mean it is better than something synthetic… Poison ivy is natural, but that doesn’t mean you want to rub it on your skin.”

I’ve tried to avoid greenwashed products, or companies with unfair labor practices. Convenience and price occasionally trump all of the above considerations. Navigating the marketplace of consumer items sometimes turns into a journey navigating the marketplace of ideas. And I just walked in here for a package of jelly beans…


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