Please Don't Think, Mr. or Mrs. Consumer

posted 6/25/02

You see them everywhere, these days.
Grocery stores, car dealerships, software stores, and, of course, bookstores. They're fast becoming a retail institution. And even in stores that haven't formally adopted them, the employees often have their own personal versions.

I'm talking about best-seller lists.
As the corporate masters would have you believe[1], these are lists of the X best-selling items of a particular category of products. They would wish you to believe that these are the best products - be they books, cars, video games, or spanners - currently available. After all, if these are the ones that sell the best, they must BE the best, right? And to further reinforce this idea, these companies will then DISCOUNT the very-same bestselling items. Let's examine this more closely.

A. Does best-selling really mean "best selling"?
Not always. One particular rather large chain of bookstores, with a large on-line presence, who are referred to in Alison Bechtel's Dykes to Watch Out For as "Bunns and Noodles", regularly adds books to it's best-seller list on the very day the book goes on sale. At least one large music chain does the same thing with CD's. And another book chain used to, and may well still, SELL positions on it's "Top 25" list to publishers wishing to promote slow-moving titles. "Best-seller list" is often just shorthand for "merchandise we're trying to move".

B. Well, still, a lot of people are, you have to admit, reading Whatever. So it must be good, right?
No. Tens of thousands of Britons, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans use cocaine. Does that make cocaine an important part of a balanced breakfast? A rather disturbingly large number of people drink a shocking amount of Budweiser, a pale, tasteless, watered-down beer brewed from RICE. Does that mean you should? Does that make Budweiser a good beer?
The most basic key to successful marketing is to produce a product that appeals to the largest number of people, rather like a lowest common denominator. The number of people who listen to and appreciate Rimsky-Korsakov's Scherezade is rather lower than the number of people who listen to and claim to enjoy Marilyn Manson. Does this make Manson superior to Rimsky-Korsakov? No. Just more popular[2]. Tens of millions of people read Harry Potter books; this is not because they are great books, but because they are simple, rather banal and unoriginal books written for, as it were, the masses. Much like a Disney movie.
It goes like this: A movie with an original plot and story, excellent acting, a unique blend of traditional styles, and good production values may be very good indeed. But the number of people who can APPRECIATE the acting, the intricasies of the plot, the fresh juxtaposition of two rather tired ideas, is, sadly, far, far smaller than the number of people who have not progressed, emotionally, past the age of seventeen and are wowed by large explosions and unnecessary nudity.
Does this mean you shouldn't read that Rosemund Pilcher novel? Or shell out for a copy of Disney's Harry Potter Strikes Back? No, but you should ask yourself WHY you want to read it. Because the great unwashed, ignorant, functionally illiterate masses of the world all bought it and didn't complain? Because a rich woman on TV was paid a lot of money to tell you to? Or because, perish the thought, you, and you alone, think it's interesting?

C. So every bestseller is bad, and I should avoid the lot?
No. A lot of items on best-seller lists are, indeed, bad, or at best undistinguished. A few are otherwise worthwhile, but included (misleadingly) in the lists to try and sell slow-moving merchandise. And once in a while one may be rather good. But the odds are against it.

D. But what about socio-economic motives?
Indeed, what about them? Stop and think for a moment about the traditional best-seller list. All of these books, DVDs, whatever, which the company would like you to believe are currently the most popular items of their type, are discounted and on sale. Why?
Well, to make people buy them, of course! The ignorant associate "best-selling" with "good", or even "excellent"; they seek acceptance by reading / listening to / owning what everyone else does. This impetus makes them willing to pay, say, $20 for a hardbound book, when they would otherwise buy a $8 paperback, or wait a year for the paperback of that same book. This subconscious desire makes them quite overlook the banality of the lyrics, the repetitiveness of the music, the predictable plot. The few who feel that, possibly, that last Stephen King book wasn't that good at all dismiss these thoughts as symptoms of personal inadequacy. "I'm just not smart enough to understand it", they say. "I don't know enough to appreciate it". They want to be "with it", and like everyone else. They subconsciously fear that they are falling sub-par, when quite the opposite is true. They are troubled that they are unable to enjoy what "everyone else" does. Humans are trained to be herd animals, to be sheeplike. It's much easier to believe that you are inadequate than to believe that of a million or more others. So they continue to buy and read Stephen King books, growing with each book more and more irritated with THEMSELVES because they don't enjoy it as much. The fact that they can save money while still being a part of the crowd... It's a strong temptation for the weak-minded.
Still, THINK a moment! We all, for the most part, live in a free market economy, yes? By normal and accepted applications of supply-and-demand, Bunns and Noodles should mark-up their bestsellers 25 to 50 percent over the cover price. After all, aren't people willing to pay more for the best? Don't companies have an obligation to their shareholders to make as much profit as they (legally and ethically) can? So why do these large companies, when they proclaim to the world what to buy, or rather what they say everyone else is buying, then discount the very same merchandise? It makes NO ECONOMIC SENSE! Unless, of course, you're pulling a fast one on the unsuspecting masses...

E. So what should I (read | listen to | watch | buy)?
Whatever you want, of course. Ours is a free society, you can read / listen to / view pretty much whatever you want, so long as no people are being hurt, no children are being exploited, and no former people or animals are involved in inappropriate ways. All I ask is that you, and this is really quite easy when you get used to it, THINK. Your corporate masters may not like this. And the feelings of honest enjoyment you get from reading a new author / listening to a new artist / watching a new movie / drinking a new beer may feel alien, but I rather expect you can get used to it. Who knows? Your self-esteem might well improve, too.

[1]: The corporate masters ask that you believe what you are told, but never, ever think.
[2]: Popular, you may one day come to realize, is not praise.


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