Where Brands (and Pseudo-knowledge) Go to Die

Readers, I wanted to share the following quote--although not for the reasons you might think:

"More students can identify Mr. Peanut and Joe Camel than can identify Abe Lincoln or Eleanor Roosevelt. They can identify twenty different kinds of cold cereal, but not the trees and birds in their neighborhood."
--Mary Pipher, The Shelter of Each Other

This author's point (and on one level she's right) is that people know far more about brands and consumer products than they know about things that actually matter. Worse, we ingest this consumer product knowledge passively. It's deftly inserted into our minds by the media and advertising all around us.

On another level, however, this is one of those fist-shaking "kids these days" quotes every generation hears from its elders and betters. My generation heard this type of crap argument too: One of my favorite "kids these days" media narratives was those articles citing "studies" of how American kids of my generation were terrible in math (or science, or geography, or whatever) compared to Japanese kids. You can see how the media reflects our society's fears back at us: back in the 1970s and 1980s everybody was afraid the Japanese were going to kick our asses in everything and take over the world. Today, kids probably get to hear how academically pathetic they are compared to Indian kids, or Chinese kids. Probably both.

That's why reading quotes like these--reading them on a literal level, that is--often just makes you dumber. (Although note that meta-reading quotes like these may give you useful hints for which country's economy and stock market will collapse in the next decade.)

How long does psuedo-knowledge live?
But the real reason this quote grabbed me was in the way is shows, entirely unintentionally, how incredibly rapidly knowledge (really, pseudo-knowledge) about brands and consumer products becomes totally useless and obsolete.

Mary Pipher's book was first published in 1996, not that long ago. But already her brand references are unrecognizable to young people today. The first thought from someone under age twenty will likely be "What the heck is a Mr. Peanut?" [1] With Joe Camel, it's even worse: since cigarettes haven't been advertised in a generation, nobody young knows or even cares who Joe Camel is today.

And yet Joe Camel seemed like such a big deal in the 1980s and 1990s. Finger-wagging pundits back then were panic-stricken that millions of innocent children would fatally take up smoking because of this friendly cartoon mascot. [2]

There's one more irony, however, and it's the best of all. Today, Mary Pipher's quote is exactly wrong, and for reasons she'd never imagine. Far, far more kids today can identify Abe Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt than Mr. Peanut and Joe Camel, because nobody young has ever heard of Mr. Peanut or Joe Camel! So I guess that's pretty good.

With a few notable exceptions, the brands and mascots of prior generations have absolutely zero presence in the minds of the generations behind us. Upcoming generations have enough new pseudo-knowledge of their own: new brands, new products, new shows, media, and advertising mascots all deftly inserted into their brains. And in another few decades we'll collectively forget it all, all over again, and learn still more new crap. The pseudo-knowledge never ends, it just changes.

Thus there's a key difference between knowledge and pseudo-knowledge. One is stable, the other is in a constant state of change, always evolving. Trees, birds and major historical figures don't change; cereal brands and peanut mascots do. You'd think we'd find more value in learning the former versus the latter, but each generation, mine included, always seems to learn the pseudo-knowledge rather than the real thing.


READ NEXT: Is "Meet or Beat" Pricing Anti-Consumer?
AND: Rebellion Practice

Footnotes:
[1] And yet, weirdly, Wikipedia calls Mr. Peanut "one of the best known icons in advertising history." If anything, this just shows how quickly and fully each generation forgets the prior generation's pseudo-knowledge, while it labors to create (and waste time learning) its own.

[2] Totally unrelated sidenote: Many finger-waggers back then were also convinced, Freudian-like, that Joe Camel's face looked just like a penis. Sadly, once someone tells you this and you Google the image, you can never unsee it. Thanks, finger-waggers.



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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Policing Warren Buffett’s Diet

I was struck by this article that tries (and mostly fails) to criticize both Warren Buffett's diet and his investments in Coca-Cola:

Warren Buffett will not apologize for his junk food addiction

Like most media news, it produces a sort of ersatz knowledge: it takes something that's technically true (in this case that Buffett has an unhealthy diet) and uses that fact to impose a narrative on the reader (essentially: did you know Buffett drinks Coke and invests in Coke and won't apologize for it at all? What about the children!?!?!).

The reader is left with a totally inaccurate perception of reality and, sadly, becomes measurably dumber after reading the article.

Interestingly, the article is correct about one thing. A few years ago I attended a Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, and Buffett did exactly what the article describes: when the meeting started at 9:00 am, he promptly poured himself a can of Coca-Cola, and throughout the meeting both he and Charlie Munger (Buffett's 94-year-old (!) business partner) snacked absently from a box of See's Candy peanut brittle[1] on the table between them.

But back to this article and the narrative it imposes on us: the spurious idea that some journalist, somewhere, has the right to police the diet of somebody else just because he's rich, famous, or both. Or in a broader sense, on how people passively-aggressively try to control others by asking them to justify and explain their diets, their opinions, their position on political issues, even their investments.

By the way, it's not just the media doing this: we do this to the people around us too.

And don't get me wrong, I'm in no way advocating a diet like Buffett's. Just because I criticize someone for criticizing someone else doesn't mean I advocate the thing being criticized in the first place. If you follow me. What I have a problem with is the passive-aggressive idea that somebody else's diet ought to be policed.

Buffett feels zero need to apologize for how he eats--or how he invests. Nor should you.


Recommended reading:
1) Alice Schroeder's excellent biography of Buffett: The Snowball
2) Janet Lowe's useful biography of Charlie Munger: Damn Right!


[1] What was unintentionally hilarious: the microphones in front of them picked up their crunching. It was oddly hypnotizing to hear Buffett crunching violently on peanut brittle while Munger answered a shareholder's question, and then to hear Munger do the same as Buffett shared his thoughts.


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

We Know They Know! Six Things Consumers Can Do About Creepy Retailers Who Know Too Much

[Part 1 here]

Last week's article discussed some unsightly truths about modern retailing, and the TL;DR can be boiled down to three bullet points:

1) Retailers know a lot about us--much more than we think.
2) Consumers feel like they're being spied on when they discover this, and it makes us too creeped out to want to buy anything.
3) Retailers therefore camouflage their knowledge about us, to make it seem like they don't know as much as they know.

This is the unfortunate chess game being played around us, and today's post is my effort to come up with possible countermoves consumers can make in response to the retail industry's relentless desire to gather information about us. Below are six ideas, four of which will even save you money!

1) Avoid store loyalty cards.
Store loyalty cards are by far the most transparently obvious method stores use to gather information about our purchasing habits and patterns. Thus the most obvious place to start to make sure a given retailer knows as little as possible about you is to avoid store loyalty cards.

But. A smart retailer will make it really worthwhile for you to carry its loyalty card by offering exceptional deals and savings to "members." That's why this is the a rule I don't entirely follow: I'm willing to carry loyalty cards for a couple of grocery stores I frequent and one big liquor/beer/wine retailer in our town because each of these retailers from time to time offers profoundly attractive sale prices. But I draw the line at those few stores--I won't carry loyalty cards from any other retailer.

2) Use assumed names, plant false information.
Back in my college days, retailers and banks would set up booths in our dining halls to offer free gifts in return for a either completing a credit card application or a for obtaining a given retailer's store loyalty card. The trade was basically this: You take this free gift, they'll get information about you today--and, possibly, a they'll get a profitable customer relationship from you down the road.

I didn't have the high ethical standards back then that I have now, so one time while I was in college I filled out one of these applications using my roommate's name and information. The free gift was some really nice plastic Tupperware containers, and I still have some of these some 25 years later. I don't even feel bad about it.

Moving on to a less ethically dubious example: some retailers will ask you for your zip code at the point of purchase. Invariably I will either say, "I don't want to give that out" or I'll give a false zip code (usually 10101, which is midtown Manhattan). When asked on any information form for salary information or net worth information I'll usually put extremely low answers ($0 is my favorite choice if it's offered). I'm thinking one of two things: either no one will bother marketing to me, or I'll be sold things I'll never ever need, like payday loans. The central concept is this: whenever you're asked to supply personal information, do so with the intent to mislead gatherers of this information.

3) Avoid patterned buying--and fool retailers into sending you coupons.
The last time there was a 75% off sale on store-brand dried pasta at my grocery store, I bought twelve pounds. It was a rare, world-class deal--and six months later we're still not even halfway through it. So: imagine you're the grocery store tracking my specific buying patterns, What conclusions would you extract from some kook who buys 12lbs of pasta on one day, followed by a full year of no pasta purchases at all?

Maybe they'll think I'm pregnant.

Two quick things to note: a) unpatterned buying allows you to stock up massively whenever an extremely attractive sale comes up, thus saving you money, and b) a predictable response of a retailer to any extended period of not buying something (particularly if it's something you've bought regularly in the past) is to offer very attractive discount coupons for that product. They'll assume they've lost your business and they'll want to win it back! The consumer wins twice over.

4) Just. don't. buy.
The less consumer junk you buy the less valuable any information about you will be. I'd shudder to see a retailer like Target try to build predictive analytics on a customer like Jacob Lund Fisker (author of Early Retirement Extreme) for example. Another way to think about this is to use the Don't want it! heuristic, a concept we've addressed in our discussions of the synergies between the ideas of Marie Kondo and Jacob Lund Fisker.

Retailers want to gather information about consumerist customers--the people who automatically default to "buy something" as their solution to all problems, and thus run to the consumer marketplace to throw money at some product or service. Instead, protect your information and your wallet by being the type of person who would rather throw creativity at problems--solving them without autonomically spending money and making purchases.

5) Spread your buying around widely.
In my posts on how to beat inflation, we discussed the idea of making retailers compete, hard, for our spending. The ability to switch or substitute is a consumer's main weapon of empowerment, and it can be done at the product level (by showing brand disloyalty and switching brands) and at the store level (by shopping at a completely different retailer).

A frugal and informationally empowered consumer will spread her buying to where it's most efficient, while adding in occasional touches of randomness, like my example above of buying twelve pounds of pasta. This saves you money while wreaking havoc on retailers' efforts to gather information about you.

Finally:

6) Play along, sort of.
If readers have detected a somewhat conflicted tone in this post so far, it's because... I'm conflicted about this entire topic. As much as I hate the idea of retailers essentially spying on us and deducing patterns from our purchases, I think under certain limited circumstances it's okay if retailers gather some information about us, if it results in extremely attractive prices for products and services that you were going to buy anyway. This takes us back to the primary advantage of store loyalty cards to a savvy, price-aware consumer.

Remember, stores will predictably send really good coupons for items you normally buy if you "go too long" between purchases. That means an intelligent consumer can actually drive the delivery of useful coupons by making very large buys when sale prices are extremely attractive and then waiting to buy only when prices become extremely attractive again. In other words, it might very well be worthwhile to trade some information about your buying patterns with a limited number of retailers you frequently use--but only if you can take advantage too.

The bottom line, however, is this: retailers want to make it easy for us to spend money at their stores, and they'll use information about us to do so. It's up to us to not give in so easily! If we make it a just a little bit harder on them, we can get far better prices and far more value for the money we spend.


READ NEXT: Rousseau on Luxury: 10 Thoughts


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

She Thinks She Hasn’t Been Spied On

If you've never heard the story about Target and the pregnant teenager, then you're dreadfully underarmed in the constantly escalating war between retailers and consumers.

As Charles Duhigg tells it in both The New York Times and in his insightful book The Power of Habit:

...a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation. "My daughter got this in the mail!" he said. "She's still in high school, and you're sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?"

Turns out she already was pregnant, and Target--thanks to its sophisticated customer analytics--knew it long before her parents did.

Now, obviously, Target wants to sell merchandise, it wants to gain market share, and it wants to understand your wants and needs so it can successfully sell more to you. The more a retailer knows about you and your life situation, the more effectively it can do this.

Unfortunately, many consumers mistakenly believe that a retailer's information about us comes from relatively limited range of sources--say, our purchasing activity at that retailer and our use of that specific retailer's loyalty cards.

Wrong! Retailers can (and do) buy information about you using all kinds of sources, most of which have nothing to do with what you buy in their stores. They can easily learn all kinds of things, like:

"...your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you've ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own."

Vulnerable to intervention
It gets worse. There are times when information about us is nearly priceless, times when consumers are, in the disconcerting phrasing of one academic, "vulnerable to intervention by marketers."

What exactly does this phrase mean, and why is it important? Duhigg explains it this way: "a precisely timed advertisement, sent to a recent divorcee or new homebuyer, can change someone's shopping patterns for years."

Retailers know that once a major life change happens to you--say you have a kid, buy your first house, or get divorced--you're going to start building an entirely new set of buying habits. And you'll likely be too busy (or too tired, or too passive) to price compare, and certainly you'll be too busy to go to multiple stores. If retailers can "intervene" at these times by offering you the specific products you want to buy at attractive prices, they can "help" you establish new buying habits. With them.

And so the soon-to-be-ex gets ads for cat food (or Russian brides), and the newly pregnant woman gets coupons for diapers and cribs.

If that isn't chilling enough, think about the online information gathering habits of companies like Faceborg, Amazon and Google, who have laughably easy access to our browsing habits. I experienced an all-too-typical example of this when browsing for K-Swiss tennis shoes recently on Amazon and then, creepily, saw ads for the exact same brand on Facebook, Yahoo Mail and other sites for days afterward. Classy.

Which takes us to a gigantic problem that retailers are only just beginning to grapple with: We know that they know. And it creeps us out.

A pregnant woman thinks she hasn't been spied on
You have to get past the painfully offensive idea that a retailer can predict things like "you're pregnant" or "you're about to get divorced" to get to an even more offensive idea: that the very same retailer wants you to think they don't know about it.

One way they can do this is by offering carefully targeted ads to you, but camouflage them with other unrelated ads. This way you won't see the targeting. Thus they put ads for power tools and men's shirts next to the coupons for diapers and baby clothes. They mask their knowledge about us by simulating randomness. Target said it this way: "we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn't been spied on, she'll use the coupons."

My brain makes strange leaps sometimes, and weirdly enough, this reminds me of a story about British and American codebreakers during World War II. Once the Allied forces had broken the German codes, they knew astounding amounts of information about German troop movements, submarine movements, and so on. But if the Allies were too obvious about it and always seemed to know the locations of German subs or tank divisions, the Germans would quickly realize that their codes had been broken. They'd then do the absolute worst thing possible: change their code system, and the Allies would totally lose their informational advantage.

So the Allies made sure to "make mistakes" and do other things to camouflage their knowledge, to make it seem like they didn't know the codes! Unlike many modern retailers, they knew enough to consider the second order question: How do we make sure they don't know we know?

This is where we are right now with retailing. When we know they know, it ruins everything, and we're too angry and too creeped out to buy. So they have to do the same thing the Allies did: camouflage the fact that they know, so we don't think we've been spied on.

Readers, what do you think?

For further reading:
1) Charles Duhigg's original article in the New York Times, How Companies Learn Your Secrets.

2) Duhigg's exceptional book The Power of Habit. I recommend it to readers not only for context on retailing, but also for its insightful discussion on the psychology of habits, and how we can manage and control some (but unfortunately not all) of the aspects of our habit routines.

3) Also, have a look at Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, an excellent novel about World War II codebreakers that addresses the "meta" of how to keep them from knowing we know. A really entertaining read.





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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

How Do I Slow Down the Treadmill?

In order to avoid stultification, [the gentleman of leisure] must also cultivate his tastes, for it now becomes incumbent on him to discriminate with some nicety between the noble and the ignoble in consumable goods. He becomes a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel and architecture, in weapons, games, dancers, and the narcotics. This cultivation of aesthetic faculty requires time and application, and the demands made upon the gentleman in this direction therefore tend to change his life of leisure into a more or less arduous application to the business of learning how to live a life of ostensible leisure in a becoming way.
--Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class

It's difficult to tell if Veblen is using satire or if he's telling it straight, but one thing is clear: the treadmill of consumerism never stops--never--no matter how much money you have.

In fact, you can easily argue that the more money you have, the worse it gets!

Things like the Diderot Effect start to happen to you, separating you from more money than you ever imagined. Constructed preferences and scope creep kick in. Your time gets squandered building ersatz knowledge and expertise about consumer products that never even mattered to you at earlier (and ironically, happier) stages of your life.

Worst of all, after you put all that effort and money into having more "taste" and "sophistication" the more easily it can be used against you.

What's the solution? For me, the solution is to refuse to play the hedonic treadmill game in any way. I consider it a great big game of checkers, and I want to play chess.

So I engage in various Stoic tactics to help me make sure I don't get tricked into playing checkers. I use the techniques of voluntary discomfort, negative visualization, occasional self-denial, and other simple-but-effective ideas shared in William Irvine's excellent introduction to Stoicism, A Guide to the Good Life.

I try to reject consumerism at all costs: I try to find solutions to problems that involve not making a purchase, I try to make spending money not be my default action. If I do do something luxurious, I make sure it's something rare, infrequent--so I don't adapt to it.

Also, I do everything I can to not status signal. Any flashy purchase that I might make not only speeds up my hedonic treadmill, it speeds up the hedonic treadmill for all the other people around me too. The more I think about it, the crueler this seems.

I'm finding, as I get older, that the more I reject consumerism at all costs, the happier I am. What about you?


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!