There was an interesting program on the BBC last night. It wasn’t completely original, I saw something similar last year but I am intrigued by the message it is giving out at prime time and the assumption that there is sufficient interest in the subject. It was titled, ‘Shop well for less’, but I don’t think that title tells the whole story of what it was about.
The basic premise, if you didn’t see it, or can’t be bothered catching it here, was to take a family that shop really badly and consequently overspend, throw in a bathroom project in their house that has been unfinished for years because they are short of cash and show them how much they could save by shopping smarter. I’m not here to comment on the detailed content or quality of the program but I am very interested in what it had to say.
I suppose there are several ways of viewing this kind of show; you could see it as a useful educational tool that explains the value of shopping more thoughtfully and questioning not just how much you buy but also what brands and whether or not you are getting value for money. On the other hand, you could view it as an anti-consumerism message and thus part of a small historic movement that has always questioned the whole concept of acquiring stuff simply because we can.
On a different level again you could say the program was encouraging us to fight back against the fierce onslaught of the advertising industry. There was an element of blind testing revealing that top brands aren’t always the best value and neither is price an indicator of quality in all cases. To the producer’s credit they also acknowledged that sometimes paying more for quality works out cheaper in the long run.
The biggest unanswered question that it left in my mind though, was would such a program have any impact? I doubt it myself. The program lasted an hour and during that time it appealed to people to think before buying and to question the claims of advertisers. In the same period, on a multitude of commercial channels, tens if not hundreds of hours of advertisements were broadcast. Millions of sales e-mails were dispatched and in the same time thousands of minds were dreaming up new ways of convincing us to buy things that we may, or may not, need. Then there are the magazines we read, the bill boards that assault our senses every day and the mountains of junk mail that pile up behind our doors. All this verses a one hour TV program; it’s hardly a fair competition is it?
I do believe there might be a glimmer of hope in all this though. The fact that it isn’t the first program of its kind is encouraging, but more important still, is the time that it was broadcast and its position on a major channel like BBC1. The cynic in me believes that its main appeal might be in its voyeuristic intrusion into another family’s life so that we can all enjoy gasping with incredulity at the stupidity of the mum and dad that go out to buy winter coats for their boys and come home with bedding and clothes for themselves and the children but not the coats that they went for. Having said that, it was pretty hard hitting when it came to advertising and there were some strong messages about buying what we actually need rather than what the marketing gurus tell us we need. It’s not going to bring about the death of consumerism or drag the advertising industry to its knees overnight but it’s an encouraging step towards questioning the whole crazy business of what we buy and why we do it. There are plenty of examples of consumers winning victories over suppliers and turning the tables on who is in control of what we buy. In the 1970’s the large UK breweries were determined to phase out unprofitable and unpredictable real ale in favour of cheap-to-produce and stable keg beers. The Campaign for Real Ale was formed to combat this move and by people power alone they reversed the strategy of the suppliers completely. It is now almost impossible to find a pub in the UK that doesn’t serve real ale. Admittedly what we are talking about here is different; this isn’t just a suggestion that people should choose to buy a different product but that they actually refrain from buying a lot of things completely. That’s a much bigger ask, I agree.
Most people I talk to understand that unrestrained consumption, by an ever increasing population, on a planet of finite resources doesn’t add up. I am hoping that a program like this, being broadcast on a mainstream channel and at prime time is an indicator that challenging thoughtless consumerism isn’t quite as off the wall as it used to be. It’s only a very faint glimmer of hope but it’s better than total darkness.