Every now and then, something comes along that makes me question the fundamental tenets of consumer society. The most recent catalyst: a new show on NBC called “Three Wishes.”
The program teams washed-up Christian crooner Amy Grant with a squad of peppy co-hosts. Together, they rain joy on the deserving hordes. But this sly show is more than a feel-good tear-jerker; it is the cancerous outgrowth of a culture obsessed with material consumption.
The basic concept of “Three Wishes” is noble enough, if oddly misguided: Grant and her band of merry men travel the country, ferreting out deserving folks. Then, these model citizens have their wishes granted. Conveniently, they often wish for consumer goods, which means the show is basically an hour-long product placement as wish after wish is granted, propelling the recipients into tear-streaming convulsions of glee. Shot though soft filter and well-stocked with weeping mothers, the show is a curious half-breed: It marries the maudlin potency of a TV movie with all the cultish consumerist jingoism of an Amway pep rally. The result is like Judgment Day for small-time Samaritans, if the cosmic reward for wholesome living were a new kitchen from Home Depot.
One week, Ameriquest Mortgage gave McMansions to Iraq veterans. Then Jeep gave two young men new Commanders with moon-roofs and seven-passenger seating. One recent episode featured Tim, a small-town California sheriff and step-father of an adorable and selfless little boy. This boy’s only wish was to give something back to Tim for being such a terrific step-dad. Tim once drove a gigantic Ford F-350 pickup, but had to surrender it for financial reasons. Thankfully Grant was on hand to set this right, because such injustice simply cannot stand.
Swayed by the touching story — and not at all by the hour of prime-time network exposure — Ford Motor Company sent two gifts: a brand new F-350, and a smarmy PR man to glad-hand the cop, grin to America and hand over the keys. Tim cheered and wept. A local authority figure reduced to sycophancy for a 10-mpg monstrosity: truly, an American dream come true.
But for all its schmaltzy sentimentality, “Three Wishes” is built on solid consumerist assumptions. It never crossed the producers’ minds that Sheriff Tim might actually have done the right thing selling his pickup, that the insurance or fuel costs were excessive or that the vehicle was an extravagance. It never occurred to them that 20-year-old soldiers fresh from service might actually be better off living in their $400-per-month basement than some lavish new house with five-digit property taxes. The unspoken assumption is that more is better, that every citizen deserves a 4,000-sq. foot Beltway Baronial with cathedral ceilings and trappings of the good life. “Three Wishes” faithfully mirrors the national fascination with living large.
Over-consumption is epidemic. While families have shrunk, the average size of single-family houses has soared from 963-sq. feet in 1950 to nearly 2,400-sq. feet today. The average American household carries $9,000 in credit card debt, and the national savings rate just dipped below zero. Five years of cheap money has spurred borrowing at incredible levels, fueling a speculative bubble in real estate and coaxing citizens to indulge every material craving with borrowed funds. Proportional spending has increased significantly, along with debt. We mortgage tomorrow to live well today.
Fueling this frenzy is a distortion: many people have a wholly unrealistic view of how the typical American lives. Supposedly middle-class sitcom families are depicted in upper-class living spaces. “Three Wishes” informs us that good fathers “deserve” pricey pickups. Virtually everyone on TV is happy, well-dressed and consuming at a high level.
Marketing is so forceful that we can no longer distinguish between needs and wants. Watch enough television, and you’ll feel positively poor without two plasma TVs or a three-car garage.
The almighty consumer has become pretender king. He operates not in his own material self interest, but, like some runaway engine of gratification, consumes in overdrive to satisfy manufactured wants not his own.
This insatiable hunger is driven by contemporary marketing campaigns that border on the absurd: a woman has racy dreams, moaning as she shops for coats; mothers “ooh” and “ahh” over J.C. Penney coupons; and, my personal favorite, Circuit City urges us to buy flat-panel TVs for every room. Advertisements this preposterous risk breaking our trance, laying bare the unquenchable and ongoing orgy that pairs unwitting citizens with crap they don’t need.
It’s time to put some reason back into laissez-faire capitalism. With the debauchery of holiday season fast approaching, it is especially challenging to combat the allure of needless consumption. Amy Grant says we deserve a big house and a pickup. I say we deserve to be financially solvent and free of junk. Take your pick, and be careful what you wish for.
Michael Seringhaus is a fifth-year graduate student in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.