Monday, October 4, 2010

Stop Trying to Keep Up with 'The Joneses'

Last week 'The Joneses' was the feature film on a flight I was on. I couldn't help but watch after reading the synopses. SPOILER ALERT. This is not a movie review. This is an extension of the commentary that the movie encompasses so I will share more than you might want to hear if you haven't seen the movie and intend to do so.

The Joneses appear to be the perfect family of four - successful businessman, gorgeous wife, 2 beautiful teenage kids. They move into a fashionable suburban neighborhood and immediately become the neighborhood trendsetters. Everyone wants to be like one of them. Dad has a stunning bride who clearly keeps him happy in the sex department, a beautiful McMansion and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cool toys — cars, golf clubs, watches, stereos, etc., — all the stuff every guy wants. Mom is super stylish, always wearing the latest designer label, practically right off the catwalk, house decorated just so. The kids reign over their new school with cool clothes and cars and the latest cell phones, games and makeup.

The deep dark secret is that they're not really a family. They're a marketing team that has been strategically positioned in this well-to-do neighborhood to increase the sales of all "their" cool stuff. Looking like the perfect family with all the latest gadgets is their job. They are supposed to influence their neighbors' buying habits — to literally make them want to "keep up with the Joneses". Subtle title huh? Dad, at one point actually says to his cadre of wannabes "He who dies with the most toys wins." The whole movie is a bit heavy handed.

Think about it though. Why wouldn't marketers go to such lengths? We are already completely surrounded by marketing in our daily lives. You can't pick up a newspaper or magazine that isn't 50% or more advertising. Radio has become one big commercial with a few musical interruptions. TV is rife with commercials and ridiculously obvious product placement. Everyone uses Google, which is just a big marketing conduit. Why not direct sales from sales people in our social circles? The entire western culture is about consuming. 

But does it make us happy? The movie is not subtle about this message. The neighbor, who hasn't gotten laid in ages, learns the art of creating a happy wife from Dad - an endless flow of gifts. And it works. The neighbor finally gets laid after buying all kinds of stuff for his wife. But unlike Dad, he has to pay for all the gifts, not to mention the new car, TV, golf clubs… you get the picture. And like so many people in the roaring 2000s he put it all on credit. "60 days no payments" for a houseful of stuff and gifts for the wife becomes an insurmountable mountain of debt. He got laid, but he's not happy. He misses house payments and then his wife has trouble using a credit card to fund one of her fancy parties. Next thing you know the neighbor is found at the end of a trail of unpaid bills, floating dead in the backyard swimming pool. The moral of the story is, in my own words, "Don't get caught up in all the consumerist bullshit."

Stuff doesn't lead to happiness. Case in point, I once went on a mountain bike ride with a friend who owns a bike shop. He rides a heavy old mountain bike and one of the other riders asked him why he didn't have a newer, lighter, cooler bike. His response was that he enjoys the riding regardless of the bike he is riding. Even though he can outfit himself at cost, he rides his heavy old beater. It's not about the stuff. It's about the experience. This is becoming a key tenet in my quest for success and happiness. I know that success is not defined by what I accumulate in money or things. It is about what I do and with whom I do it. It's about the collection of memories of those times, which I will carry with me. He who dies with the most memories is the real winner.

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