Recently I drastically reduced my internet connectivity. I went from being permanently logged in and checking my email with constant, desperate obsession, to logging in once a day to send and answer email. The laptop remains on, as I use it for work and music, but the web browser and chat programs are mostly off. It was an act of some desperation, but its impact has been profound. I am more engaged with my life and the people around me. I am more satisfied, less discontent. But that’s after only two days. Ask me again in a week.
I had started to feel that my internet use was emotional junk food. By coincidence, last week I received some more emotional junk food – a free copy of “New Idea” from Spotlight, where my daughter and I had gone to stock up on sparkly fabric and glittering gems for our fairy wing project.
Many years ago I swore off women’s magazines. I used to buy them sporadically, enticed by an intriguing headline at the checkout (more often Cleo or Cosmopolitan than New Idea, but the effect was much the same). But every time I bought one I would read the sparse content in between the hordes of ads, and I would come away feeling vaguely disgruntled, unsatisfied, and a little grubby. They definitely did not enhance my quality of life.
For a few years I repeated this cycle every 6 months or so – buy one, be dragged down by it, and then swear off them for a while. Until I finally got wise and swore off them altogether. So it was fascinating to see this free copy of New Idea. At first I was going to donate it straight to someone I thought would actually read it, but then I glanced at the cover.
Here is a list of the stories I found therein: “Hollywood’s greatest love story.” “Random reality TV person gets a husband” “Random celebrity’s hot new romance” “Random celebrity family’s reunion” “random other celebrities: ‘we can’t wait to be parents’” “Random TV show star tells of her extra special baby joy” “Women can’t stop throwing themselves at Random Criminal”. With the names removed, you could probably fairly accurately represent any individual issue with this list.
And then there are a lot of recipes and clothes (most of which only go up to size 14 or 16, and ALL of which are shown on models who might very well have never eaten more than a single bean at any meal in their entire lives. And by the way, the models are all tall, and none of these clothes can be bought off the rack by tall people – they do not fit us! Ever!! ). Oh, and there’s hair (fabulous), makeup (flawless, and used on flawless skin), and a few different ways of achieving perfectly flat tummies. And a smattering of astrology and numerology, together with large numbers of photos of (thin) celebrities.
I think this actually goes beyond junk food, and into the realm of serious toxicity. What are the messages here? Living vicariously through other people’s (reported) love lives, being thin, getting thinner, having flawless skin and perfect hair, cooking like a gourmet chef, and wearing the latest in fashion at all times. But only if you’re thin. (And it’s best to be tall, but you can’t buy the clothes unless you’re short – not that I’m bitter, you understand!)
Now here’s the rub – the publishing companies argue that they wouldn’t publish this stuff if people didn’t buy it. And, like junk food, it practically walks off the shelves. But there’s a chicken and egg problem here – marketing works, it is intended to manipulate our behaviour, and it has decades of psychological research behind it to show exactly how to do that. So in marketing these magazines they are manipulating people into buying them, which they then use as justification for making the magazines in the first place.
It’s arguably a free country. We have a fine tradition of free speech (at least, we used to). Yet I am beginning to suspect that marketing is sufficiently unethical that we should be increasingly concerned about its impact on our lives, lifestyles, and especially our children. We can sell just about anything, if we use the right marketing. We can sell junk food that wrecks the body, and emotional junk food that tarnishes the soul. We can do it. It’s a free country. But should we?