Wearing Occasions and Practicing Philosophy

Buddhism stresses “mindfulness,” for the Greek philosophers it’s “psychological acceptance.” Both posit that human suffering is not the result of external problems but internal beliefs. Having a nonjudgmental perspective on the totality of one’s experience, learning new information-processing skills and coping mechanisms, reduces suffering and is the path to achieving spiritual enlightenment.

Practicing philosophy means to examine the reasons we have for the values and the beliefs we hold as true so that we can free ourselves from unhelpful traditions, cultures, habits and mindsets. These unhelpful beliefs are what water is to fish – invisible due to their over-familiarity. So how do you study the invisible? One way is to make use of the propaganda thrown at us everyday in the form of advertising. The strategies companies employ to get you to buy their products makes for good brain fodder in how to practice philosophy.

Consider: Consumers have most of their needs met. They also have limited money. What is a corporation with a mandate of constant growth to do? Trying to take market share from competitors is one option. If the pie is only so big, you need to take a larger piece from the competitor if you want to grow. But it’s not cheap. Consumer habits run deep.

Even better than growing market share is growing market size. Increasing market size can take on many forms: for example, a company in the computer business moves into the phone business and then moves into the wristwatch business. Or a low price company creates a tier of luxury, high priced products.

Besides maneuvering into other categories or recreating perceptions of value, the most pernicious way of creating market size is by inventing problems for which the company is the only solution. Create new customer needs and all of a sudden you’ve created more share to take.

This idea is as old as marketing itself. No one knew halitosis was a problem until the mouthwash company told us it was. Who knew wearing white after Labor Day was a sin until fashion companies declared it so? Instead of inventing problems for which the company is the solution — maintaining the problem for which they are the solution is even better. You’re never good looking enough, happy enough, travelled enough or entertained enough as long as the company keeps thinking up new ways to convince you so. In a way, marketing is a personification of the thoughts that we manufacture in our minds – which makes them so ripe for analysis. We also maintain the problematic thought patterns that keep us believing unhelpful thoughts that stroke our egos and pride.

We generally think we’re above it all, that all that advertising doesn’t affect me. Don’t be so quick to think that a thousand cuts won’t kill you. Marketing ideas get our attention by taking advantage of a host of psychological vulnerabilities that we have and then become fuel for the unhelpful values and beliefs that philosophy aims to fix. It is possible to render advertising ineffective and at the same time build our mental muscles to resist. We are awash in marketing messages, and therefor awash in practicing philosophy.

The brevity of marketing messages helps in their perception as being self-evident – too short and shallow to be given critical thought before the next advertisement hijacks our attention. Instead, let the advertisement be your own Socratic questioner. Contemplate the ad’s “call-to-action” with your own opinions and values on the topic suggested and articulate them for yourself. Ask, “who stands to benefit from this belief?” By dragging your values into the light, defending your position against or for the ad’s claim, or just acknowledging you have values will begin to break them down, expose them to the operations of critical intelligence and thus develop that intelligence in the first place. The point isn’t to double-down on your opinions or swallow marketing messages whole, but to put them into the unfamiliar, uncomfortable and endlessly fertile condition of doubt — ultimately to understand that you know less than you think.

So when you learn of a new “wearing occasion” proposed by an apparel company in an attempt to get you to buy clothes that ultimately do the same thing as clothes you already own, consider it an opportunity to teach yourself to recognize it, question it, and think your way around it.

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