Empty Boxes

30/09/2016 16:20

An Irish craft and gift website is offering an exciting-looking product for sale at the moment. It's called a Christmas Eve Box and it costs 35 Euros. There was even a draw to win one: the usual sort of Facebook thing: 'like and share this post to be in with a chance...'

I didn't like, I didn't share, but I was curious. Looking more closely at a post that someone else had shared, I discovered it: the product is actually an empty box. Half amused and half scandalised, I revelled for a while in the ridiculous marketing stunt. 35 Euros for an empty box! Admittedly, it was decorated with Christmas designs and bore the name and address of your child on the top, so that families could elaborate on the 'this is straight from Santa at the North Pole' pretence, filling the box with their own gifts chosen to suit that special someone. Even so, though. An empty box.....!

All sorts of metaphors occur to me. Empty boxes: empty promises. The empty promises of marketing... the celebrity telling you to buy that shampoo or that mascara, 'because you're worth it'. The product in question costing somewhere between £4 and £10... announcing that you're really not worth that much. The small print announcing that the celebrity was 'styled with hair extensions' or 'with false lashes', to protect against lawsuits from those of us who are clumpingly ordinary and don't resemble supermodels or popstars, even when we style ourselves for all we're worth. The empty promises of social media: the friends or followers who aren't really our friends and, thankfully, don't really follow what we do. The empty promise of Christmas, even: the waiting for that special day which, of course, is every bit as imperfect and limited as the 364 others on the calendar.

Marketing really makes me laugh. The sheer cynicism of the 'inadequacy - product- problem solved' storyboard for the typical ad campaign is just so obvious that it amazes me that more of us don't see right through it. You've got germs in your kitchen! You might get sick - really sick! But wait: we can save you! Buy this anti-bacterial spray! Hurrah - problem solved! Or: you've got dandruff! Nobody likes you, with your snowy shoulders! But wait: we can save you! Buy this shampoo! Now you're gorgeous! The flakes have gone! Your head doesn't itch! I could go on. But wait: I can save myself. I won't.

Advertising is deeply invasive, no matter how far we think we can rise above it. The jingles and tunes get into our heads. I use 'should've gone to...' a well-known optician brand as an example when I'm teaching classes about modal auxiliary verbs. Sometimes we forget that adverts are selling tools, not documentaries, and sometimes research is sponsored by the companies who sell solutions to the problems being investigated. A recent BBC medical documentary revealed that the development of the questionnaire for first diagnosis of depression was initially subsidised by a company which, among other things, makes and sells anti-depressants.

And it's not just about money. Marketing makes us feel inadequate. The array of cleaning products in the typical supermarket sometimes makes me nervous. Surely if there are this many products on sale, our houses - my house - must be absolutely filthy? Riddled with germs, diseases, dangers? Surely if it takes the contents of the average Boots to fragrance and enhance the imperfect bodies of everybody, we must all be pretty hideous to start with? Does my face value literally get enhanced as I pile more and more products into my basket and into my routine? When I get those targeted special offers because my loyalty card whispers secrets about what I usually buy or how very old I'm getting just as I reach my birthday?

If we take advertising too seriously, we could start to feel incredibly insecure. Some days, it can feel almost impossible to resist. We're hideous. Surrounded by germs. Boring and unimaginative if we don't try this food, that gadget, another different holiday. We've got to improve ourselves, and the empty boxes of the products advertised all around us seem more like advice whispered insidiously and helpfully in our ears rather than just sales tactics. Look! It's personalised just for you: it's got your name on it. It simply couldn't suit you any better: it sums up how you feel, that sparkling clean kitchen could be just like yours if you just stocked up on cleaning products, and that gorgeous swishy hair could be yours too. The terror power of suggestible adults isn't much different from the pester power of children...

It's the autumn. The evenings and the mornings are growing dark and cold. The ephemeral charms of sunshine and suntans are fading, fast. We're pulling those cosy jumpers and blankets back out of our cupboards and we're looking for whatever comforts we can find. Like everybody, I've been fooled before. But as I listen to the first autumnal gales battering my windows, I'm determined that it won't happen to me again.

Let's not keep searching for ways to feel better about life in shiny, expensive, empty boxes.