By Leo Babauta
The biggest obstacle to a wonderfully minimalist life is advertising.
Let’s think about that statement for a minute: what is a minimalist life, and what stands in our way from reaching it? How is advertising involved?
A minimalist life can be many things, but at its heart is becoming conscious about what we have in our lives. Space is limited: we have limited hours in a day, limited years in our lives, limited physical space in our homes.
And we fill all that limited space up unconsciously, packing it to overfull without much thought to whether that’s the best use of our space.
Minimalism is about pausing, and asking what’s necessary. What belongs in this space, and what can we toss out? Is the fantasy we have in our heads, that’s causing us to fill things up unconsciously, really what we thought it would be?
Advertising has the exact opposite aim: it wants us to spend without thinking about it. It wants us to buy on impulse. It wants to implant fantasies in our heads that cause us to go out and buy.
Think about an ad for clothing, or an Apple product, for example: they show us beautiful people living gorgeous lives, centered around the simple solution of having their product in our hands (or around our bodies).
Ads for a cleanser make us think we’ll not only have clean skin, but a perfect complexion and high cheekbones and a hunky boyfriend who adores us.
Ads for a new app make us think that all of a sudden we’ll be more organized and productive and all of our needs will be magically taken care of with this beautifully designed program in our smartphone.
Ads for a new kitchen appliance give us the fantasy of perfect health and a beautiful body, if only we had this magical tool in our homes.
Of course, none of this is true — we will be no more organized or productive, no more healthy and beautiful, no more likely to have a hunky boyfriend (or lithe girlfriend) if we buy any of these products. We’ll just be poorer, with more stuff in our already full lives.
What’s worse is advertising not only implants a fantasy in our minds that we instantly want … it gives us the self-conscious feeling of lack. We all of a sudden are not complete, not happy, because we don’t have the fantasy lives. We aren’t good enough yet. We aren’t happy yet.
And the buying does nothing to placate that lack. We buy, and still don’t have the fantasy, and so we still feel bad about ourselves. We still have the void inside our hearts that can never be filled.
Advertising is the insidious whisper of the bad angel of commerce.
I don’t blame advertisers: they are caught up in a game where they have to advertise, or they die. I don’t blame consumers: this is the society we live in and we have never lived in any other way.
I don’t even blame advertising companies: the Googles and Don Drapers of the world are just trying to make a buck like everyone else, and have figured out what works. Why not do what’s effective, right?
Don’t blame the player. Blame the game.
We are caught up in a game where we must make more money, and therefore must advertise, and to be effective at that we must instill fantasies that cannot be reached, a feeling of lack that cannot be eased.
We are caught up in a game where this entire process is OK with everyone, in fact cheered on because the most successful at it — Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Barack Obama, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Steven Speilberg, Walt Disney, et al — they are the winners of our society. We worship them.
The people who opt out of this game are ridiculed as hippies and bums and weirdos.
I say we toss out this game. Grab it by the belt and send it skidding to the sidewalk.
I say we revolt.
We can revolt by simply opting out. They don’t have an “opt in” checkbox on the form of this game, but we can still opt out even if we aren’t given this choice.
We can opt out by not watching ads. Not having them on our websites. Not buying into movies that are simply clever ads. Not believing the fantasies. Not buying on impulse. Not using shopping as therapy. Not using buying as a solution to everything. Not supporting media that’s just there to get us to read the ads between the stories. Not going to websites that have intrusive popup ads. Not listening to ad-supported radio. Not watching videos online that have ads. Not using ad-supported email. Not wearing logos on our clothing. Not getting logos tattooed on our bodies. Not going to theme parks that are just big ads for their products. Not shopping when we’re on vacation. Not buying presents to celebrate the holidays. Not buying smartphones because of an ad we saw. Not buying clothes or makeup or skin products to make ourselves look like a fantasy. Not reading magazines that try to make us have a fantasy of what we should look like. Not watching TV shows supported by ads.
Sound like too much? Yes, I agree: we are too entrenched in ads. We can’t get out of them. We are dependent. The revolt is too revolting. Back to your regularly scheduled program.