Just In Time For Christmas

We interrupt this blog to bring you an important breaking story!

In a surprise marketing move, at least 3 gigantic electronics companies have introduced the same new consumer product — just in time for Christmas.  The Incredibly Useless Thing was introduced simultaneously at retail outlets around the world today.  The product sold out within hours.  Immediately dubbed the iThing by every unimaginative journalist in the universe, the device has sent computer geeks everywhere scurrying back to their mothers’ basements to try it out.  According to industry spokesperson, Dakota Nebraska, the iThing comes with twice as many mega-pixels and enough speed and memory to launch the Mars Rover from your kitchen.

“We’re calling the iThing the next generation of useless electronic device,” Nebraska said. “The iThing is totally wireless, you can recharge it with the steam off your pee and battery life, with continuous use, is approximately 12 minutes.”  Nebraska Dakota went on to say, “There are already 8 million Apps available for the iThing– everything from “Which Potato Are You?” to a “Proton Torpedo Simulator,” plus the iThing comes pre-programmed with some awesome coloured lights that go on and off and a variety of unusual sounds.”

The iThing uses the new Inutile Operating System, which is no different from all the other operating systems on the planet except it’s not compatible with any of the electronic crap you already own — including your toaster.  Its Interactive Help Menu connects you with a chat line where you can join other iThing users who don’t know any more than you do.  But for a real techno-frustrating experience, all three gigantic electronic companies are offering 24/7 tech support which is exclusively accessible only from the iThing itself.  In other words, say your prayers, cuz the coyote’s got a better chance of catching the road runner than you have of finding someone to help you figure this thing out!

In a candid, off the record, interview, one techno-drone said, “We’ve changed all the names and placement of every function on the menu — just to screw with ya.  We’ve added a Tool Bar that is completely unnecessary, and if you accidently press “Back Slash, Gallery” Facebook automatically places all your friends on Tinder.  And we’ve done a bunch of other stuff, too, but why should I tell you?  You thought you were so cool in high school — with your cars and your cheerleaders.  Well, who’s laughin’ now, Braaadley?  Who’s laughin’ now?”

Initially, the iThing will be offered in two models: the cheap one you see advertised (which is woefully under-powered) and the outrageously expensive one (which the pirates who made the device know you are going to have to buy eventually, anyway.)  However, some electronic companies are taking a bold, new retail approach.  “We don’t care about the iThing itself,” they say. “It’s free.  We’ll give you the damn thing for nothing, as long as you sign a 5-year contract of penal servitude so we can charge you for every nanosecond it operates — from the minute you turn it on.”

There have already been protests about the predatory pricing of the iThing.  A fake YouTube commercial, showing the iThing exploding, has been viewed 100 million times and #iThing Sucks on Twitter has gone viral – twice!  Retailers have responded to the criticism by saying, “Big deal! A bunch of kids and old people have clicked an “angry face” emoji.  So what?  We’re sold out anyway.”

Dakota Nebraska, spokesperson for the three gigantic electronic companies, also responded by saying, “There has been some criticism, but the retail numbers speak for themselves.  This is not a manufactured shortage.  Our customers are saying they want the iThing.  Look at the unholy prices people are willing to pay!  But we’re all about families here at Big Electronics, and we want parents and grandparents to have something for their loved ones during the Holidays, so we’re offering an opportunity to pre-purchase the next shipment of iThings.  Your purchase comes with a numbered gift card which you can use to track your iThing through the entire manufacturing and distribution process.”  However, Nebraska Dakota also admitted that there was already a new and improved model, the iThing 2.0, in production — with tons more memory, better resolution, and a cheaper price tag — which should be in retail outlets in time for April Fool’s Day 2021.

We now return you to WD’s regular blog

Previous published – gently edited.

Black Friday – A History

blackfridayBitching about Black Friday is like slapping Satan – nobody’s going to tell you to stop.  You can call Black Friday everything but nice, and not one person on this planet is going to say, “Hey!  Watch your mouth, you insensitive bastard!”  It’s weird, but the highest High Holy Day of our consumer culture has absolutely no cheerleaders.  Yet, even as you read this, millions of people all over the world are kicking each other out of the way to get at tech toys they don’t really need.  (Notice Black Friday never includes food.)

So, rather than rip Black Friday a new one (like everybody else) I’ve decided to offer a history lesson.  This is how Josiah Wedgewood invented our consumer culture and with it Black Friday.  (Originally written in 2012 and gently edited for 2019.)

Today is Black Friday.  It’s the day when half of America (and a lot of the world) lines up for hours, searching for an incredible bargain, and the other half waits impatiently to sell it to them.  To some, this is the seed of greed; to others, it’s capitalism at its finest.  Regardless, unless you flunked math, history and economics in high school, you know that without our much-maligned consumer society, our world would look markedly different from what you see out your window.  And most of us would have neither the energy nor the leisure to wax critical on the whole process.  However, did you ever wonder why people buy so much useless junk and literally kick other people out of the way to get at it?  The answer’s quite simple, really: Josiah Wedgwood had smallpox — and survived.

History does not always run on big events.  For example, one of the reasons Drake, Hawkins and the rest of Elizabeth I’s Seadogs kicked the snot out of the Spanish Armada in 1588 is their cannons were shorter.  Thus, they could reload faster and, therefore, held superior firepower over their Catholic adversaries.  A much overlooked detail, to be sure, but absolutely critical to the history of Europe and the world.

Likewise, Josiah Wedgewood’s bout with smallpox as a child, insignificant as it might be, was a decisive event that changed human history.  When Josiah recovered, he was apprenticed to his elder brother as a potter, but because his legs were still weak from his illness (a condition that lasted his entire life) he couldn’t work the foot-powered potter’s wheel for long periods.  Thus, he spent more time designing pottery, working with glazes and selling his wares than he did actually making them.  Unhitched from the daily grind of producing pottery, Josiah had time to figure out how to effectively sell it.

The story is long and quite complicated, but here is the gist of it.  Josiah’s business career coincides with the early rumblings of the Industrial Revolution.  James Watt’s steam engine was putting people power out of business and creating a whole new class of folks unfettered from the land.  This new urban class of managers, foremen, clerks, artisans etc. etc. were stuck in the “middle” — between the obscenely rich aristocrats and entrepreneurs and the virtual slaves from the mines and the factory floors.  Plus, unlike their parents, who had been practically self-sufficient, without land, this new “middle” class had to buy every necessity of life rather than produce it for themselves.  Essentially, Josiah’s pottery works had been handed a huge new consumer demographic that nobody had seen before.

Obviously, all these new people moving into the urban centres of Britain needed plates, cups, jugs etc. but that’s just the nuts and bolts part of the story.  What separates Josiah Wedgwood from every other guy with a lump of clay was his understanding of the market.  He realized that this new middle class was not living hand to mouth.  They had a modicum of leisure time and disposable income.  He also saw that they were willing to use this income to distinguish themselves from the poorer urban masses.  More importantly, even though they didn’t really have the coin for it, they wanted to emulate the social superiority of wealthy aristocrats and the new-fashioned nabobs of trade and industry.  Josiah simply thought outside the 18th century box and cashed in on this middle class social climbing.

Basically what he did was create unique pieces for his wealthier clients — and then mass produce less expensive knockoffs for everybody else.  Suddenly Harvey and Maud, the uppity couple from Pembroke Lane, could eat off plates and saucers just like King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte.  Wedgwood even called it “Queen’s Ware.”  His Jasperware was elegant, expensive and exclusive, but anybody with enough shillings could afford a posh replica.  Plus, Wedgwood treated his clients as if they were upper class, by bringing the marketing tools of the aristocracy down to the middle class.  He used illustrated catalogues just like exclusive art dealers.  He had salesman who came to your home, written guarantees and free delivery.  Not only that, but he also produced objects of art.  Before Wedgwood objets d’art were the exclusive province of the upper class who could afford to squander money on trinkets and antiquities.  After Wedgwood, everybody had household ornaments.  He made Etruscan busts and Grecian urns that were well within the price range of even the most modest home.  The thriving middle class, striving to keep up appearances, bought this stuff by the wagon load.  Even today, his powder blue and ivory white Greek motif plates are recognized around the world, and many of us have these useless pieces cluttering up our shelves and coffee tables.

Josiah Wedgwood was the first person to sell the sizzle instead of the steak and make you pay for the garnish.  He understood how the middle class ego worked and, frankly, it hasn’t changed in over 200 years.  Those people who lined up this morning for the 80 inch television set aren’t buying solid walls of entertainment; they’re buying a physical expression of their success.  By recognizing this need and filling it, Josiah Wedgwood single-handedly create our consumer society in the late 18th century.  It’s been going strong ever since.  Today’s madness at Target, Best Buy and Walmart is just the latest incarnation of two centuries of marketing.

Black Friday 2018

black friday

Unless you live on Jupiter, you know that today in America (and increasingly around the world) it’s Black Friday.  This is an annual orgasm of consumer culture that has psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and bloggers like me bursting at the seams with explanations of why ordinary people go nuts every 4th Friday in November.  The truth is people can’t help it.  We have culture, history and our own DNA working against us.

First of all, humans are essentially hunter/gatherers.  No matter how far out of the caves we think we’ve come, just go to somebody’s house and take a look around.  What you see is a lifetime of hunting for and gathering up loads of stuff that, for the most part, we don’t need.  The fact is, many of us have gathered up so much crap that we have to pack some of it in boxes and hide it in the basement.  Yeah, yeah, yeah: we all want to eat, sleep and watch TV out of the rain, but one of the main reasons we even have houses (the bigger, the better) is to store our stuff.  And we put locks on the doors just in case another hunter/gatherer wanders by and decides to add to his collection by stealing from ours.  Black Friday is just an elaborate hunting expedition where the weapons of choice are credit cards — not spears.

Second, humans are social animals.  We run in herds, and anyone who’s studied herd behaviour will tell you that, once the herd starts moving, it’s pretty hard to stop.  And … the difference between a meandering flock and a ferocious stampede is just a couple of boys in the back thinking they’re going to get left out.  Push comes to shove, and suddenly, Morgan, from your yoga class, is elbowing old ladies out of the way to get at the 60-inch TVs.  Black Friday is just the kind of limited time offer that triggers this herd mentality.

And finally, all human society is built on the bargain.  It’s in our DNA somewhere.  Even the most primitive, egalitarian, every-hand-in-the-pot people are looking for a deal.  Nobody, anywhere, has ever said, “Eddie Bonenose wanted two chickens for his daughter, but I talked him into taking three.”  Never happens!  And retailers know this, so discounts (real or imagined) are everywhere — sales, coupons, 2-for-1, Happy Hour – the only things that never go on sale, these days, are the Church and Apple Computers — and they’re both banking on religion to suck us in.  Anyway, Black Friday is the ultimate something-for-nothing day that satisfies this primitive urge.  No wonder people love it!

Personally, I think Black Friday, like New Year’s Eve, is basically amateur hour, so I don’t participate, but for those who do – I’m pretty sure you’re just fulfilling your cultural, historical and genetic imperative.  Good on ya!