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In promoting the Renegade Consumer message, and even the more general message that consumers are far more hamstrung and limited in rights than most people believe, there are certain common arguments that newcomers toss out again and again.

Most of these arguments stem from the smug assurance that consumers—smart ones, at least, which always includes the speaker—just know that marketing is a shuck that can only mislead the weak of mind and will. And not a few of these views are carefully fostered by the marketing world, using flattering assurances, direct and indirect, that of course the reader/viewer/listener is much too smart to fall for any deception—so they should buy this product.

What follows are three of the most common arguments in this vein. Understanding them and their relatively simple counterarguments give you powerful tools to lead a newcomer past the cardboard castle walls of their mistaken belief, and into the beginning of a better understanding of their role and situation as a consumer.

1: The Budweiser Argument

What I call the Budweiser argument is one of the truly simplistic rejections of not just Renegade Consumer thinking, but pretty much all very basic consumer awareness thinking. It's usually phrased thusly:

I just saw an ad for Budweiser, and I didn't run down to the store for a six-pack. Obviously advertising doesn't really work... not on me, at least.”

Well, where to start? With these points:

  1. This person does not understand that advertising is rarely meant to provoke an immediate response. Only a very small subset of ads, whether on TV or in print, are meant to make the recipient leap up and go or do or buy something that minute. There aren't many more, at a major advertiser level, that are even meant to have an effect from that one exposure, or in any short term. Advertising for most consumer goods, from major makers, is meant to be cumulative—months, years even a lifetime of conditioning so that eventually Budweiser! jumps off the shelf into their arms. It's all about long, subtle conditioning of biases that are triggered at the moment of selection from the shelf.
  2. More generally, this person does not understand that advertising is a small part—not always even a significant part—of product marketing. There are many other forces building the conditioning to grab that brand when it's seen on a shelf. Most major consumer products are promoted in a dozen ways, only one of which is what we perceive as advertising.
  3. And underneath it all is the belief that advertising—or even marketing—has to “work” in some obvious, defined way that is consciously perceived. That, for example, seeing a Bud ad would provoke a powerful desire to run get a six-pack and chug one down. Marketing most certainly does work, but not with the sudden force of an avalanche. More like a sand dune slowly engulfing part of a city, and just as irresistible if the process is not fully understood.

Believing you are immune to “advertising” is almost certainly an indication that you are more susceptible to marketing's effects... because you don't recognize them except in the smug belief that you are making your own free choices.

2: The Peanut Butter Argument

I love it when my grocery store tracks my purchases, because it means they will always have my brand of peanut butter in stock.”

Well, no. Well, maybe in the earliest days of grocery tracking, at the crudest level of data collection and interpretation. But not since.

For one thing, a store doesn't need to track who buys Skippy Extra Chunky—they can simply look at their shelf sales total for the same information. Either they sell enough of it to keep on the shelf, or they don't, and whether or not Suzy Q. Strawberry or Shopper F2150979 buys it is largely irrelevant. If Suzy and/or F-number are the only two buying it, it's going to disappear from the shelf.

But it might not have, in days past. Grocery stores used to stock a vast number of slow-moving items on the theory that having jellied anchovies on the shelf was essential to the people who bought the six cans a year they sold. There was both a slight pride in “having everything” (or at least more than the guys across the street) and a sense that having each of these slow sellers kept some segment of their clientele happy.

But that's not how it works any more. Not in any store that uses shopper tracking, which is a majority these days. The profit margins are too slim and the entire food industry too brutal a battleground to allow such slack and sentiment to run things.

Tracking who buys what and doing so on a running basis generates a profile—which can well be anonymous—that is subject to intense and subtle interpretation. It is possible to infer, for example, which customers won't care if they stop carrying jellied anchovies, and which ones might actually shop somewhere else if such a low-sales item isn't available. So if you like an obscure natural peanut butter with cinnamon in it and your shopping pattern shows you won't mind if it's no longer available, don't count on there being your three jars a year there any more. On the other hand, your profile might show that you spend $6,000 a year there and are likely to expect that oddball product to be available... in which case it is worth keeping on a bottom shelf.

But more likely your choices of peanut butter will shrink to the eight or ten brand and size combination that 90% of shoppers buy... and too bad about that fancy stuff, or even another major brand, or a full selection of sizes. And that's what intense consumer tracking is really all about, these days: being able to reduce the inventory to only the most profitable items, without losing one extra customer by not including select low-traffic items. Tracking you and every other shopper has let the store reduce your overall choice to only what is most profitable for them and their suppliers.

As for anonymity, and those who are smug because they gave a false name or phone number or even use two or more cards... that really has little effect on the purposes and goals of the process. They don't really care too much what you, as an identifiable individual, buy... but then again, it is usually trivial to connect this shopping data to the much larger consumer behavior record at data aggregators. So that plastic-sack mask doesn't really do you much good.

Which leads to...

3: The Chicken Argument

I don't care if Google and Facebook track everything we do, because there are so many chickens in this flock they can't possibly know or care what any one of them does.”

Well, maybe in prior eras. It was not that long ago that computing power and algorithms that could handle more than a few dozen data points for a few thousand records was NASA- and NSA-grade stuff. Now, the processing theory and algorithms of “big data” make analysis of enormous data sets productive, and the immense computing power to run them is within the grasp of relatively small firms—and rentable by anyone.

Big data allows analysis of hundreds of data points across hundreds of thousands of records, and like any comb with finer and finer teeth, can extract enormously subtle inferences and show patterns that are not readily visible to coarser interpretation. Things like spotting customers who may only remain with a store because of a few specialty items become simple... as does deciding how many of those customers you can afford to lose by closing out all the low-sales, low-profit inventory you can.

Those who don't understand this revolution in both data management and data interpretation that is transforming everything from government to healthcare to (especially!) marketing likely assume that stat is as they learned it in back on college... whether five years ago or fifty. It's not, and few things hold as much promise—and truly dark potential—as the rise of big data. Yes, your scrawny little record of shopping is of interest and value, especially when it's added to the huge aggregate of data about you and your life in the major accumulators like Google and Acxiom.

And none of it is used for your benefit, peanut butter or otherwise.

This should really be called the Ostrich argument... but that applies to all these viewpoints and more, because here as in so many other situations, poking your head in the sand doesn't cover your ass.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded;
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.
Everybody knows the war is over;
Everybody knows the good guys lost.
Everybody knows the fight was fixed;
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
That's how it goes...
Everybody knows.

So Leonard Cohen put it, and so I've discovered in discussing the renegade message. Everybody already knows it all — they know that ads lie and that we buy too much crap and that very little of it is a wise purchase or even a good value. They know that we spend money we don't have on things we don't need even if we have to borrow it... even if we have to lie to borrow it; even if we have to lie to ourselves to borrow it. They know that it's bad to keep spending all your money, especially on crap someone told you defines a life worth living.

But they keep doing it anyway.

Everybody knows that the world is nothing like the fantasyland portrayed by ads.  Everybody knows that marketing exists solely to manipulate us... but of course everybody knows it only works on stupid and gullible people. Everybody knows that it's all one big whirl of cynicism and waste and looking out for number one. Everybody knows that forgetting “caveat emptor” brings only well-deserved and essentially self-inflicted pain.

And then they complain about their aching back.

While contemporary songwriters croon us to sleep with the soothing message that everybody knows what cynical losers we are, we have to listen to an older wit to put it all in context:

Josh Billings photo
"Josh Billings"
(Henry Wheeler Shaw, 1818-1885)

It ain't what we know that gets us into trouble. It's what we know that ain't so.
— Josh Billings*

In this case, it's not the small and filtered amount most of us know about marketing and consumerism, or even the much larger amount we don't know. No, it's very much what we know that “ain't so.” For all its familiar lyrics, the renegade message — the voice of renegade consumer philosophy and synthesis — is not something everybody knows. It's about the parts that few people understand, even though they're in plain sight. It's about the overall picture decades of conditioning have trained us to interpret in ways that benefit only the hustlers. The marketing world delights in its mastery of "ain't so."

Which, as I say in many places, is not your fault. It's natural to take new information and store it in the most convenient existing pigeonhole. It takes work to learn new information. It takes extra work to create a new category of ideas. It takes more work yet to replace comforting "ain't so's" with unsettling alternatives... but that's exactly what grasping the renegade consumer message requires. Unfortunately, no one can do this work for you. You have to carry out your own accumulated garbage to make room for these replacement ideas.

The very word “consumerism” has a pigeonhole in most people's minds, and all that's attached to the term follows it right in. Extend the discussion to include “advertising” and “marketing” and similar terms only opens that same bin wider; the content is absorbed and filed without having ever really passed through conscious consideration... because the listener "already knows."

The biggest hurdle in getting newcomers to grasp what Renegade Consumer is all about is thus getting them to set aside their assumptions long enough — just long enough; a short time, really — to understand what's different about these ideas, and what parts don't fit in the same pigeonhole as everything else generically tagged “consumerism.” I've discovered that I can't lower that hurdle much; I can't overcome generations of conditioning and indoctrinated belief in any short and simple way. I can only give each new potential renegade the ability to clear the hurdle as it stands.

The forthcoming book does the best job by far of taking the reader to a complete understanding... but "forthcoming" doesn't help anyone yet. The material slowly accumulating here will take the careful reader a good part of the way to clearing the path, but it will take time and effort — work — to process. I can't do much to make it simple, but if you've read this far I am bound to try and give you a short-form introduction to the ideas that Renegade Consumer is striving to pass along. Understand that this is short-form. I don't mean any of these statements to stand on its own, unchallenged and unsupported... but I assure you the long form of the material here and the book support them in the sturdiest ways.

So take a breath and a sip of whatever you have at hand. Relax. Open your mind, concentrate and try to accept this as "what's really so":

  • We have been conditioned over generations by the unceasing efforts of the consumer goods industry, through generations of marketing effort, to accept acquisition and consumption as a major purpose (if not the major purpose) of our lives. Not consumption that betters our lives, but consumption at any cost that provides maximized profits for the goods makers.
  • We have been collaterally conditioned to make choices that will maximize our ability to earn and thus spend and thus consume. We have evolved into a culture that prizes the ability to consume over many other truly admirable achievements.
  • You have better choices within your immediate grasp.
  • These choices are better because they will allow you to restructure your life around elements more important than earning a maximum amount of income to support a maximum amount of consumption.
  • The amount each individual will be able to change his or her life, and their family's lives, will depend on their understanding of how they are being manipulated, and have been conditioned since Grandma had pigtails.




* The funny thing about this quote is that it's frequently misattributed to a dozen others, including Mark Twain and Will Rogers... so the quip itself becomes something many people “know that ain't so.”

Everybody Knows lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.

Until now, nearly all consumer spending has faced a final barrier that is underrated in its ability to stop the most egregious and unnecessary purchases. That barrier has been targeted by retailers for a long time, and just cracked.

Amazon has had the "Go" project in the works for quite a while. I saw it coming years ago - in successive drafts of the book, the topic went from a paragraph of "could-be" to a page of "coming soon." It sounded as loopy and absurd as many of the other things I wrote about early, like consumer tracking, food engineering for addiction and the dangers of big data. But then I saw ads for staffing Amazon's Go division last month... and here's the big reveal.

There's way too much to say about this to even try to make this a complete analysis or even informative essay, so I won't try in this pass. But this change, the elimination of the checkout, may have more effect on consumer spending resistance than many of the data- and behaviorally-driven changes in retailing before it. Oh... I don't mean it will improve consumer resistance. Quite the opposite. When everything is "free," when there's no universal and formal moment of reckoning store choices with the reality of cost... we're looking at pure hindbrain to wallet spending, free of (enough) conscious, rational consideration.

Which, of course, is nirvana for retailers. That pesky resistance of consumers, their stubbornness at not making SeeWantBuy their operating principle, has vexed marketers and sellers for generations. Now, as I noted in the developing book, we're even closer to the marketing ideal of SeeBuy, with "Want" just automatic and assumed.

This is too depressing, so let's close out with an old joke I eventually worked into the book draft and will now probably relegate to a footnote.

An old Scotsman came to America and eventually found himself in a modern grocery store. Overwhelmed at the vast range of goods, he quickly began to fill his shopping cart with glee. When there was no more room, he headed for the exit, only to find his way blocked by the checkout line. "Dom!" he cried. "Ah knew there'd be a catch!"

And to some degree, we all depend on that "catch" a little. It's not uncommon to see shoppers at Target (mostly younger, some not-so, all  naive) reach the cashier with full basket, balk at the total, and slowly remove items from their order until it meets some pre-defined limit. A limit they could not seem to consider as they shopped. We can all smirk and roll our eyes at such lack of arithmetic and logic skills, but will we still be smirking when barrierless checkout becomes as common as the irritating self-checkout kiosks?

I don't know. I do know that removing the last "catch" in consumer spending represents a terrible offensive in this war, and one consumers are utterly unprepared to resist.

James Gifford (sig)

Consumers don't exist. And nothing says more about the uselessness of conventional economic theory than that.

Hi, fellow non-existee.

Consumers do not exist, except as a word and a vague deprecated class, in conventional economic thought. Oh, there are few writings dealing with the general economy that do not use the word, and there are decreasingly small niches of the field that deal increasingly with consumers as real entities, but on the whole... there 'ain't no setch animal' to most economists. Which, I understand, sounds like nonsense.

However, clear your mind and think of it this way: how are consumers represented in most economic writings and theories? As individuals? As a class with any discernible characteristics beyond ability and tendency to buy? As an active component of the system in any way?

The correct answer to the last is "yes"... but only in a fixed and passive manner.

I'll quit with the verbal fencing and put it bluntly. In nearly all economic discussions, the role of consumers is simply to be a target for... sales. It's all about sales — up, down, trending, surprising, dismal, whatever. Sales. Never a word about "purchases" or "buying." Consumers are a faceless, nameless, nearly valueless class that serves as a collection bin — or a "de-vending machine" — to balance the effect of the all-holy sale.

Does anything say more about the irrelevancy of economics to consumers (as actual, you know, individuals) than this wholly business/commerce-oriented  viewpoint? Economists don't give a rodent's patootie about the purchase or much of anything downstream from it, such as continuing costs for the buyer, or suitability of the purchase, or ability of the buyer to afford the item. No, we stop and venerate the sale. And stop there.

It's as if the backbreaking labor of slaves were only addressed as tons of coal mined, bales of cotton produced or acres of ground cleared. Oh, wait... plantations did indeed keep their books that way. Okay, it's as if factory workers were only addressed as number of iPhones or toasters or Toyotas produced. Um, hold it... of course that's how they're regarded. If the actual contribution of workers - indentured or not - is brushed aside as a meaningless collective force, it turns them into a faceless commodity... which is of course how most business, and its working tool economics, sees them.

Consumers don't even rate that highly; we have no unions, demands, compensation issues, availability issues or other direct costs. The marching drones, the frantic clock-guy in Metropolis have more humanity and regard than we do.

This revelation should really piss you off, and I hope it does.

I contend it's time for a drastic revision of economic thought, beginning with the needs and importance of consumers as individuals — and the collective needs of everyone on Earth, in terms of sustainability and quality of life, not to mention simple survival — and ending somewhere out on the fringes with corporate concerns.

As long as we remain a faceless mob holding out our bags for the proceeds of "sales," exchanging our lives to power an economic cycle of dubious worth, we will remain nearly powerless; we will be little more than our assigned role of silent, invisible economic batteries. It is time for consumers to be seen. It is time for consumers to rise.

It is time for us to go Renegade.

James Gifford (sig)

One of the most fundamental criticisms that can be leveled at Renegade Consumer is that it is contrary to nearly all conventional economic beliefs.

To which can only be said: Of course it is.

Furthermore, it can be said that the aims of Renegade Consumer undermine the basic principles of generally-accepted economic theory.

Yes, they do.

Our future as individuals, consumers, a nation and a planet is at sharp odds with conventional economic theory, and we are far past recognizing this fact. The choice is simple: either we are sacrificed in the sacred flame of economic thinking and its indispensable goal of ever-continued growth, or we sacrifice the sober nonsense of Twentieth Century economics on the trash heap of failed – or at least outmoded – thinking.

The key to understanding here is in the words “beliefs” and “theory.” Despite the heartfelt wish of its proponents, economics is not a science. Economics is composed of two things, accounting and theory. The absolute rigidity and precision that can be given the numbers and accounting and statistics is the basis on which most economists claim that their field is a science – but economic theory is never anything more than educated guesswork, prone to disruption by every butterfly effect and market tremor, and only obvious in retrospect. The inability of any consensus of even the most highly regarded minds in the field to accurately forecast economic events, other than in the most straight-line manner, is not a secret – only a particularly stylish cut of imperial clothing. Many summaries and analyses have been written on the continuing failure of economic theory to predict economic changes; success only comes to a few outliers, by luck, and to those who are rewarded when tomorrow continues like yesterday, only more so.

Economics is an important field. In most ways, it is a useful tool for monitoring and analyzing the flow of wealth in our society. But it is easy to lose sight of the massive complexity of economic systems and their tendency to be disrupted by the slightest breeze… making theories little more than hunch, hope and guesswork, no matter how distinguished the pundit or how long their string of successful guesses might be. (Lucky players are known to make ten straight passes with the dice in Las Vegas, too.)

So decisions about economic direction come down to whose guesses are better… and for whom. I contend that mainstream economics is a self-serving, self-referential spiral, in which theories and consensus are bent to fit preconceived notions, each reinforcing the other no matter how many recessions are failed to be anticipated (all fifty since WWII, according to some sources). So if Renegade Consumer starts with ideas and theories that are contradictory to mainstream thought, sometimes wildly so… it comes down to ‘cui bono’ – who benefits from these theories?

In mainstream economic theory, the benefit is to everyone… well, everyone who profits or otherwise benefits from continual growth and wealth expansion. Which can be shown to be everyone, in the trite phrasing about a rising tide lifting all boats. Bums in the street have a better life because the suits in the Street multiplied their wealth, or so it can be demonstrated with enough statistical pirouettes. What these smugly conventional notions fail to address is the cost of that increasing wealth – that, in a rude form of conservation of entities, rising wealth must come from some social, economic or ecological strip mine. And it does. We have paid for our expanding bubble of wealth in pollution, climate change, warfare (including the voracious appetite of “defense departments”), resource depletion and more… but nowhere has the ore been more costly than in human terms. To fuel this endless cycle of expansion, we have conditioned whole populations to shape their lives around producing/earning the maximum they were capable of, so that they might consume an ever-greater share of the goods fueling the expansion.

And there we have the core tenet of Renegade Consumer: that we have been generationally conditioned towards maximized fostered consumption… at the cost of far too many individual and societal options beyond those physical costs listed above.

We think it’s time to stop this madness. It’s time to free people from endless intense coercion to expend their lives in service to this mad spiral… and in doing so, solve a wide range of national and global problems stemming from the same pressure.

Which of course will cause economic collapse… by traditional interpretation. (Ask almost any economist what would happen if all wage-earners started saving ten percent of their income tomorrow… and then consider that we are advocating much steeper declines in consumer spending.)

The deflation or de-growth of the national and global economy is an integral part of Renegade Consumer theory, and it is included with the full understanding that such a thing is Armageddon by traditional economic standards… but promises salvation for us as individuals, communities, nations and a planet. Which is why we have no concern that these theories and policies are so at odds with mainstream economic theory; you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggheads.

It’s a choice between their guesswork and hunch and odds-making, with the attendant destruction of everything around us, including individual lives, for vaguely defined universal benefit (but especially that of those who directly profit from the spiral)… or our guesswork and hunch and odds-making that put individual lives, individual consumers first and can live with economic systems finding a way to adjust. It’s pitting cynical, predatory and destructive traditional thinking against fresh, humanistic, sustainable ideas.

It’s time for us to put away childish wishful thinking and mature as an economic body. It’s time to become Renegade Consumers.

At least, that’s our theory.

James Gifford (sig)


Scott Adams has spent over thirty years making fun of the way business runs in circles chasing profits at any cost... mostly costs to employee sanity, but shaking down customers for useless products and services has been integral to the humor.

In a recent week, though, Adams penned a series that ripped the façade off of marketing as thoroughly as anything I've done, and I admiringly concede he has a somewhat larger audience. The series ran from Monday, February 2 through (so far) Saturday the 7th... here's a link to the starting strip. Go read; I'll wait.

Nasty, nasty stuff and a major tip of the hat to Scott for his insight and razor wit, and for using his enormous pulpit to bully the right targets. (Yeah, I know, that's not what "bully pulpit" means. Originally, anyway.)

It does continue to bother me that this is representative of the very sharpest insight and challenge to the marketing-industrial complex... buried, lost even, in the funny pages. I appreciate the sentiments; I appreciate the serial and editorial cartoonists who focus their rage (and ours) on the manipulative system with which marketing has managed to engulf our economic and individual lives. But the days of the cartoon as weapon have pretty much passed; other than occasionally enraging an unbalanced mind - Nous Avons Charlie - searing cartoons tend to make the reader laugh, agree, feel good that they're not alone... and turn the page. The days of Thomas Nast bringing down Boss Tweed with his cartoons - which he did; Tweed was arrested in Europe because he was recognized from Nast's portrayals - are long, long gone.

Humor can be a wonderful weapon, and I try to use it intelligently and not too excessively in my efforts. But at a certain point, making fun of things defuses focus and anger more than it sharpens it; the laugh becomes a dismissal. It leads to co-option by the target and by the audience, burying the need to focus rage under a soothing blanket of "laugh and move on, nothing to see here." There is something deeply disturbing that the comics so frequently score bull's-eyes on this topic, and serious journalism and essays do not. There is no fault in using marketing and fostered consumption as a basis for humor; there is a problem when our informational media pays it so little attention. There is greater fault when, as it is, the topic is left entirely to the funnymen.

Co-option is the death of all social, economic and political movements, and the system - systems - have gotten better and better at turning aside even the most ferocious and well-aimed effort by co-opting, blunting and burying it. Along with all the other targets needing our full renegade focus and attention, the ingrained, possibly even fostered, tendency of the media to minimize consumption issues and marketing's role in them needs to be kept in our sights.

We need to laugh, or we'll go as crazy as Dilbert. But we must not let the chuckles spoil our aim.


One of the most popular maxims in the existing anti-consumerism world is "Buy Nothing." From AdBusters' annual call for "Buy Nothing Day" to various other groups that focus around the phrase to discussions about consumerism that toss it off as a verity, "Buy Nothing" has come to occupy a prominent place in the evanescent image of anti-consumerism.
Which is a pity, because it's self-cancelling nonsense.

Serious anti-consumerism is, in this time and place, an extreme stance. It is contrary to many of the basic assumptions that underlie our lives, culture and economics. To stand up in favor of anti-consumerism, to oppose the cycle of consumption, is an inherently extreme act. However, there's a difference between pointless extremism and what might be called rational extremism. There is far too much of the former in the world, and it grabs headlines and news feeds every day. The message it conveys often strongly colors the audience's view--and the color is that of negation.

It is common, for some reason, for proponents of contrary opinions to couch them in the most extreme terms--sometimes beyond extreme into the outlandish. Movement after movement and effort after effort does not reach for the reasonable, the workable or the possible, but for absurdly inflated goals: ban all cars. Dump fossil fuels. Open all national borders. Eliminate money. Eradicate cancer. Give North America back to the native population.

"buynothingshatteredBuy nothing."

It may feel good, or feel powerful, or even feel purposeful to reach for the moon in a social or civic endeavor, but setting a goal that cannot be reached is self-cancelling. It dooms the movement to a life span of essentially meaningless effort, often wasting the time, money and good will of a great many people whose contributions could otherwise achieve real and meaningful change. To stubbornly hold out for only the furthest, vastest and most difficult (or impossible) goal is to misunderstand how problems are solved, and to block a myriad of interim, iterative, constructive possibilities. Such positions are calls for an unwinnable all, or nothing--and nothing is what they will achieve.

To stand on the position "buy nothing"  is to fall into this nihilistic abyss, to be extreme for its own sake (and the sake of a few mocking headlines and other drive-by journalism). It pushes the audience's buttons, many of them the wrong ones, to no particular end. It neither educates nor entertains; it is eminently pigeonhole-sized and forgettable. Even those who are aware of their consumption excesses are not going to take away anything useful from the phrase. It is worse than a waste of time, accomplishing nothing; it is an active dilution of the more sensible goals of anti-consumerism efforts. Its senseless and sense-free noise block avenues of understanding that might actually further consumer rejection of fostered consumption.

After all, no one "buys nothing." Aside from a vanishingly small number of people who live a wholly self-sufficient life in the woods, we all buy the things that make our lives possible (and comfortable, and entertaining). Few of us have any choice but to buy food, clothing, medicine, and even entertainment. Most of us have, or choose to buy pretty much everything in our lives. There is nothing wrong with that--we are consumers by need and nature. We are buyer-sellers because, fantasy and idealization aside, a world of the self-sufficient achieves nothing except individual survival. We have a circle of mutual production-consumption because we are organized, and socialized and civilized to greater ends and purpose than staying alive and fed one more day at a time. (That this circle--cycle--is diseased and predatory is the problem, not the cycle itself.)

Oh, of course "everybody knows" what "buy nothing" is supposed to mean--don't buy crap. Buying food is perfectly okay--but buy nothing. Buying clothes is okay--but buy nothing. Buying gas for your car so you can get to school and work and the grocery and clothing stores is okay--but buy nothing. Buying a watch, a car, a video game, a bottle of wine is okay--but buy nothing. "Buy Nothing Day"? Sure--there's only 364 other days to buy. It is a patently meaningless phrase, and for all it is supposed to convey, in its extreme and exaggerated way, it is so contrary to reality that it cancels itself upon utterance. It becomes nothing more than an in-group shibboleth, a mutual wink and nod to superiority within, a silly bit of noise and blather without.

So screw "Buy Nothing"--concept, phrase and promoters. I call on organizations, groups and promoters of the anti-consumerism front to dump the phrase. AdBusters: repudiate your silly, in-joke, art-contest attachment to Buy Nothing Day in favor of a message the audience might actually hear. Everyone else: stop using this meaningless phrase as an anchor for your efforts. Find your own words that convey what you really mean; like all hobbyhorses, that wooden phrase is getting you nowhere. If you can't find pithy, effective words of your own, start with the renegade maxim "Don't Buy It"--a far more nuanced and specific call and concept. Make everything "Don't Buy It" stands for a meaningful concept for your audience.

After all, we're all fighting for pretty much the same thing. Let's fight together, and make our admittedly extreme position sound rational instead of pointless. We gain nothing by fighting for "nothing."


UPDATED - See Following
I will start by saying this post will seem terribly quaint in just a few years.
Visualize this: It's just a few years from now. You get an email coupon from a restaurant you know about but have never visited. The teaser headline reads, "So how come you keep driving by and never stop in for a piece of our real homemade lasagna?"

Which may seem a little eerie, as you do indeed drive by the place a couple of times a week, and you've been guiltily living on more frozen lasagna dinners than you'd like to admit. You've become used to ads and solicitations using awfully personal and private details about you and your life, but this one makes you glance over your shoulder to see who's watching.

Welcome to the world of consumer big data... and Vigilant Solutions, Perceptics and Motorola.

The marketing company trying to lure you into the restaurant already knows your grocery habits, because you kindly provide your Rewards Card tracking ID every time you load up on milk, bread, diet Pepsi, Kellogg's Corn Flakes (the 23-ounce box, not the 14-ounce one)... and Stouffer's Homestyle Lasagna dinners.

By providing your card and getting your special discounts, you're also providing the grocery store with a way to associate all your purchases with you, individually, regardless of which store you visit or how you pay. (It's illegal to track purchases by things like account or credit card numbers in most places, by the way, so that's why they push that special tracking number on you. But the benefits are great, right?) So they know that you're chowing down on four or five Homestyle Lasagnas a month. They don't much care, except to know that offering you coupons for other brands and kinds of frozen Italian dinners is likely to pay off.

The grocery store sells this information back to the major product providers. That's why you got all those offers for diet products last month, because Nestlé noted you were purchasing their Stouffer-brand calorie-fest and, charmingly, a diet drink. (From competing PepsiCo, which made their blood boil, but oh well. They'll get you next time.) So you look like a great target for pricey diet foods if they can leverage your obvious guilt against your tendency to indulge in microwave fat food.

Which doesn't explain how Mama Leone's knew about your guilty indulgence. They're independent (a rarity in these days of even small restaurant chains having very, very big parents). Did they go around asking grocery stores for lists of people who eat salty, fatty, engineered falso Italian food? No, of course not. Their marketing company asked an aggregator of consumer data like Acxiom for the information, and for a modest fee, they were happy to pull out a very selected list of people who lived in the area and regularly bought frozen Italianoid dinners. Since the grocery store and/or Nestlé, Kraft, PepsiCo et al. sell their accumulated data to these aggregators, every grocery purchase you've made for the last decade is in their big data pile, ready to be sifted, correlated and connected to provide that hypertargeted list of 500 people Mama Leone's is after. (Yes, we're talking big, big, big data.)

But wait a minute... how in the hell could Mama know you keep driving by her place?

Welcome to the world of LPR and ALPR... License Plate Recognition, and Automated License Plate Recognition. If you drive on public roads (and quite a few semi-public ones like shopping mall parking lots), you are probably in the gaze of cameras that spot your license plate, record it, and geotag it to time and location. Enough such tags, and it's possible to reconstruct a car's path, hour by hour, day after day, 366 days a leap year... all automatically and with almost as much reliability as the GPS pingers used by trucking and car rental companies. Entirely without your direct consent and almost certainly without your knowledge. (You have given your permission, though, through ignorance, apathy and misdirection.)

Companies like Vigilant Solutions developed their LPR/ALPR products for law enforcement, and sell them on the basis of efficiency and officer safety. Before you're even pulled over for ticking that yellow light, a camera has captured your plate number and the cruiser's computer has pulled up your record. The cop knows whether you're Cindy Soccermom, late for a game, or a dangerous felon likely to make the cop's day a very bad one. It's hard to argue with the intent of scenarios like this... but if your Fourth Amendment bone isn't tickling, you're probably one of those who has nothing to hide and thus no worries about cops randomly searching your property.

Some jurisdictions allow LPR to be used only like a radar gun — under the active and selective control of a trained user and with at least some trace of probable cause. Many, however, have enabled fully automatic systems that target and collect every license plate that comes within view. If you're a wanted man, don't drive your own car around, because the first State Police cruiser that gets a glimpse of your plate (even while the driver is otherwise occupied) is going to sound the alarm. Ditto for those of you with expired registrations, if the cop who spots you isn't doing anything more important that moment.

...But I'm going to stop there on that track. Renegade Consumer is not about Fourth Amendment issues or the debates of modern law enforcement... or even the use of such data by government. I'm not saying the practices are good or bad; go investigate and take your own stand if you like. However, we've reached an important border in renegade issues and need to turn aside in order to stay on track.

That track is that this same system, same automated collection of geotagged license plate data, is available to and used by private industry. The data aggregators include this growing base of information about vehicle locations and movements. It is now possible for private entities, answering to no one but their owners and stockholders, to track individual vehicles with a precision and scope we might have found frightening in the hands of the FBI, CIA, UNCLE or even S.H.I.E.L.D. a few years ago. (Since the aggregators are also tracking detailed purchase information, it is not hard to associate the vehicle movements with individuals making the purchases, taking the surveillance to a deeper level. Don't pretend it wasn't you that stopped at Goldie's Adult Novelties last Friday afternoon, with your hoodie pulled low, and paid $127.43 in cash for... well, I'll keep your secret. It's a good look on you, though. So cute.)

So when the marketing whiz for Mama Leone's requested the targeting data, he framed the request to include people who had bought frozen Italian, lived within a 5-mile radius and had a record of driving by regularly. Lucky you was one of the 500 or so... and damn if you aren't thinking about the special lasagna deal there right now.

It is this invasion of privacy, the glassification of our domicile walls, the perpetual body-scanning of our every action, and the aggregation of all this data to no purpose but to find a more efficient way to extract money from us, that Renegade Consumer strenuously opposes. We'll leave the mirror issues in government and law enforcement to others, but want to make it clear that whatever the sins of the state are in tracking individuals in this manner, they are tenfold when used by private industry for purely profit-driven purposes. If we do not give law enforcement the right to follow and search us without cause, how can we tolerate the marketing-industrial complex doing the same just to shake us down a little more efficiently?

Even if we do judge it appropriate for civic forces to use this capability, how does that justify its use to further control us as economic individuals? When did the last bastions of privacy fall to the assault on our right to economic self-determination? And what are we going to do about it, fellow renegades?


(So, yes, this post will seem terribly quaint and obvious in a few years... but don't go away with any idea that this is a projection about future tech. All of the above exists now. All of the above is being used exactly as described... it just isn't very widespread back here in mid-2014. How are things going a few years ahead? Start that diet yet? Does the costume still fit?)

April, 2019

...And An Update, Five Years On

An article in the New York Times outlines the rising problems with privacy, individual liberty and personal safety related to automated plate tracking.

This op-ed neatly sums up where reliance on automated plate tracking has led to burderline Fourth Amendment violations, and innocent drivers being placed in terrifying situations because of misinformation.

Can a tragic, possibly fatal incident based on such misuse of wholesale individual tracking be far behind?

I have deliberately steered away from discussion of food from the renegade viewpoint, mostly because it's too large of an issue to engage in these early days. That creates a frustrating paradox, because food as a consumer product is the one thing nearly all of us have in common, and there is just so much unethical and manipulative effort by the industry to examine.

However, food is scrutinized from so many viewpoints, including some that are in tune with renegade thought, that I am comfortable leaving the issue to itself for the time being. I will make my usual recommendation that renegade consumers interested in the overall problem of how food is marketed and shaped to control buyer choices - at the detriment of nutrition and consumer health - read Michael Moss's brilliant and groundbreaking Salt Sugar Fat (Random House, 2014).

Once in a while, though, the world serves up a hearty dish of food-related consumer idiocy so tasty and tempting I just have to notice and comment. In this case, it's the New York Times and their handling of two well-intended but peculiarly contradictory articles. (Links are provided but not guaranteed, as NYT content is behind a partial paywall.)

Captain Crunch box cover
The Captain says, "Buy me, kids!"

In the May 18, 2014 Sunday Review section, the lead article ("Always Hungry? Here's Why") is an intelligent examination of how nutrition research has again shown that food calories are not all equal, and that the body may process carbohydrate calories differently from fat calories. The issue is critical in understanding obesity because a vast number of processed foods, especially those seeking to shed fat numbers in the nutrition panel, use increasing amounts of sugars, starches and other carbs, especially highly processed ones. The gist of the article is that simple calorie-counting may be of little value if processed carbohydrates trick the body into handling hunger and fat storage differently from fat and protein.

The continuation of the article leads directly into another article on the practice of using faces and eyes as marketing images ("Psst. Look Over Here.") Recent studies have shown that product packaging with even cartoon approximations of a face, especially eyes that seem to be looking at the shopper, has strong buyer appeal. Facial recognition is a deeply-encoded ability in humans, so powerful that even infants and the nearly blind can perceive nuances of facial positioning and expression. It is unsurprising that the behavioral masters of marketing have learned to use this cognitive function as a tool to sell things. The article speaks in admiring terms about the marketing and branding industries' success at selling breakfast cereal using googly-eyed characters that appear to be looking directly at the shopper. The research being reported on, and the article, emphasize that these cereals are largely aimed at children, and that the cuddly, imploring characters are often positioned and drawn so as to be looking down at passing child-shopper eyes.

Lucky Charms box cover
Sir Charms says, "Aye, let's be good friends, lads and lassies!"

From the renegade perspective, there are two surprising things here. The first is that the Times could run the first article and then, beginning in literally the next column inch, follow with a second piece that seems oblivious to the issues raised by the first. Furthermore, that they could run one article damning the food industry for pushing cheap, bliss-hammering, obesity-fostering carbs from every grocery shelf... and then, in the next spatter of ink, actually laud the practice of selling these largely worthless, nutritionally-questionable products to children using a deeply embedded cognitive reaction. The "eyes" article concludes with a smarmy quote from a branding expert about how having a product 'look you in the eye' is the 'mark of a real friend.'

And there we have an example of what the renegade philosophy is all about — that we should not have to defend ourselves on a hindbrain level from being manipulated into buying a product that is somewhere between worthless and actively bad for us. Worse: that our children, without even the feeble acquired defenses of adults in the consumer arena, are the ones being enticed by cute, big-eyed cartoon characters to fill up on these crap foods.

The other surprising thing here is the timing of the research findings on which the latter article is based (along with quite a few other recent news and analysis articles). It is surprising, shocking, newsmaking information that marketing uses Mona Lisa eyes to sell products - especially to children, and by invoking a deeply-embedded cognitive response almost impossible to screen out or consciously control. Wow! Incredible! How awful!

Frosted Flakes box cover
Tony says, "Get mom to buy you a grrreat friend, kids!"

Now take one step back and switch on your renegade perceptions. This practice is not new. It was not invented last year. The research did not follow hard on the heels of the technique. We have had products, especially things like sugar-laden, pure-carb kids' cereals giving us the big puppy eyes for decades. Forty years? Fifty? At least. It has taken most of an adult life for researchers to catch on to this deeply manipulative, highly effective practice and make a public accounting of it... but the manufacturers knew it. The marketers, branders and package designers knew it. We've been strongly influenced to buy a crap product — a product most parents know is health-impinging crap — in part because of this subtle, powerful, secret-in-plain-sight manipulation.

Think about that a while. If you haven't yet fully grasped the renegade position that we are all manipulated at our basest levels by some of the most sophisticated behavioral analysis, manipulation and engineering in existence, that such manipulation completely surrounds... envelops... smothers us, and that it takes place on levels even a wary adult cannot easily resist (or even perceive)... this is a good moment to complete your grasp. If you disbelieve that such manipulation exists or has any power over "smart" consumers, time to read the linked articles and then again this commentary, and think it over. If you are among those who active reject the notion that marketing manipulation has any power beyond simple, obvious tricks that fool only the stupid, the unwary and the gullible... open your eyes.