SkyMall

How SkyMall will save us all

January 14, 2009: 9:57 AM ET

meerkatWhat is the greatest contribution of our civilization to the world? When we look back at what we've done as an empire, what will emerge as the truly unique thing we've left behind? I believe that when the sun sets on us, if it hasn't already, our one great bequest to future generations will be the wonder that is American marketing. In it, we have developed the ability to make people desire products and services for which they have absolutely no need. With the right messaging, the proper delivery system with the correct frequency and reach, there is nothing we cannot make you want. And in the meeting of those desires, there is joy.

Selling is, of course, as old as humankind itself. But the mysterious wonder that is marketing as we know it really came into its own in 20th Century America.  Bodily functions that had been considered natural for millennia were suddenly shameful. Products were now required to eradicate odors, hair, imperfections in form and function. Time passed, and there was virtually no problem that could not be cured by the right thing at the right time.

Today, the pharmaceutical industry works hand in hand with our doctors to invent conditions that only their drugs can treat, often over an entire lifetime of use. The engine that drives these desires and meets them defines our economy.

This brings me to SkyMall. I see their catalog mostly when I fly. It is the entertainment of first and last resort for the entire airplane. As we take off, people are reading SkyMall. As we land, they are reading SkyMall. I believe this is so because takeoff and landing is the time of greatest stress for those who entrust their lives to this heavy machine that's supposed to hang reliably at 35,000 feet. And it makes us feel good to see the amazing trove of crazy, idiotic stuff offered in the book, and find that we want it, and in that wanting we are suddenly at home, comfortable in a way we recognize as cozy, human and thoroughly American.  

This time, I found I wanted an amazing blender that can make three pitchers of various drinks when we're entertaining, a dog bed that would be perfectly suited to our spaniel, and a Wonderbar towel warmer for our bathroom. 

Next time, I know it will be different. But I also know that I will be amazed, not so much by the profusion of choices contained therein, but by the fact that so many of these objects are completely superfluous to any credible existence, and I want them anyhow.  That's the point, isn't it? Anybody can make you drool over something you need.  Our culture has taken it to the next level.

And that's why I still believe that in the end we're all going to be all right. If people are buying meerkat gang sculpture for their yards and living rooms, can recovery be far behind?

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