It began in April with “Dare To Be Yourself Week”, billed as a seven-day “spiritual journey” for women in which the more image-obsessed among us were exhorted to “stop wearing make-up”, “stop reading Cosmo” and “cast off the chains of fashion-structured consciousness”.
It might have sounded like a parody of one of those far-left Seventies “wimmin’s” groups that used to plaster with tiny stickers the ads on the London Underground, but its intention was deadly serious.
Not to be accused of sexism itself of course, May saw the launch of “Find Yourself Week For Men”, a brief period during which thousands of men gleefully cast off the chains of this increasingly looks-conscious society by “growing a beard”, “taking a trip” and “leaving the gel [toiletries] at home”, if not, we fervently hope, the underarm deodorant.
Their actions didn’t halt the inexorable rise of the men’s “beauty” market, nor did it even cause a shudder to run through the multimillion-pound female cosmetics sector, but it did at least offer consumers some modest food for thought.
“It’s not what you look like,” preached the organisers of Men’s and Women’s Weeks – the Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, which says it wants to promote more spiritual aspirations among shoppers – “it’s what’s in your head that counts.”
And to ram home the stark anti-glamour message, the Adbusters team used some pretty graphic visual images to illustrate their point.
For women’s week, there was a parody of an Obsession ad, in which a typically glamorous young woman in full costume and make-up was seen puking helplessly, bulimia-style, down the loo.
The message for men’s week was even starker. A muscular youth in tight jeans and Calvin Kleins was pictured staring into the depths of his underpants with a look that can only be described as one of crushing
But the surprises in the Adbusters “Cultural Jammer’s Calendar” – an incredibly handy present for any advertising-phobic or consumerism-weary friends of yours – don’t end
with male and female physical stereotyping.
Late next month – September 24 – heralds the grand unveiling of the third “Buy Nothing Day”, billed by the Canadian organisers as the ultimate fightback against creeping consumerism in which ordinary shoppers simply refuse to go to the shops.
In Canada, where it was conceived as a central focus for the Adbusters calendar, “Buy Nothing Day” has become the central point for a wide range of peaceful protests against materialism, including, I’m told, store sit-ins, mass “sing-ins” and localised demonstrations.
However, the real point of the day is not so much to sing your opponents into submission, but to “participate by not participating”. “A 24-hour, continent wide moratorium on consumer spending designed to remind both the consumer and the retailer of the true power of the buying public,” Buy Nothing Day (BND) is also about to hit Britain.
While the message of BND is genuine enough, it doesn’t have to be taken literally. The organisers don’t so much expect people to literally stop buying what they see as any necessary, staple products for a whole day, but they do expect them to think hard before they take out their wallet or purse for the more peripheral items.
In this country, advocates of the “Buy Nothing” philosophy are already planning a peculiarly British interpretation of the day’s events. One such person is the self-styled “consumer warrior” James Wadelman, who has recently formed a group calling itself Consumers Now.
Consumers Now has neither generous funding, nor, so far, the backing of any of the country’s more established consumer organisations, but it does have more than a modicum of reforming zeal.
It was formed largely in response to what Wadelman calls the “terror tactics of the privatised water companies” – notably the threat of standpipes and drought orders by companies who “have a duty to use their mammoth profits to guarantee our water supply”. Consumers Now believes that a one-day boycott of the entire capitalist process next month could be a great fillip to the cause of consumerism: “We all of us buy so many useless things all of the time that we sometimes forget that we actually can exist with far fewer material objects than we have become accustomed to.”
“I see Buy Nothing Day as a once-a-year opportunity for us to step back from all the conspicuous consumption that goes on in the Western world and to allow ourselves a real break from crowded shops and ringing tills,” adds Wadelman.
For those traders who remember the sounds of ringing tills and crowded sales areas with acute nostalgia, the news that there is to be an organised boycott of the buying treadmill next month – as well as the more general boycott that appears to have gone on throughout the recession – will not be welcome.
But after all, if BND can’t be timed to run before the pre-Christmas build-up, then when on earth can it fit into the shopping calendar?
Anyway, these uppity retailers probably need a shake-up, according to Wadelman. “The benefits of BND aren’t simply philosophical, although it will give plenty of people something to ponder.
“By showing that we are able to resist the buying process even for just a day, we remind suppliers and traders that we do actually have the whip-hand. Perhaps if BND is a success, we can expect better treatment from our manufacturers and suppliers in the future.”
Ironically, Buy Nothing Day actually falls on a Sunday this year. While no one doubts Sunday is now a full trading day – particularly where drink is concerned – Wadelman may find some unexpected support from the likes of the Keep Sunday Special brigade.
Once Buy Nothing Day is done and dusted for another year, there is another major anti-consumerism event to look forward to. “International TV Turnoff Week”, running from October 16 to 23, encourages couch potatoes everywhere to “turn off the TV and get a life!”
So what, you ask, do you do with all that time you used to spend in front of the box?
You “read a book, plant a garden, have a conversation, even
help stop the recline of civilisation”. Maybe those Adbusters people aren’t so wrong-headed after all.
This is my last column for Marketing Week. I hope some of you have enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed writing some of it.