Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hey Credit Card Companies-->F*ck You.

The American dream, according to Wikipedia, is defined as:
 A national ethos of the
United States in which freedom includes the promise of prosperity and success….life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.

That is a beautifully written, outdated fallacy. The new American dream (or perhaps the real American Dream) looks a little bit more like this: It is every Americans civic and economic duty to spend as much as they can today to ensure the future prosperity of America.  This new ideal is the not the creation of the consumer but rather a debt perpetuating instrument called the credit card. 
Credit card companies present themselves as enablers of this dream.  They position themselves as selfless philanthropists by granting American citizens the opportunity described in the latter half of the Wikipedia definition—a chance at “a better, richer, fuller life” (minus the need for ability or achievement).  Strip away the fluff of the phrase and it is easy to see the underlying truth: “Spend today….pay for it for the rest of your life.”    
Credit cards have ushered in a generation of people that buy into these debt-enslaving instruments and the culprit is not the consumer, but rather the entity. These instruments have not only wronged a generation of people (myself included) but also the very dream they claim to be aiming for—the future prosperity of America.            
 I showed up on my college campus as a savvy 18 year old.  I thought I was a lot smarter than I was, but as it turns out, I was more naive and obtuse than most.  During the first week of school, I found a coupon in my dormitory mailbox for free pizza at a local restaurant. Within a week of college, my body was already craving the dietary staples of pizza and beer—so the mere mention of “free” lured me in.  At the entrance there was a slick man shaking hands while handing out clipboards and pens. The man was of course a credit card tycoon.   Behind him, there was a mountain of “free“ pizza.  He told me that if I filled out a short personal information survey, I was free to indulge.
Personal information surveys are the equivalent to offering a woman a backrub during the seduction process.  It’s a seemingly harmless excuse to get close to another person without stating intent.  Sensing my skepticism, he told me that there was no obligation to sign up for a card, as he stressed the importance of building credit and earning rewards.  Eager to eat, I scribbled my contact information on the form and the man thanked me with great delight. I engaged in flirtatious foreplay with the debt devil.
What happened next was a rollercoaster ride of blurred euphoria and a subsequent mixture of regret and shame.  It all happened so fast. When my pre-approved application for a Discover Card came in the mail a week later, I filled it out and started charging everything—all in the name of building credit. Suddenly, I found myself 1,500 dollars in debt.  My incompetent spending earned me a Discover Card fleece blanket, and four 8 oz. vacuum-sealed skirt steaks—in 6 years. Under the influence of pizza aroma, and the promise of financial freedom, I became the victim of a heinous credit assault.
I am fully aware of my stupidity but some of the blame should be put on other pivotal enablers.  Why did the university allow the credit card company to solicit our business with direct mail?  Why did the owner of the pizza joint endorse the man pushing credit cards on 18 year-olds?
The reality is that credit companies are malicious when it comes to targeting young people.  They lure na├»ve individuals who define adult independence as purchasing their own groceries and wiping their own asses, with complimentary gifts. The practice is flawless from a revenue standpoint because a person, who is stupid enough to trade their personal information in exchange for pizza, is likely to indulge in frivolous spending habits.  Unfortunately, “good business” can be guised under unethical false advertising. 
What is there to actually discover at discover.com?  That I’ve been pre-approved for a high interest rate credit card that has a 5,000 dollar limit?  Finally, a company that understands my innate desire to mortgage my future so that I can start living the way I want today!.....because as a Black LT Discover card holder, “anything is possible.”
            Credit card companies are legal loan sharks that compete for business with clever product names and tag lines in attempt to empower a consumer’s sense of freedom and identity. Companies that sell easily abused products should be required to use generic names like “Credit Card Company 1” and “Debt Device 2”.
For instance, look at the prescription drug industry.  Drugs are named with basic scientific titles that evoke little to no emotion from users.  To most, the terms Ritalin and Adderall mean absolutely nothing, but their function is widely understood.  If a doctor offered his patient a choice between the two, they would likely be indifferent.  However, imagine that Adderall renamed its product “Magic” and the patient was approached with same scenario.  Magic would be the drug of choice a 100 times over because the name is more appealing.
            Discover’s product differentiation model is equivalent to the above hypothetical scenario. Isn’t it ironic that a domain that suggests exploration and wonderment belongs to a credit card company? The Discover domain should be reassigned to a company that actually makes sense. (I suggest stumbleupon.com be granted the domain)  
             The last cigarette advertisement aired during the Johnny Carson show in 1971.  Since then, the FCC has outlawed the glamorization of cigarette usage on television.  Likewise, companies that sell alcohol are not allowed to display people drinking their products.  Companies that sell inherently detrimental products are not allowed to romanticize what it is like to be a user.  Credit card companies, on the other hand, are allowed to depict people climbing mountains, flying first class, and eating cuts of steer only available in the remote annals of Africa.  The underlying theme of these commercials is obvious: with card X anything is possible—or as Discover eloquently puts it: It Pays To Discover.
            Companies like Visa and Discover are able to plaster their names all over the country’s biggest events because they have loads of money.  The irony is that they make their profits from consumers that are the exact opposite of their commercials.  If people were able to pay their balances on a timely basis, then the credit card industry could not afford to advertise.  Instead, they fictionalize the lifestyles of card members and reap the benefits of people who default on their debts trying to live out these fantasies in reality.
Furthermore, increasingly austere tobacco regulations are making it unattractive to continue to smoke.  In the near future, congress will pass a bill requiring cigarette packs to depict the inevitable results of usage—so mangled babies, black lungs, and rotten teeth will be on packs of Marlboro Lights soon.  Credit card companies should be held to these same standards.
Credit card companies offer consumers the opportunity to customize the image on their cards.  They do this by collaborating with a local sports team or by allowing users to put a picture of their Great Aunt Nan on the card.  This practice plays into the American consumer’s obsession with customizing a ubiquitous product with their uniqueness.  In the process, a device that promotes frivolous spending is assigned to the consumer’s fanship or family.  The ill intent of the device is guised under these customizations. 
 Instead, cards should depict the likely result of usage—a man sitting on a park bench, dressed to the 9’s with his shoulders shrugged, pockets turned inside out, and a look of despair and confusion in his eyes. The picture should be watermarked so that in bold 16 point font a warning can be issued that says: WARNING: YOUR CREDIT SCORE DETERMINES YOUR ABILITY TO SECURE A JOB, A MORTAGE, AND YOUR OVERALL WORTH AS A HUMAN BEING! SPEND WISELY!
Sadly, the barometer for a person’s competence in modern society is based on their ability to borrow and buy goods and the masses need to constantly be reminded of this.  Just like we are constantly reminded that cigarettes are bad for our health with anti-smoking campaigns, TRUTH ADS, and lawsuits. 
As Credit card companies continue to incentivize acquiring cards with customization packages and free airlines miles, they are in turn creating habitual errant spenders.  Awareness is crucial, and the above suggestions, though hyperbolic, are steps in the right direction.  
            Look, I understand that not everyone is in credit card debt and those who are foresighted and fiscally responsible will never be victimized by Credit Card companies. However, American culture, down to its very core, is built on consumerism--the need for the newest, brightest, and most expensive product of the season.  Day after day, we are bombarded with advertisements that remind us of our inadequacies and media hubs telling us that the only way to avoid the next great depression is to SPEND NOW. 
            With unemployment and wealth disparity at an all-time high, where are people suppose to get the money to, well, be American? Credit Card companies feed on these ideals by exploiting consumers who cannot stop indulging their every whim. 
Employ a recovering alcoholic at a nightclub and eventually he will be back on the sauce; offer high-interest short term loans to people who are born to consume and eventually they will be in debt for life.  Debt instruments only hinder the possibility of prosperity and success described in the old American Dream.   The new American Dream casts a grave shadow on American citizens, but at least someone was nice enough to give them a chance to Discover.™


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cigarettes and Iphones: Which has more utility in the modern world?

With the analog apocalypse and yearning for a simpler time aside, I am still reluctant to purchase an IPHONE.  Until my recent epiphany my biggest gripe was the price.  AT&T offers an unlimited text, calling, and the smallest data package for 75 dollars month—who has that kind of money?  Then it hit me, I spend that sum (roughly) on cigarettes every month.  If only I could just burry my addiction to tobacco I could easily become an IPhone owner.
           Now I know it may not be proper literary form to assume what the reader is thinking, but I’ll assume most of you are screaming “EASIEST FUCKING DECISION EVER, put down the cancer sticks” as you are reading this.  But what I am suggesting to you is that my concerns run much deeper than just the price—it’s actually my skepticism about giving up one for the other. So it has come to this: before I assume the role of an IPHONE owner I must fully hash out what I will be gaining by the purchase and what I will be giving up.

Stylistic Liquidity
          Much like a woman recovering from a self-esteem boosting boob-job right at the peak of ovulation (leading to an unexpected pregnancy), the decision to purchase an IPhone is going to take some precise timing, planning, and a little bit of luck. Monumental purchases always have unintended consequences if the timing is off.   The problem with purchasing technology is that the marketplace reinvents itself too quickly.  If I wait for the price of the IPhone to drop, I will be stuck with an old model.  If I purchase the phone too soon I will spend a ton of money and deal with a bunch of preliminary software bugs.   
If I purchase an IPhone I am going to be locked into that purchase and the brand identity that is associated with it. The opportunity to develop a unique identity amongst a sea of other IPhone owners is difficult because it is expensive to do so.  The only way I could distinguish myself is by purchasing an array of accessories.  If I start to think like this, I know I am in trouble:


“Maybe I’ll go with the green case today, or perhaps the red one.  Screw it the fourth of July is coming up, where is my red-white-and-blue case? The one with strategically placed rhinestones in the shape of stars that captures the very essence of my patriotism.
Ask any pubescent child who has ever tried to ease the social aggravation of wearing braces by periodically customizing their teeth caps to reflect the current holiday or their artistic angst.  The verdict?  You can’t accessorize something that is socially repulsive into being acceptable.
            It’s much easier to alter my cigarette smoking habits to reflect my current feeling.  Camel lights are my baseline brand but my purchases alter depending on my mood.  If I am feeling especially frugal, I’ll roll my own.  If I am feeling cash saturated, I will throw down for some Parliaments. Because cigs are so cheap (relative to the IPhone) and quickly consumed, I am able to adapt my brand to fit my current need. (ADVANTAGE CIG)





Social Worth
I’ve been smoking cigs for about 14 months so I feel like I am able to speak on the behalf of habitual smokers. Yes cigs are expensive and yes they are bad for your health but let me remind you that they used to be a perfectly acceptable social norm.  I use cigarettes for a variety of things but I think it’s most valuable use is to connect with other people and also myself--in reality.
In today’s social world, we have become progressively numb to letting our guard down in the physical because of the Internet and its omnipresence. When I see someone smoking a cigarette outside of a public place, I feel an instant connection with them because they are openly advertising something about them self that I can easily identify with.  My hope is that the conversation progresses beyond just talking about cigs or the weather but our shared interest is the catalyst to that opportunity.  IPhones on the other hand prevent this type of connection because users are always buried in asocial world that exists somewhere beyond the immediate present.  I fear that by replacing cigs with an IPhone I will lose many opportunities to spark organic conversation.
             Cigs also provide an escape from awkward social situations.  Whenever I find myself in a place where I lack confidence or there is a great amount of tension, I am able to step outside and collect my thoughts with a cig. If I tried to step outside and collect my thoughts for five minutes without a cigarette people would think I was nuts.  The same concept applies to public places with lots of people—if I were to just stand around without appearing busy, people would instantly discount my social worth.  A cigarette puts me at ease.
The IPhone could solve much of what I just described of course because anytime I may be feeling frightened, alone, or awkward, I could just bury my attention into the digital abyss of entertainment that my phone provides.  The difference is that I will not be reevaluating my situation and looking within myself for answers but rather leaning on the social comfort of my phone.  An IPhone is a means of extro-spection and a cigarette is a means of introspection. (ADVANTAGE CIG) 
Ability to consume:
The utility of a cigarette has been marginalized by legislation preventing smoking indoors.  This is probably for the betterment of everyone, but it limits where and to what frequency I can smoke.  The hurdles to consumption provide me with a feeling of delayed gratification which only makes the cigarette that much sweeter.  There is nothing better than a smoke after a long hard day at work.     
As an IPhone owner possessing the power of 3G and a fully charged battery, I could theoretically consume whenever possible.  Indoors, outdoors, in a car—Hell I could even surf the Internet hands free during sex thanks to SIRI technology. (ADVANTAGE IPHONE) 
Social Taboo
I used to look down on people with smartphones because they always seem pre-occupied with validating what they are doing in terms of what the rest of their social-sphere is not doing (thank-you Facebook status updates) but the presence of smartphones is so wide spread now that it is completely acceptable to do so.  I often find myself referencing someone’s twitter update or Facebook status during a real conversation and the moment passes without criticism.  We live in a digital world and being perpetually attached to the digital dimension is completely normal.
Cigarettes, on the other hand, have regressed in terms of social acceptability.  They stink. They kill. They are completely taboo.  Whenever I meet a new group of people or hang out with someone for the first time I Fra-breeze the hell out of my car and I try not to smoke in front of them in order to avoid judgment. Being a closet smoker is becoming progressively difficult and time consuming.  At my parents’ house I migrate towards deciduous shrubbery when disposing of my butts in order to avoid the criticism they will offer up when the leaves fall of the trees.  
In the middle of writing this paragraph, I stepped out for a cigarette in front of a coffee shop and a man driving a gas guzzling Chevy 4x4 slowed his truck in the middle of the street just to yell “SMOOOOKER!” at me, as if I had just exhaled a vile toxin into his precious air. (ADVANTAGE IPHONE)
Perception from Law Enforcement
I’m obsessed with petty crime or at least getting away with frivolous acts.  Some of my favorite past times include jay-walking, stealing range balls, and texting while driving.  There is a fine line between someone who is texting and driving and simply changing a song on their IPhone.  
As an IPhone owner I would relish the opportunity to trick law enforcement of the latter.  I imagine that if I were to be pulled over by an officer I could simply hold up my IPhone and say “sorry sir, there must be a misunderstanding, you see I am an IPhone owner and I was simply trying to shuffle my playlist. “
The officer’s look of disgust would quickly turn to envy at the misunderstanding. At that point I would toggle over to my apps page and show him my police radar application to service his ego. “I’m a big fan of your work sir, some people listen to the radio, but I enjoy listening to police calls.  He’ll laugh and ask me what I pay monthly for the phone while simultaneously motioning that he would like to give the interface a try.  I will direct him to the shotgun application and let him aim it at cars passing by and we’ll have a big chuckle.  The life of an IPhone owner must be sweet. 
            Recently I’ve been hand rolling my cigarettes (to save money) so to the eyes of a skeptic they may appear to look like joints filled with schedule 1 narcotics.  Although I am sure I could convince the same officer that his “reasonable cause” for pulling me over was just a big misunderstanding, I can’t imagine the post-pullover-chit-chat would be nearly as inviting.  (ADVANTAGE IPHONE) 
           Transitioning from once vice to another is always tricky because I am forced to make a decision that compromises my immediate identity, paving the way for my future being.  But sometimes I just know when a change is needed, and I need a change.
            Cigs, or the IPhone?  I think my analysis has led me to the inevitable decision of becoming an IPhone owner.  The IPhone may cause my social skills to regress 15 years but in the end, I suppose that is better than losing 15 years of my life to cigarettes. 
             We had a good run “Cigarettes” but being able to showcase a flush Angry Birds scorecard, complete with 3 stars at each level has become just as much as a conversation starter as you ever were.