While I’ve tried in recent years to mend my ways and embrace the non-consumer lifestyle, I’m guilty of more than a small amount of “retail therapy” in my time. I’ve done my fair share of feeling like an afternoon splurging on a couple funky t-shirts, some movies and an action figure or two (as an adult, of course) along with a soda and pretzel dog while I’m out would make me feel better. It always did…for the 20-minute drive home, at which point I wondered what the hell I was going to do with all this and why I felt it was necessary.
A recent story made me think about how the idea of “retail therapy” isn’t just applicable to mall binges. Viewed a different way, it’s also about how we’re asked to buy things *for* therapy or to otherwise fix some problem with ourselves or our lives.
That story talked about a company offering a special type of lens to help filter out the blue light and glare of a computer screen. Those lights are causing an increased level of eye strain among people who spend all day staring at screens of one kind or another.
That’s a real problem. WebMD specifically refers to Computer Vision Syndrome as a problem common among adults and students who work on computers or mobile devices and whose eyes are working hard as they focus and refocus from one media to another.
As with most things, though, beware of any company or industry that wants to sell you a solution to a problem it has created or exacerbates. The startup behind those special lenses isn’t the same one making computer monitors or mobile screens, but they now have a vested interest in the issue of eye strain not going away. They don’t want to fix the problem, they want to sell you a workaround.
That’s true in many industries, largely because fixing the problem often entails means not buying stuff. Or at least buying different stuff than what they’re trying to sell you.
Consider eye strain specifically. There’s the oft-cited “20-20-20” rule encouraging you to look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes to refocus your eyes and given them a break. There’s also the simple advice to adjust your screen settings to be easier on the eyes by reducing brightness.
What I’ve begun to see is that the “buy this to fix that” mindset is the predominant message behind almost everything. What’s missed is that things like “pick up fast food on the way home from work” or “buy a new gadget to help reduce eye strain” are *results* of societal problems, not *solutions* for them. Fast food won’t fix your time crunch, it results from it. A gym membership won’t fix your sedentary lifestyle, it results from it.
But big industries can’t sell you actual solutions. Most solutions, in fact, involve not buying a darn thing. “Go for a walk” is free. And the big companies know it, which is why they still try to sell you things labeled as “essential” for doing so like scientifically-engineered shoes and moisture-wicking shirts. If you’re serious about this, they tell you, you need to do it only after buying a bunch of equipment.
I know for a fact, though, that you can go for a walk in a pair of cutoff shorts made from sweatpants that were falling apart anyway, a 10-year-old t-shirt you got free from a convention you went to and a pair of old gym shoes stained green because you also use them when cutting the grass.
The next time you see an ad or story hyping a new product positioned as the solution for some sort of problem, take a minute and consider whether or not whether or not it actually fixes the problem or simply mitigates it. Then ask yourself it the actual solution involves buying anything at all. The answer, I’m willing to bet, is “no.”
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.