Engineering consumer behavior

Looking for incongruous wealth and status in popular culture, and figuring out how to make sure it doesn’t warp your sense of reality:

How much does it cost to be CJ?  Not Pamela Anderson—CJ. So, not how much are  implants, a nose job and a personal trainer; but how much are CJ’s nail appointments, and hair? How much does her (or any of the characters’) makeup cost? The car lease? Her CD player and apartment in Malibu?  The sofas? CJ and the gals never wear the same clothes in two shows.  Never the same shoes. How much does that cost? They don’t shop at Sears, right? …

Baywatch, along with Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, is changing America in ways you don’t notice– precisely because you don’t notice. In prior TV and movies any incongruous displays of wealth had an explanation, however cliched.  Magnum PI lived off the kindness of Higgins.  Rachel on Friends has rich parents.  But with rare exceptions, the characters in the new crop of 20 something TV have access to material goods way outside their pay range, but they are made so ordinary you never think to question it.  We know very well how Pamela Anderson affords it.  But it’s made axiomatic that CJ can.

It’s wrong to look at the Baywatch women as pornography, especially during a time when actual pornography is becoming so easy to acquire.  The real pornography is the surrounding materialism, the casual display of impossible lifestyles and unattainable goods as if they are ordinary commodities. After ten hours of porn, a breast flash doesn’t seem like a big deal. After ten hours of Baywatch, leasing a car doesn’t, either.

When I read the above article, an example that came to mind was from “Night Stalker“, a short-lived 2005 reboot of a 1970s detective/horror series. This particular scene from the opening credits has stuck with me after all these years, I guess, because it shows the lead character, Carl Kolchak, working from his Hollywood Hills home:

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The median sales price for a home in the Hollywood Hills is just under $1 million. The median salary for a reporter in Los Angeles is roughly $90,000/year. And you can tell that the home above would be way more than $1 million. That scene was filmed at the Stahl House, which was built in 1959 for $34,000, which someone recently attempted to buy for $15 million. So maybe the Carl Kolchak of that series inherited the house from his grandparents, but he definitely wouldn’t be living there on a journalist’s salary.

Ramit Sethi has written about subtle barriers in place to combating the subtle psychological barriers to meeting reality when it comes to losing weight. He’s addressed the “Ugh, why don’t fat people just eat less?” complaint:

Former FDA commissioner David Kessler has written a terrific book describing how food companies systematically engineer foods to overeaten (including designing foods that can be swallowed quicker so we can consumer more and more in one sitting). These are tested, refined, and optimized processes, not mere accidents.

Most importantly, behavioral change is not simply about trying harder.

There’s a strong case for intentionally shielding yourself from popular culture in many areas of life.