Thursday, March 6, 2014

What Annoying Radio Commercials Teach About Life

When local radio commercials have the audacity to interrupt my music listening experience, my usual response is to immediately change the station. But today, quite accidentally, I thought about them just a little differently.

I realized that instead of treating radio commercials as a pesky and unwelcome is more fun to think of them as a minor anthropological safari: If you listen closely and with the right frame of mind, you can interpret radio ads as a window into your neighbors' fears and hopes and worries and dreams. They might even be a reflection of some of your own greatest fears and hopes and worries. That is exactly what the marketer desires, of course. They desperately hope that you have a big hole in your life, and that their product or service is just the thing that will fix the hole for you. All you have to do is Act Now! while the offer lasts. (Because supplies are limited)

As an illustration of this radio listening mindset, I have applied a little analytical elbow grease to three radio commercials that I heard in my car just today: (1) The Miracle Weight Loss Program, (2) The Senior Living Center Adventureland, and (3) Flipping Houses to Prosperity.

Miracle weight loss program

We have all heard thousands of commercials purporting a miracle weight loss cure. And we already know that obesity is a big problem in the United States...this is not a very insightful new revelation to be gleaned from the radio. However, a particular commercial I heard today caught my attention like a thunderclap because it didn't just talk about how quickly its weight loss program achieves results, how cheap it is, or whether it requires herbs or surgeries. Instead, this commercial provided testimony from a satisfied customer, and she described exactly how achieving her weight loss goal had tangibly changed her life:

"After participating in the miracle weight loss program, I was extremely happy with the results. I've never felt better. I even noticed that people actually listen to me at work now!"

Did you catch that?

This woman lost a tremendous amount of weight in a short time, by whatever method, and then directly reported what the primary benefit was to her life. She didn't say that the weight loss allowed her to play with her kids in the park without getting tired. She didn't say she felt sexier or looked better in a bra and panties. She didn't say that that it was easier to find clothes her size, or express any elation that a lower BMI might extend her life expectancy by a decade or two.

She said that it changed the way people listened to her at work.

Holy hell that is an unexpected answer!

This woman revealed that the biggest change in transforming from a critically overweight body to a healthier body was not the marked improvement in her own health and wellness, and it wasn't more opportunities for sexual attention.

She thought that her coworkers ignored her opinions more when she was obese.

Paradoxically, the physically widest people in the United States are the ones who feel the most invisible. I never actually knew that before today, because I have been genetically and geographically lucky enough to never be seriously obese. I didn't learn that obese people feel small and ignored from a book or from a movie or in a classroom...I learned it instead from a local radio commercial.

Senior living center adventureland

Why haven't you already checked your elderly loved ones into an assisted living center? What are you waiting for? I don't know what's holding you back from acting now, but contrary to popular belief some retirement homes are actually an AdventureLand Paradise. According to a local radio commercial I heard today, that is most definitely the case.

"My father is having more adventures now that he lives in the senior center than he ever had before! He goes bowling almost every day. All of his old friends from the neighborhood wish they could be having as much fun as Dad is having right now!"

Many people worry—desperately—that moving their elderly parents or grandparents to an assisted living center is like locking them away in a mental institution or something and throwing away the key. Some of the elderly person's freedoms may be severely reduced and nobody feels very good about that. Sending Grandpa or Grandma to the nursing home may even feel on some level like kicking dirty laundry under the bed so you don't have the burden of seeing it and dealing with it every day. Under the bed, the laundry is safely out of sight, and out of mind. That's not how the transition to a nursing home really is, but that can be what it feels like to frustrated and tired younger family members.

If you could be convinced (say, by a radio commercial) that there is actually a raucous dirty laundry party happening under the bed, wouldn't that make the decision so much easier? In that case, you are practically depriving your underpants from the party of the century by continuing to let them roam freely and unassisted, strewn recklessly across your bedroom carpet! Kick those underpants under the bed right quick!

It is absolutely necessary for elderly people to move into an assisted living center at some point in their lives, because eventually they do need extra medical and personal care that can't be adequately provided by family and friends. The really, really, really hard question is "when?"

The comforting falsehood provided over the radio waves is that the move to the nursing home will be a grander adventure than what the older person had even when they were younger and still living freely on their own. If that were truly the case, then young people would be clamoring to move into assisted living centers, they could get a piece of all of this wonderful adventuring action. If it was only a matter of cost, then the privileged, rich, young people would be eagerly in line at the door of the AdventureLand Nursing Home. The wretched young people with no money would be stuck in the wide world outside the nursing home, with no great adventures to be had.

I completely understand the worry and the guilt that the radio advertisement is trying to assuage. The truth is it's simply not going to be a grander adventure inside the nursing home, but it can at least be a comfortable and dignified way to live out the rest of your life. Unfortunately, a promise of a more comfortable, convenient, and dignified living arrangement in a senior center doesn't sell as well as promises of endless adventures. Plain truthful speaking about what life will really be like in the sunset of our lives doesn't get so many people to Act Now! while there's still unfilled space at the local nursing home.

Flipping Houses to Prosperity

Seminars promising riches for "flipping houses" are ubiquitous, with the recent availability of many foreclosed properties in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis. The insta-wealth promised from flipping houses has a lot in common with other get-rich-quick-and-easy schemes.

The underlying premise is that prosperity comes from (1) gaining some secret knowledge in a brief seminar, (2) acting fast because the opportunity is extremely limited, and (3) you don't have to personally risk anything financially.

All of these premises reinforce the idea that only a small minority of people can prosper at the expense of others by leveraging a small amount of secret knowledge, that they can be winners by acting faster than everyone else, and that it's not at all financially risky (You could even risk other people's money!).

All of these premises are extremely flawed.

One of the hardest things to learn about life is that many of the best and most important achievements come from acting slowly and deliberately over a long period of time, and from acting wisely on knowledge that is anything but secret. In fact the most important knowledge to learn is criminally, painfully is even completely free for the taking on Wikipedia!

For example, here is the Wikipedia page for compound interest. If you don't understand exponential growth and compound interest very well in this world, it will eventually bite you in the ass. Being able to understand this one crucial concept is the key to almost everything one has to know about credit cards, mortgages, car financing, retirement investing, and student loans. A failure to understand the perils of compound interest (along with a little reckless spending) is the source of most personal debt crises. A successful mastery of compound interest (along with a little self-discipline) is a proven road to prosperity. It doesn't take a super-secret seminar or any fast-acting on a special limited-time offer. All it takes a little common mathematical know-how and a dash of something much harder to acquire than that: the ability to delay gratification.

You just can't make a lot of money without ever risking any money and delaying gratification. Risk and reward are intrinsically tied together. Stocks typically are more financially rewarding in the long term than bonds, because they are also significantly riskier than bonds. One of the absolute riskiest things you can possibly do financially is to plow all of your life savings into starting a new business venture. It's also one of the most financially rewarding things you can possibly do...if you happen to have built the right business at the right time.

For an excellent and accessible introductory book on smart long-term investing, I recommend The Investor's Manifesto by William Bernstein. If every student had to read and understand something like that in high school, we would be a lot better off than we are now. The Investor's Manifesto most definitely does not recommend flipping houses, while magically using other people's money.

"Act now!" the radio commercials tell us.

Perhaps someday they will also tell us to act wisely.

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