x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

How much is your kidney worth? Probably more than an iPad

Blaming a culture of materialism for all of modern society's ills is not always accurate. Old fashioned human stupidity plays its part too.

In an increasingly materialistic world, the metaphor is dead. It used to be, figuratively speaking at least, that we'd be willing to give up our right arm for an object of desire. Now we know, literally, how much that object costs.

Last week, five people in the Chinese city of Chenzhou were indicted for illegal organ trading after a teenager sold one of his kidneys to buy an iPhone and an iPad. The incident was gleefully pounced on, not inaccurately, as further proof of the evils of rampant consumerism. It is, of course, nothing more than new packaging for very old news.

Last year's London riots were believed by many to be mindless acts of vandalism by members of a generation with an overblown sense of entitlement. They, in fact, had their roots in genuine social hardships and urban decay. And still, the young protesters manifested their anger with what they perceived to be an economically and socially unjust system by making a beeline for expensive sports trainers and flat-screen televisions. Consumerism and aspiration were perhaps the only outlets for their frustrations.

It used to be that activists fought for their rights; these protesters fought for their right to consume. For them, the pursuit of happiness was achieved through the acquisition of status symbols.

Further back in 2004, as Apple's early generation iPod worked its way into the mainstream consciousness, the conspicuous white earphones made their users easy prey for muggers. Attacks on iPod users became headline news.

Giving up a kidney may seem to cross the line into imbecility, but is it any worse than attacking another human being? Probably not, and yet the ubiquity of such crimes means they are no longer newsworthy.

Quite simply, consumerism is not only accepted, it's positively welcomed. Parents often complain that it's almost impossible to keep up with their children's craving for the latest in consumer goods and brand name products.

One friend, a father and a marketing executive, recently said that children are growing up with incredibly strong brand loyalties more than ever, before they even know what brand loyalty is. Which, in a way, is the purest form of brand loyalty of all. For marketers, "brand objectives", as my friend said, are being met earlier and earlier.

In being the first line of defence in the battle against relentless advertising, parents are complicit in their children's increasing preoccupation. And if, as in so many cases here in the UAE, the parents themselves are self-obsessed label junkies, what chance do their children have?

The war against the behemoths of marketing and advertising was lost a long time ago.

"By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising ... kill yourself, thank you," the late stand-up comedian Bill Hicks would often say in his famous routine from the 1980s. "No joke here, really. Seriously, kill yourself, you have no rationalisation for what you do, you are Satan's little helpers."

A good point, well made, some might say. But even this vitriolic observation now seems a bit quaint. Clichéd even. Marketing is hardly subtle any more, but blaming it for all of society's ills is as passé as the iPhone 4.

As the television drama Mad Men has brilliantly portrayed, even 50 years ago, corporations sought to sell the American dream to an unsuspecting public. And it was not only Americans that bought it. Colour televisions, cars, Coca-Cola and cigarettes - yesterday's luxuries are today's bare necessities. In the future, perhaps an iPhone will be as mundane an item as any other.

Advertising's inherently exploitative qualities are undeniable even to its most fervent proponents. In her anti-consumerism book No Logo, Naomi Klein quotes David Ogilvy, founder of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency, saying: "Man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard."

True, perhaps. But not quite as vile as the surgeon who cuts out someone's healthy kidney.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AliKhaled_