The Bellyachers: How Marketers, Politicians Play to Our Worst Instincts

Convinced That They're Bad Off, Consumers Tune Out Reality

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Bobby has a tummy ache.

I'll pause here to allow you to process that information. (I suggest a few deep breaths and maybe wiggling your arms like a sprinter at the starting line.)

Whatever you do, do not panic. Your hero does not have an ulcer. He does not have appendicitis. He does not have cancer. He does not have gallstones. He does not have inflammatory bowel disease. He does not have a vascular abnormality of the stomach. After about $50,000 worth of investigation over two weeks, the medical world has narrowed down the possibilities to two:

  1. Bobby is anxious.
  2. Bobby has a tropical parasite that at night does to his innards approximately what a raccoon does to your trash cans.
Such a condition may have been contracted two months ago on a visit to South Africa, where your correspondent incautiously dined at, in addition to five-star hotels, one four-star hotel. So as I writhe in bed each night, the self-pity is leavened by self-accusation, not to mention some genuine intellectual curiosity about the actual ingredients of biltong. Meanwhile, on the plus side, those pounds are just melting away.

But I stray from my point, which is that I now understand what is wrong with America.

Endless sleepless hours give a man time for reflection, and last night I had an epiphany. At no point in my current miseries have I moaned the words, "Ohhhh, our stomachs." I haven't imagined myself as a member of the aching-belly cohort or of the parasitology segment in the possible-infectious-disease category. In all candor about this, the only tummy I've been thinking about is mine truly.

Sort of an outrage, really. Just think of all those afflicted with the diseases listed in the third paragraph, conditions more painful and life-threatening than my own. No, you think about them; I've got my own problems.

Hence the epiphany. I have always seen myself as an empathetic sort. I give to charity. I yield to motorists leaving parking lots. I surrender my subway seat to anybody with two forms of identification proving they are older than me. When my phone rings in the movie theater, I try to keep my conversations to less than two minutes.

Yet when the chips are down, it turns out, the rest of the world -- like my waistline -- just melts away.

Call it self-preservation. Call it narcissism. Call it looking out for No.1. The more we are in extremis, the less we are generous -- or outward looking, sympathetic, understanding, forgiving or even interested in anybody's troubles but our own. I have long watched in wonderment and disgust at political movements, like the Tea Party, that seethe over the corruption of government and special interests yet cannot envision any remedy that doesn't neglect the commonweal while specially interesting themselves. Or, for that matter, like Occupy Wall Street , which fails to recognize that the greedy 1% at Goldman Sachs et al couldn't have raped the world economy if the 99% hadn't been pigs at the trough themselves.

Hypocrisy? Maybe, but my gut tells me something more. It is human nature.

This nation's political process going back 60-some years is for candidates to tell the electorate how bad their lot is , how they're being robbed, how many enemies they have, how in danger they are, how sinister the is very government to which the candidates aspire. At the same time, marketers relentlessly remind us how fat and ugly we are, how uncool, how financially insecure.

Again and again, we are told how bad we have it. And so, convinced that we are in extremis, we bellyache and bellyache, and tune out the rest of the world. In fact, come to think of it, maybe I don't suffer from gastrointestinal raccoons. One thinks of the great philosopher Charlie Brown, so acutely sensitive to the hypocrisy, cynicism and moral laxity around him that he was gripped as a 6-year-old with anxiety. In his immortal words:

"My stomach hurts."

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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