Consumerama: the Real Simple Guide to Selling Anything

On my desk one morning I found a 378-page tome whose name is “Real Simple” with an intriguingly worded “Life Made Easier” subtitle. It was the week when the members of the American Anthropological Association were meeting in Washington, DC. Too bad there wasn’t a copy of “Real Simple” by each of the anthropologists’ hotel room doors. It would keep them busy analyzing the natives who produced it for months.

I can only guess at what Managing Editor, Kristin van Ogtrop’s future ambitions are these days. But for the present she has created the ultimate consumerama–a bulging volume of product advertisements laced with editorial content that springs from the frenzy, created by the heavy, slick, glossy pages of this marketing mania.

“Real Simple” does anything but make life easier. Opening its pages releases a veritable gust of perfume-scented pages. There go the ‘chemically sensitive’ customers. For readers who are more resistant, it can give you a mild headache after a while. “Real Simple” is not so simple.

Let us persevere, however, and flip through the pages. Page after page of perfumes, moisturizers, skin tighteners, infallible make-up, haircolor, takes you to the first pearls of wisdom.

The great French writer, Albert Camus, is pressed into action for Clinique, the repairwear, intensive eye cream. “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all the present,” Camus is quoted as writing in his book “The Rebel.” Somehow I doubt whether he had anything remotely connected to a consumer product in mind. But, hey, why not let “Real Simple” provide some intellectual heft to a Niagara of luxuries, whims, frivolities and downright mind-numbing minute complexities of manufactured consumer desires.

Complex narcissism courses its way through page after page. This is sheer narcissism with its intended contagion to the shoppers who, off-guard, can be drawn into a morass of consumable complexity under false pretenses. There are the bewildering choices of 3 to 3.5 inch high heels that keep podiatrists complexly busy. Not to be outdone, is an offering of a tailored alarm clock “for kids” with a barnyard’s choice of talking animals to choose from–dog, cat, pig, rooster, cow, frog, duck, butterfly and the stray monkey. So simple. But, how do your kids get to hear them all to make an informed choice?

Another glossy tries the linguistic approach to simplicity. “There’s one language everyone understands,” (trademarked phrase) and that is “gold earrings”. For those who are complexly serious about their dog and cat pets, there are dog place mats, catnip toys for cats and a cotton-terry Soggy Dog towel for Fido’s postbath rubdown.

You can’t really flip through this advermagazine. There are numerous cardboard-like inserts that serve a function similar to street bumps. In case you don’t feel you have the “simple time” to peruse and weigh all these offerings, don’t worry, a Lipton Tea commercial says, “you feel ten years younger.”

The Defense Department also decided to communicate inside this massive bazaar. You–the taxpayer–pay for a full page, in the middle of all these promotional distractions, with this message, “Talking with your son about the military has you anxious and emotional. In times like this, facts are reassuring,” leading you to the website: Not to worry, a few pages later, there is an ad titled, “Why Let a Migraine Disrupt your Life?”.

To continue is to be compelled to move into satire. In two full pages, Citi (bank) has you following a confusing, labyrinth through the Land of Credit, with a starting gate and an ending destination called “Credit Card Nirvana”. This is the giant bank’s way of “introducing the Citi Simplicity Credit Card.”

Businesses have done worse to the English language. But they don’t usually devote nearly 400 pages to such a semantic fraud. When I want to read about the simple life, I take off my shelf classic paperback by the public interest scientist, Albert Fritsch. It is accurately titled, 99 Ways to a Simple Lifestyle.

You won’t see Fritsch’s practical insights into true simple living on PBS anytime soon. What you will see is a new program by the name of Real Simple debuting on the Public Broadcasting System in January 2006. It’s the magazine turning itself into a television show! At least you won’t be overcome by its smell, or shall we say, its scent.


Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!