Therapy Culture

I try to avoid commercials in my day-to-day life. If I need to make a purchase I like to think that it will be of my own accord – I detest feeling manipulated. Commercials, whether in print, radio, or television, are designed to manipulate you into changing your behavior, specifically, to purchase goods or services that you might otherwise not have considered.

Advertisers have many tactics. In an ideal world, a commercial might present the product or service in question, explaining why it would be to your advantage to patronize their business rather than another. Of course, commercials do not work that way. They manipulate. Catchy tunes, skewed statistics, appeals to authority, and basic peer pressure are all common advertising tactics. In recent years, however, I have noticed a new one: Therapy.

Quite often lately, commercials aim to convince you that the business in question cares about you more than its competitors. Banks claim that to them, you are more than a number – implying that when you bank elsewhere you are treated as less than human. Mortgage firms and other lenders say the same thing: They care about you, your family, and your business. Car dealerships play the same tune.

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Now that so many advertisers convey this tone, it is nearly impossible to advertise without it. What business wants to be labeled as cold or uncaring? The result is that today, rather than trying to compete on price or competency, businesses try to show that they care about you more than the other guy does.

All these advertisers are trying to fill a modern human need for acceptance and approval. People respond well to flattery, so businesses give them more and more. It costs nothing, after all, to pretend to care.

One of the most egregious examples of this sort of pandering is in the realm of politics. The basic guidelines for a political ad are simple: Accentuate your candidate’s strengths and hammer your opponent’s weaknesses. While this is still the norm in political advertising today, more and more would-be representatives are talking up how much they care for you. Think about the last election season. How many times did a candidate try to say that he cared about you and your family, while his opponent cared about “big business” or some other bogeyman? How many candidates tried to convince you that they were just regular guys?

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When Barack Obama was running for president, he continually emphasized how his campaign was not about him, but was really about you. “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” What person feels no thrill about being part of a movement? Who does not like being told that they are special? Millions of people who cast votes for Obama the candidate truly believed, deep inside, that they were voting for themselves.

Local radio talk show host Dori Monson is fond of saying “Nobody cares about you more than you!” He is right of course – in the end, most people will look out for their own interests before those of others, especially strangers. Politicians and businessmen look out for their own interests, whether it is power or revenue. Ironically, today those interests are best served by pretending to care about the voter and the consumer.

Why do these advertising campaigns work so well? I think it is because we have entire generations that have grown up with a deep need for acceptance and emotional therapy. We are taught in grade school that scholastic results are less valuable than genuine effort, and that self-esteem is more important than skills and abilities. No longer is a job well done its own reward. Adult approval and peer admiration is reason to do anything.

The recent Disney/Pixar movie The Incredibles had a shocking moral message: Not everyone is special. Think about it. Dictionary.com defines special as “Of a distinct or particular kind or character.” If everyone is special, as children today are taught, then nobody is special. To be special means to be unique, one of a kind. Michael Jordan was a special basketball player – there was nobody quite like him. Albert Einstein had a special genius. Just because children are told that they are special does not make it so. Just telling a child that he can do anything does not make it necessarily possible to be as smart as Einstein or as great a ball player as Jordan.

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Throughout grade school, high school, and even college, children are indoctrinated with this philosophy. More and more schools are doing away with grades because they show disparities amongst students. Competition is banned, because nobody must feel inferior to anyone else.

After college, reality comes as a shock for many people. Especially in today’s economy, many college graduates are having trouble finding work. All their lives they have been promised the world on a silver platter. They have been told that they can do anything, be anything they want. They believed that a low-stress, high-paying career was just waiting for them. Yet here they are, empty-handed.

“We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re just learning this fact.”

(Is it not ironic that this line was spoken in a movie by someone who grew up and became a famous actor and hooked up with Angelina Jolie?)

Recently a college graduate announced her intention to sue her university, claiming they misled her and left her hanging out to dry. She believed that, along with a diploma, the university would hand her a high-paying career right away. When that did not happen, she sued, and complained about the stress of job hunting.

So it goes. Generations of Americans are finding it hard to make it in the real world, which is so different from the one they imagined. Advertisers and politicians recognize this, and come offering the self-esteem and approval that we have lacked. Yet we all know that politicians lie, and that businesses just want your money, so we remain hungry for more. How should we then live?

The answer is therapy, constant therapy. Therapy is our drug and we are hooked. In the last few decades, an entire industry has been created to fill these needs. Counselors, psychologists, therapists, and so-called life coaches fill the yellow pages. It makes me wonder how our ancestors managed not only to live their lives on their own, but also built our civilization. If I were to make an unscientific generalization, I would say the average American cannot get by without their antidepressants and weekly support groups. Therapy is a multi-billion dollar industry, catering to the narcissism of their clients.

We are all a bunch of dummies. It is true – the “For Dummies” series is full of bestselling titles. The “Self-Help” section is one of the most popular areas of a bookstore. If you want to write a bestseller, just tell people that they are truly amazing individuals who just need to break free and realize their own inner strength and beauty.

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Couples go to marriage counseling. Single people go see life coaches to help them realize their dreams. Church groups host classes teaching people that debt is bad. The very existence of LiveJournal is a testament to our need for approval and acceptance. We yearn for people to tell us what to do, and having done it, to tell us how great we are.

It is disheartening to think that our civilization descended from the rugged individualists who survived the Depression and won World War II to this motley crew of self-absorbed whiners that we are today. Perhaps the anthem of our current economic crisis should be “Brother, Can You Spare Some Positive Reinforcement?”

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