Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Too Much Impulse Appeal

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from PUNCH

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

April 2010

Thanks to those motivational research experts I've gone and fallen in love with a package, the kind you find in supermarkets. It wouldn't be so bad if it were a matter of admiration, or affection. But I'm in love with it.
So much goes into package design these days, I'm told. It seems packages have to sell themselves, now that sales personnel are practically a thing of the past. Well, they've gone too far this time.
I was in the supermarket picking up a few things for myself, and there it was, on a shelf, just below eye level, about on a line with my shoulders. You wouldn't say it was beautiful exactly, but there was definitely something compelling about it.
It was a simple, slender box, principally white, but with daring dashes of red and gold tastefully worked in with crisp, clean lines of typography. A subtle, almost sensuous design outlined the promise of a shapely bottle teasingly contained inside. The whole thing had a freshness, a vitality, an aura of youth and gaiety, yet a mysterious, profoundly mature quality that seemed to understand me. I had an overwhelming desire to reach out and clutch it.
But I was ashamed of what I felt, for I didn't really need it. I turned to continue along the aisle, but I couldn't, and in a wild moment of ecstasy I plucked a package from its resting place and thrust it into my shopping cart. A hot, inexplicable feeling of satisfaction burned its way through me. Exhilarated, I completed my chores, impatient to get home.
Alone in the privacy of my own surroundings, I fell to admiring the slim little package that had suddenly come into my life.
It stood there before me, so pert, so cute, wearing a strange little smile. I actually began to talk to it. I told it personal things, things I've never been able to tell anyone. I got so lost in talking about myself, I didn't even think of noting its name.
And then a queer feeling came over me. I put my hands on the glistening box. Barely realizing what I was doing, I allowed my fingers to search for the lid. Gently, ever so gently, I opened it and reached tenderly inside for its precious contents. In a moment my hands held the treasure itself, delicately swathed in a gossamer gown of pale tissue.
In a state that was bordering on the delirious, I slowly undid the dainty wrapping until the soft, supple plastic bottle lay there naked, its rich curves nestling comfortably in my impassioned grip. I bent over to unscrew the cap and take my fill of the heady fragrance that stole from the graceful neck, my eyes closing in a delicious reverie.
It was pretty silly, of course, and the next day found me irritable and distracted. That evening, however, rationalizing my need for butter and eggs for breakfast, compulsively drawn to the supermarket, which was open late, I found myself standing ignominiously before the self-same shelf. Once again I was gripped by desire for the little package, and in an uncontrollable gesture I scooped up the entire contents of the shelf.
I paid the open-mouthed clerk and passed quickly out the door. In the apartment, I discovered I had neglected to buy the breakfast things, but I didn't care.
In the weeks that followed I found it convenient to set up a separate closet for the little packages. I had them neatly arranged, but every time I opened one up I felt I had to replace it with two the next day. I bought so many I adopted various disguises to avoid the curious stares of the clerks. In spite of the immediate satisfaction the packages gave me I grew increasingly depressed as the emptiness of my guilt-ridden compulsion wore on me. What's more, I developed an annoying tic in my left eye.
One day, desperately resolving to break myself of the habit, I walked into the store. I would prove I could muster enough self discipline to resist buying the package. No hidden persuader was going to get the best of me.
But blinded by my addiction, with shaking hand I placed one on the counter. "Just one, sir?" asked the clerk with a sneer.
You can see the low state to which I had sunk.
Somehow, after a heroic struggle, I left it there, and walked slowly, painfully, triumphantly, to the exit, both eyes tic-ing away. Stoically, I entered the bus and sat stiffly while it carried me to my stop. I managed to get upstairs, where I broke completely and opened one package after another in the wildest, most bitter orgy of my experience. It left me more dead than alive. After that Pyrrhic victory only a miracle could save me.
The next day I put on one of my best disguises, a red crewcut, and painted a thin mustache on my trembling lip, donned an elevator operator's uniform and affecting a low left shoulder and sweeping limp, careered into the supermarket, intent on replenishing my empty closet.
I arrived at the customary spot midway down the fourth aisle to find the shelf filled with detergent. Abandoning my limp, I made up and down the aisles like a lunatic, only to come upon a sight that filled me with horror.
There, staring me right in the face, in a big basket at the head of one of the aisles, were dozens of the little packages, jumbled crazily on one another. A huge garish sign nailed to a piece of wood, protruded from the mass of little boxes. "SALE!' it screamed. And the boxes -- what had happened to them? Printed boldly across each one were the words, "One dollar OFF!"
People were crowding about the display, pushing against one another, grabbing. Two, three, four at a time they took. "Say, are you buying or aren't you?" said a man trying to reach past me into the basket.
Dumbstruck, I let him brush by, and stood there transfixed as his hands opened and closed around one package after another. I was furious as I pictured them lined up in his closet.
But it had done the trick. I was free of the compulsion at last. My tic disappeared and I no longer wanted the package. It was ugly now, sullied , fortunately, by its maker's sordid sojourn into the depths of commercialism.
And then, just this evening, I was shocked to see it in its old spot again, brighter, whiter, more beautiful than ever. Flashing brilliantly across the box were the words, "NEW! IMPROVED!" With a monumental effort I managed to fight my way by, but the little package cried out to be bought, bought, bought!
And now -- I think the tic is returning.

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