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Where's the *&^# Car?!

“But I know there’s a car in there! There has to be! The box has a picture on it!”

My wailing 6-year-old son could not be convinced there wasn’t a car in the box until I dumped the cereal box contents into a big bowl and let him paw through it. Nothing I did consoled him when he realized there wasn’t a toy in the bowl. My heart broke.

His first experience with marketing was upsetting, maybe more to me than it was to him. Explaining we had to collect and mail cereal box tops to earn a little toy car was too much for a small kid to understand. I hated to see him disappointed as much as I was irritated with the advertisement designers that caused it.

That sad day was three decades ago, yet I’m reminded of it almost daily.

My vocation is to support clients’ quests to distill what matters to them from what isn’t essential and to apply those realizations to their decisions and goals. We use that knowledge to identify what actions are most likely to bring them closer to the life they want. We separate the ideas, ideas, and activities that support their physical, mental, and financial health from the clutter of thoughts, beliefs, and actions that work against them.

The process starts with questioning our assumptions about what appears to be accurate and comparing them to reality. Dumping the cereal into the bowl proved to my son that the car picture on the box didn’t mean there was a car in the box. What’s the truth, and what’s a noisy distraction?

Call me the Bringer of Bad News (as my kids used to say) or the Truth Teller Who Saved Me (as clients have said), my focus is to help you see other aspects of a situation. We want you to make informed choices and avoid as much disappointment and wasted time as possible.

Once we’ve discerned what the truths are, it’s for you to decide what to do or not to do.

I've laughed with clients when we decided the shiny light of a great new idea is actually the headlight of an oncoming train hauling potential headaches. There is a sigh of relief when we find ways to work around possible trouble and map out better routes to success.

Clutter and noise come in lots of forms. It’s insidious and deceptive. There’s the tangible clutter of overfull spaces stuffed with unused possessions and the mail that quickly clogs desktops. Intangible clutter is harder to identify, yet equally, if not more critical. Reducing or disposing of it improves your quality of life because you can think more accurately with fewer, more realistic choices.

The constant deluge of innovative marketing materials and messages muddles objective thinking. They’re brilliantly designed to convince us their products or services will improve our moods and relationships. They make us question and doubt what we think is desirable.

Home shopping shows like QVC and Home Shopping Network capitalize on our yearning for social connections through enticing implied guarantees of how new clothing and jewelry will bring exceptionally satisfying relationships and prosperity.

It’s only four easy payments to a fabulous party made possible by the new crockpot brimming with a creamy, savory soup to accompany the delectable homemade bread that’s still warm from your new bread machine. You’ll look equally enticing in your new sweater and slacks that you bought easily with a quick phone call to a friendly voice whose soothing timbre feels like they could be your best friend.

Sounds great! The new appliances may well make your days more comfortable. Onsite clothing shopping is time-consuming, so having a new wardrobe delivered to your door seems the ideal efficiency. Admittedly, iti is efficient if your priority is to get a product into your hands as quickly as possible with the least amount of effort. Especially when it soothes the urge to capture the feel-good moment quickly.

Clear thinking prompts us to remember that everything in this world has two sides a cause, and an effect. What we want to see, compared to what’s actually in front of us.

How we think things are supposed to work vs. how they actually work. The Law of Unintended Consequences is unavoidable (like unwittingly trashing your finances with ill-considered buys), but its effects can be reduced when we consider our purchases carefully.

Unfortunately, levelheadedness isn’t nearly as much fun as a fabulously slinky new shirt from the masters of marketing at QVC and Amazon. Advertisers know that. They bank on it. They manipulate you with it.

Our worlds are forever changed because Amazon understands combining our desires with one click is the perfect combination to meet our acquisition wants and needs, both real and imagined.

It’s said that people are motivated by two things: pain or pleasure and not a lot in between. Well, wait a second! There is also novelty, challenge, fear of missing out, and a few others that are played (preyed) upon by sales teams using brain science to outwit our best intentions to avoid their enticing promises. But at their core, it’s still pain or pleasure that moves us.

This is NOT to say marketing is all nefarious manipulation or that all sales pitches are lies. What we’re asking is for you to be astute and know the difference. You’ll enjoy your purchases a lot more if you feel confident you made a high-quality choice that you can afford and have a space to put it.

Good deals can stand up to scrutiny. You’re not Debbie or Donnie Downer if you ask shrewd shopper questions. In fact, it feels a lot better than realizing later you’ve fallen for a carefully crafted play on words. We've all done it.

A “free” or “easy” return policy might seduce you into forgetting it could mean you still have to pay for shipping but won’t be charged a restocking fee.

Easy might also be the time allowed for returns is more extended than competitors, or that you can use the same packaging to send it back.

Even if free means no charge shipping and restocking, it still means we must repack the box and get it to the shipping facility. I’ve been in many places full of unwanted and unneeded items that were “too much trouble or too expensive to return.” Sellers count on it.

100% satisfaction or your money back still requires that we note how much the refund should be and ensure the credit showed on your statement. That can become a time-wasting problem, especially if you’re paying installments for different items on different payment schedules, as is part of QVC’s appeal to your sense of economy.

“Space-saving” appliances may be smaller than another model, yet we still must have enough room in the kitchen. Otherwise, we won’t use it because it’s stored in another room.

If it seems like I’m picking on QVC and Amazon, you’re right. I am. They’re easy targets precisely because of how effective they are in their sales vocabulary and processes. But I also admire them for the same reason.

Knowing how vulnerable many people are, I once asked a QVC sales executive if they track purchases to the point of knowing who is overbuying. Admittedly, it’s a question that can’t be answered because they don’t know customers’ spaces and available finances. But I thought it was telling that his quick response was, “Why would we do that? We always want them to buy more!” Casinos capitalize on the same impulses, despite the warnings about the dangers of compulsive gambling.

Objective and critical thinking isn’t initially as much fun as just being hugged by the idea of a lovely new warm sweater or thinking of all the things you’ll do when your new tool saves time. (Where will you spend that newfound time?)

You wouldn’t invite a stranger to sit in your living room and loudly spout their opinions about what product will change your life for the better. Yet that’s what we do when we turn on the TV or open a browser to view online shopping channels. (Or seek the opinions of limited and biased online sources as truth without question and then wring our hands in despair at the state of the world, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Marketing has a needed place in our world. How else could we learn about beneficial products and services or find what we need to fix the problem that’s been vexing us?

I’m asking you to commit to protecting your time, money, and attention by fine-tuning your objective radar to separate a glib spiel from the facts of a product. It’s not negative. It’s positive because you’ll be confident in your decisions.

Make a game out of outsmarting your knee-jerk attraction to marketing nonsense by learning to identify a ploy from a safe distance.

It can be just as pleasurable to resist a pitch as it is acquiring things that clutter your time, your spaces, and your attention.

Rules of the Savvy Buyer Game. Ask a few questions before clicking buy now.

  • What am I feeling at this moment?

  • What problem do I think this product or service will fix for me?

  • Do I have enough money to pay for it without sacrificing something else that’s ultimately more important?

  • What happened the last time I bought something like this?

  • If I change my mind, am I truly going to repack it, relabel it, take it to the post office, and track the refund?

  • Is this a want or a need?

  • I hear what they’re saying, but what aren’t they saying?

  • Do they think I’m gullible?

Buy what you need. Occasionally it’s OK to buy something just because you want it.

But, please be sure the car is actually in the cereal box before you get ready for the test drive?


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