Pay attention to that man behind the curtain

Have you seen the movie The Joneses? It’s about a perfectly fake family living a perfectly fake life that they are paid by marketers to promote. The movie is often categorized under the genre of “comedy,” though it is anything but funny. It depicts “real” people getting really hurt in their attempts to keep up with their neighbors. While the tragic results of people trying to attain the unattainable were hard to watch and exaggerated, the movie did serve as a great reminder that we don’t usually see the full picture.

Several years ago when I was working at a communications firm, I had a boss who was about 20 years older than me. One day, I went to her house to pick up some paperwork and found a television crew set up in her kitchen. She explained that the crew was looking for a “typical American kitchen” to use as a set for a breakfast cereal commercial. Seems like using a real kitchen would make the commercial seem more real, right? The problem is that the average value of a home in my former boss’ neighborhood is well over $1 million compared to the existing home median price of $168,800.

Just like the Great and Powerful Oz, marketers don’t want to show reality and we probably don’t want them to either. After all, no one on Earth would want to buy cereal if they had shot the commercial in my dark and tiny one-room apartment’s kitchenette. The danger is when we are so awed by the smoke and mirrors that we forget that there is a man behind the curtain.

The stories told in most commercials are no different than the story told in The Jonesesthey are both fiction. The difference is that advertisers really want you to think that what they're selling is better than what you've already got.  Next time you feel yourself Jonesing for something, ask yourself a few questions: What exactly are you trying to purchase? Can you afford it? Does it fit into your financial plan?  What are you willing to sacrifice to get it?  

This is not a typical American kitchen

Kim McGrigg is the former Manager of Community and Media Relations for MMI.

  • The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is an association of nonprofit consumer organizations that was established in 1968 to advance the consumer interest through research, advocacy, and education. Today, nearly 300 of these groups participate in the federation and govern it through their representatives on the organization's Board of Directors.

  • The mission of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD works to strengthen the housing market in order to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; and build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.

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  • The National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®), founded in 1951, is the nation’s largest and longest-serving nonprofit financial counseling organization. The NFCC’s mission is to promote the national agenda for financially responsible behavior, and build capacity for its members to deliver the highest-quality financial education and counseling services.