Create the problem, sell the solution
There’s a fun game you can play with someone you’re close to. Start scratching their back - this will create a feeling like their back really needs a good scratch - then abruptly stop. They’ll beg you to continue.
You create the problem, then sell the solution.
Countless products have made their way into your life through a very similar process. In fact, the whole idea of consumerism has.
I’ve written about anticonsumerism, marketing and external vs internal motivations before. Now I’ll try to connect some dots. The dots lead to the engine of consumerism, the real reason why we can spend our lives consuming more and more, but never finding happiness. At the heart of modern marketing and consumerism is a simple, though well-hidden principle: Create the problem, sell the solution.
The marketers aren’t your friends
I don’t need anything more in my life, because if I did, I would have bought it already. If you see there’s a snake in your kitchen, you’d jump to the table immediately. When there’s a big enough need, we act now, so any product that isn’t already a part of your life isn’t really needed.
So why do we buy more stuff? We can either blame or praise marketing (or modernity in general, though marketing has the clearest financial incentive). Either marketing creates the (artificial) need or awakens you to a real need that you simply didn’t realize before. We must be really, really careful which of these options we believe.
Imagine that I’m a chess player. I see an ad. It’s for a chess masterclass: “If you want to progress faster as a chess player, you need this chess training”. I check it out, the product is legit and seems like it delivers on the promise. 100% not scammy business or product.
But there’s still something iffy here. The marketers aren’t my friends for letting me know about this product. The problem comes from an assumption about my motivations: they assume I want to progress faster as a chess player, but let’s say that’s not my motivation. I just want to play, to have fun, not to turn it into a competitive thing. Competition sucks the fun out of it. As soon as I “need” something, it means I’m not happy with where I am. Suddenly, I don’t like chess as much anymore because I know I could be better.
I don’t know if my logic is easy to follow, but I mean to say there is a subtle but very important mismatch between my true motivations and the inferred motivations an advertiser has of me. If I’m not very explicit in holding onto my true motivations, I may accidentally inherit the motivations an advertiser thinks I have. And when that happens, the product they’re selling is a perfect fit and I end up consuming, and I become secretly miserable because I abandoned my true motivations.
When I’m secretly miserable, I am the perfect customer. The marketers always want to convince you that something is wrong with where you are right now, because that’s the pain point, the reason you need to buy. If everything was fine with your current situation, you’d have no motivation for change and you wouldn’t buy anything. So if you’re unhappy, it’s easy to sell you more stuff, and so the cycle of consumerism continues.
The creation of problems fuels consumerism
Modernity labels every natural process or emotion as a problem that should desperately be solved. Bored or tired? Pump endless Netflix stimulation into you. Too stimulated? You need this meditation app. Feeling sad? Consume some TikTok videos to brighten up your day. You can’t just be anymore. Anything you do or don’t do is a problem, anything you feel is somehow fixable. Aging is the most natural thing to ever exist on this planet, but we’ve been told that displaying any signs of aging is a problem, a terrible one. Better start using anti-aging moisturizer.
Create-the-problem-sell-the-solution is why entertainment services like Disney+ and Netflix are so big in Western society. Life gets more stressful and dystopian by the day, or at least that's what the news lets us believe, so there's ever-increasing demand for escapism and stress-relief.
The tricky part is that the better the product actually is at solving the (fake) problem, the easier it is to stay on the cycle of consumerism. If the chess training really does help me get better at chess, it becomes easier to justify the purchase and believe the product is in my best interests. But if you follow my logic, you see that the product is completely opposite to my best interests. The product binds me to motivations that aren’t my own, distances me from my true values.
What are my true values then? What’s my true motivation?
I think our true motivation is to be happy - isn’t that what we all want? Just to be happy, at peace with our current situation. Not having any need to change anything, isn’t that heaven? A day where you’d change nothing, isn’t that the perfect day; a life you wouldn’t trade for anything, isn’t that a life well lived?
Not feeling like you need to change your situation is what you’re really after, so consumption isn’t the answer, at least the final one. It is the marketers’ role to make you forget this.
You can see that there’s a much greater “Create the problem, sell the solution” going on than getting you hooked on under-eye moisturizer. The marketers try to impose motivations on you. A motivation to be more, have more, be better, live better. This motivation seems innocent and well-meaning on the surface; the product they sell seems beneficial because it actually does help you to be more and live more. So we buy.
But buying has never been our true motivation - all we want is to be happy and at peace, and we only achieve that when we don’t feel a need to change the current situation. The marketers try to make us forget this by making us internalize the subtly different, innocent-sounding, well-meaning motivation that involves changing our situation “for the better”, buying their product. The marketers will go out of business if they can’t convince us to feel a need to escape our current situation, and this inevitably means to convince us that there’s something wrong with where we are or who we are.
By pointing this wrongness out to us, they create the motivation to fix it. Humans are the problem-solving species: we didn’t evolve to question the problem, but to do something about it. You can create the most unrealistic expectation of what a human should look like, how we should live (like traveling the world) and what we should own, and instead of dismissing the expectation, we become motivated to meet it.
(Side note: you might have heard of the “awareness-consideration-decision” framework in marketing. People hear about the product, they think about it for a bit, then they buy it. If you agree with my thinking in this post, you realize that there’s something wrong with this framework. If I really needed a product, I wouldn’t need to consider buying it; I’d act immediately, like when I spot a snake slithering on my floor. So there is no need for consideration.
What is the consideration stage really for then? I theorize that it’s the stage where you slowly abandon your true motivations and adopt the subtly different motivations the marketers want you to adopt, the kind of motivation that includes buying. Through repeated exposure to the brand’s messaging, through repeated doubting of your true motivations, you end up buying.
If you need to consider buying it, don’t.)
There are two versions of you
There’s who you really are. Then there’s what the marketers believe you are. The problem is, we don’t understand ourselves, but the marketers study us, create personas of us, collect data and make conclusions about us. Worse yet, they have the tools, knowledge and incentives to make you believe their interpretation.
So unless we are strict about our values, we make the work incredibly easy for the marketers by assuming whatever persona they have created. “Oh, I wasn’t really looking to progress faster as a chess player - but now that you offer it to me, and ask me nicely a few times, I might as well do it.” It should be that the marketers create a persona based on who we are, but instead we change who we are to fit the persona.
Luckily, there’s a way to become immune to marketing: Understanding.
If you understand what you really want, you realize most products aren’t for you. So it just feels silly to buy more. You don’t need them - and you know you don’t, and no one can convince you otherwise - so why get them?
But if you don’t know what you want, they’ll define it for you. If you don’t know your motivations, they’ll create those for you. If you don’t understand your true self, they’ll make you assume their version of you, and you live your life with a constant sense that something is off, but you just can’t figure out what. Maybe the next product will be the answer.
(P.S. I know I'm wrong/overgeneralizing in many places. Don't dismiss it because it's wrong, consider whether it's wrong in an interesting or thought-provoking way.)