Have you ever wondered where you can find bandaids with witty Shakespearean insults printed on them or a tongue cover that will help you swallow your pills or thumbtacks in the shape of thumbs. I suspect that these items do not appear on your shopping list nor would you even expect they exist.
In this world of needs and wants, these items are in their own league. They are things that we could not even dream of requiring and practically we don’t. I cannot imagine thousands of people demanded that a company produce a large T-Rex replica dinosaur trophy head to hang on a wall.
Getting ahead of the consumer has always existed in business. When asked how much research played a role in the launch of the iPad, Steve Jobs cooly replied, “None. It isn’t the consumers job to know what they want.” Of course, there big is a difference between the iPad and a designer chair shaped like female genitalia (yes, it exists).
I am one of the 25 million people who visited The Cool Hunter last year, “a truly global hub for what’s cool, thoughtful, innovative and original.” My first visit occurred while editing an online publication and I would reference some of what they had hunted down like designer wine stores, AARK collective watches, the Bambini Kids store in Vienna, the Capsule Lamp, and an undeniably funky Farmacia in Portugal.
Of course, The Cool Hunter is not an altruistic enterprise, it prospers by blurring the line between content and advertising. It offers advertising opportunities, editorial sponsorship, and other means of getting a cool thing promoted. The site is an extensive and expensive catalogue … hardly an earth shattering observation, I know.
What is interesting is how sites of this stripe have proliferated even during poor economic times. You can now visit Cool Hunting (there must be a lawsuit between the two) and HolyCool, “a daily updated blog that features the coolest products available to buy online.”
HolyCool is great if you crave a police badge bottle opener, wood whale desktop organizer, superhero throw blankets with sleeves, and 3D cookie cutters of safari animals. There is also NewLaunches focusing on technology gadgets and the aptly named HiConsumption specializing in men’s lifestyle products. Other sites include TheCoolist, Bless This Stuff, Materialiscious, The Awesomer, and INTHRALLD.
All are prodigious promoters of the unnecessary. They have joined SkyMall, Sharper Image and Hammacher Schlemmer in an attempt to convince consumers that zombie garden figures, wooden MacBook keyboards, and Aston Martin baby strollers are now ‘needs’.
These sites are modern “Bread and Circuses”, the historical and clever metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. The goods offered are the essence of diversion and distraction satisfying immediate, shallow desires. Their soothing, placebo effects can be incredibly short-lived.
All of us experience post purchase hangovers. We ask ourselves why did we buy something in the first place or was there a better alternative? This is natural behavior. But say you purchased stainless steel playing cards then your post purchase dissonance may not follow accepted psychology. That is because you purchased the cards with no real alternative in mind and because price played a very small part in decision-making. You just thought stainless steel playing cards would be cool. Welcome to the pinnacle of irrationality.
Sarah Kershaw writing in The New York Times observed that SkyMall and by extension these sites, are “a reflection of consumer behavior” and “a symbol of Americans’ love of shopping and curious delight with oddball items.” I see it more as oddball behavior. People choosing solar powered cat toys and home planetariums (some times over fundamental needs) is perhaps only cool if you are a consumer psychologist.
I recognize a few ironies in writing this piece. In the spirit of full disclosure, I own a remote control fart machine and a Hollywood quality zombie mask. So I am not immune to the draw of the unnecessary. I can say the fart machine has become indispensible as an icebreaker at dinner parties.
The other irony is this article is publicizing the existence of these silly sites so I may be aiding the cycle of gratuitous, short-lived self-actualization. Thankfully capitalism is democratic as we all vote with our dollars. We are each responsible for allocating our funds in the never-ending battle between needs and wants.
Speaking of which, have you seen The Killer Whale Submarine? This streamlined, two-person watercraft breaches and submerges in water just like its namesake. It hydroplanes up to 50 mph over the water’s surface and cruises up to 25 mph submerged. The cockpit’s dashboard displays live video from the dorsal fin’s built-in camera. It costs $100,000. I think I need it, I know I want it.
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