Monday, January 2, 2012

Free Gifts

As a (retired) English teacher, I've long been irritated by the advertisements promising consumers a "free gift."  By definition, of course, a gift is free--something received without payment.  So what are we to make of the superfluous adjective "free" describing something that is supposedly already free by its very nature?

I guess the key word here is "supposedly."  Because the Madison Avenue wonks--whose job it is to out-psych the buyer, and thereby sell more goods--have clearly grasped that humans almost universally do not believe in "free" gifts, that we routinely distrust ordinary, adjectivally unqualified "gifts."  Though we know that such gifts are not supposed to entail any cost, we also know that, in the majority of cases, the giver is motivated by a hidden agenda (sometimes hidden even to him/herself)--i.e., we know that gifts are rarely freely given.  Instead, they are offered "with strings attached"--for a variety of reasons that in some way obligate the receiver to the giver.

Even those most charitable of gifts--those offered by "anonymous" donors to people they do not know--bear a psychological price tag:  the receiver feels dependent upon others (rather than autonomous and free), while, in his generosity (even though only he knows of it), the philanthropist feels superior to the poor bloke who, alas, cannot support himself on his own.

Oh, you will object:  "sometimes a gift is merely a heartfelt expression of love."  Of course.  But is it not given with at least the hope that, in making the receiver happy, it will further bind him/her to the giver?  That, too, is a "string."  Sigh.

It would seem, then, that we are a bit uncomfortable with our gut suspicion of gift-giving.

Personally, though, I see little wrong with either the giving or the strings attached thereto:  obligations and bonds, whether financial or affective, sustain and nourish civilization, keep us connected.  What pisses me off is the hypocrisy and the goody-goodyism so often affected by donors.  Why can't we simply acknowledge that gift-giving is generally NOT free--but rather motivated by (enlightened?) self-interest?  Such an honest attitude, it seems, would be much healthier, since it would serve to unite us in our common need for human connections.  The philanthropist should acknowledge that his charitable giving is as much about helping himself as it is about helping others.  The lover giving a necklace to his beloved should admit that he yearns to have his love reciprocated.  And even the child giving a homemade valentine to his mom should realize (he probably does, actually) that making her happy is also a good thing for himself.

Now, back to that term "free gift."  Obviously, Madison Avenue, in its marketing wisdom, understands the truth I've just discussed:  most gifts are not really "free."  And the advertisers also understand that many of us are uncomfortable with this less-than-altruistic truth about ourselves. Therefore, as is their wont, these high-powered hucksters set out to reassure the public that the truth that we intuitively "know (but dislike)," is, in fact, false (as we would like it to be).  They endeavor, as always and for their own profit, to lie to us. "No, say the adverts, "you're wrong.  There really IS such a thing as a free gift.  No strings attached at all, honest.  No obligation of any kind, honest.  All you have to do is purchase a single box of Chienlit Kitty Litter and we'll send you--as a FREE gift (unlike conventional UNfree gifts)--a 10 ounce bottle of PeeBeeGone deodorizer--absolutely free of charge. Free. Of. Charge.  But hurry!  Only 10 orders per customer will be allowed.

It's a double whammy, of course, since a) you pay up front in money for the PeeBeeGone when you buy the Chienlit and b) you pay later in product loyalty because you now believe in the overwhelming generosity and virtuousness of the Chienlit Company, to the detriment of all competing products.  You'll buy this brand again (even if it's inferior to its rivals) because Chienlit is the guy with the big heart and the free gifts, "your completely altruistic friend."

Dang. All of this is reminiscent of Fox News and its blatant propagandizing for the Republican Party, isn't it? Vote for GOP Candidate X.  He/she really IS your true altruistic friend.  And if you vote for him/her, you will automatically receive a "free gift" (lower taxes, fewer pesky regulations, bans on conduct you don't condone, the right to pay for your own medical and old age care)--no strings attached, honest!

Unless the military needs more money in, er, "Orak" (sic., see picture).

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