Upon entering a supermarket in Seoul for the first time, I was completely lost.
What I thought would be a simple challenge became nerve-wrecking: choosing a tube of toothpaste. Everywhere I looked, each product claimed to be better and cheaper than the last. “Three for the price of two”, “20% off”, “value deal”. These messages came at me from every direction. I got a headache and just left.
Toothpaste is toothpaste: its fundamental function is to clean teeth and protect against cavities. Yet each brand pretends to be better than the rest by claiming its own unique effects. For several months I used the likes of “ActiveGel Triple X 3000™” but failed to see how it was different from the “E-mart Value Paste” that I would subsequently turn to and still use today.
An endless sea of brands that are all essentially the same substance. The whole situation just scrambles my brain, rather than actually enhancing my life experience.
That is why Pope Francis’ recent visit to South Korea struck a chord with me. During the Asian Youth Day event held in Daejeon, His Holiness compared rampant consumerism to cancer. He warned against “unbridled competition, which generates selfishness and strife” and suggested that we ponder the emptiness and pain within us despite all the trappings of wealth that mask our despair.
The pope has come and gone, but the Republic of Konsumerism still lives on. We continue to crave consumption, and everyone is trying to sell or buy something, whether it is truly special or the same as what is next door.
I grew up in the DPRK where there were not many choices aside from one or two products made either domestically or across the border in China. Before the country was struck by economic hardship in the early 1990s, goods were sold in state-run shops, with most items being produced in North Korea. Foreign goods from Japan and China were reserved almost exclusively for the privileged, sold in special shops using special currency called “wehwabaggumdon”.
But after the collapse of the economy and the rise of street markets – ‘jangmadang’ – Chinese goods came to dominate the local market. This is a place not for shopping in the leisurely sense, only for getting basic necessities. If I could not quickly decide on an item, the vendor would scream, “If you don’t want to buy anything, get lost!”
So I would go to old grandmas who were not really eager to sell anything since my own grandmother was one of them, women who were not looking to make a fortune but simply trying to survive an extra day. Of course, these vendors did not work for a company, nor were they equipped with polished customer service skills to deal with buyers. There were no brand names to memorise. There was no price comparison, no customer review, no marketing.
In this capitalist world full of stuff, I do not feel that I have more choices than I did back in North Korea. It is all marketing and manipulative TV programmes. The more I am exposed to a product, the more likely I will be to buy it. Even when I go to the supermarket and just grab what is in front of me, thinking that I am being smart, I end up being a victim of “prime shelf location marketing”. Some say consumers are smarter than we think but I cannot imagine how much time and energy have to be wasted on becoming a smart consumer.
I am often reminded that in the poor North, there is only one television channel, the KCTV. But I cannot say I am thrilled by the hundreds of channels here in South Korea, blasting us with advertising and ceaseless mantras to buy. Programmes dictate to us whom to be, how to live, what to aspire to, and what to look like. The countless channels and programmes simply mask the fact that there is only a single message: consume.
As many sociologists have suggested, there is little distinction between socialist countries’ propaganda and capitalist countries’ advertising: both serve to persuade and manipulate the masses. Just as the KCTV cons people into believing in the greatness of the Dear Leader and state, capitalist channels make us believe the absurd fantasy that spending money can make us better, smarter, prettier human beings.
Choice is an illusion, and consumption does not bring us happiness. Our desires remain forever unfulfilled and people are always on the lookout for the next thing to buy. This is what I have learned about the Republic of Konsumerism: people here live to consume, are told to consume more, and will consume even more, until they die and can consume no more.