During last week’s episode of the Lounge Ruminator podcast, 17. Non-essential Formula, I spent some time discussing what it means to be ‘essential’ and indeed, ‘non-essential’. It is not only a shift in our vernacular to use these phrases, but also a shift in the way that we think about people’s value in society; this is likely to continue affecting our thoughts and behaviour in the future.
Once I had finished editing the episode, I thought that I would search for an appropriate photo to use as the featured image here on my site. In the end, I settled on the picture of a formula on a whiteboard that you see there now (through the link above), however that is not the first image that I found.
While visiting the stock-image site Pexels to find an image, I searched for the term ‘essential’ to see what would appear. I was most amused (and somewhat disturbed) by what was shown in the search results. View the results here or simply look at the interesting screenshot of the results below.
That’s right: almost all the results display toilet paper, apart from some occasional images of ‘essential’ oils (hmmm…) and clothes. The images don’t display anything that’s actually essential, such as water or anything to do with air, food, shelter or necessary jobs.
Now to be clear, I have no idea if toilet paper was a major feature in the search results for the word ‘essential’ prior to the whole COVID-19 crisis, however I think that it is safe to assume that this is a more recent development.
Reflecting on my episode from last week, I was obviously mistaken when I said that words such as ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ would make us reconsider how we value people across society. Instead, I should have done an episode entirely about toilet paper—as we can see from both Pexels and panic-buying on the news—that in the year 2020, toilet paper is all that people really deem to be essential.
In our non-stop, interconnected world of social media and instant messaging, we’re used to being bombarded with images and advertising. Even if we leave networks or try to look away, we’re still subjected to content by those around us. Maybe it’s the fellow commuter who’s watching YouTube in the train seat next to you or the businessperson at the café, who’s implementing meaningful synergy, vertical integration and opportunities for learning and development on LinkedIn in front of you in the coffee queue. We’re even subjected to kids flossing on free-to-air ads about the National Broadband Network these days. Whatever you do, you cannot escape.
Just about every social network or piece of online content tries to impose its own illusion view of the world—a reality distortion field, if you will. Occasionally, however, our eyes are opened to the reality of the content that is produced; we see a moment (behind the scenes) that breaks that illusion of photographic perfection in our scrolling news feeds. I had such a moment recently at the local Eat Street food market in Wollongong.
What you can see above is the creation of what I am calling the ‘gyros distortion field’ by two people who work at a Mediterranean food stand (pronounced ‘yih-ross’). The woman to the left is holding a phone in one hand and a gyros in the other, lining up the delicious food item between the lens and the back of her colleague’s shirt, which bears the logo of their business. Undoubtedly this was intended for Instagram or some other feed. It’s quite a typical format for a street-food shot—one that people now accept and scroll past perhaps without thinking how it was constructed.
I happened to be walking past these two while they took the photo and couldn’t help but chuckle as they looked ridiculous in the process. Here is this woman, taking a photo of a wrap with no one else around, apart from a colleague who apparently seems intent on ignoring her. Years ago, people would have found this odd but no one other than I stopped to watch them.
To me, this is the modern social-media equivalent of watching boy bands dancing or hip-hop artists rapping in a music video. It all looks pretty slick when the footage is edited together with quick cuts, however to be there on set would mean simply watching a bunch of guys dancing and flicking cash at no one. There is no physical audience present, only the eventual one that’s glued to a screen.
Do you ever stop to wonder how posts are constructed? Next time such a thing pops up in your feed, spare a moment to consider the poor souls who had to make fools of themselves in public.
Over the years, something that has stood out to me in advertising and business is the excessive use of tautology. If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘tautology’, Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition: ‘The saying of the same thing twice over in different words, generally considered to be a fault of style (e.g. they arrived one after the other in succession)‘.
Consider, for example, the phrases ‘safe haven’ and ‘pre-prepared plan’: havens are safe by definition and plans are always prepared, not to mention the word ‘prepared’ already contains the prefix ‘pre-’, which denotes the idea of occurring beforehand anyway.
In advertising for retail businesses, you’ll often see numerous tautologies included just to make it sound like you’re about to receive much more value as a customer. You see, companies want you to believe that you’re getting the best deal. Here are some examples:
‘Plus a bonus item’ — ‘plus’ and ‘bonus’ both mean ‘additional’;
‘Added extras’ — extras can only be added;
‘Further accessories’ — accessories are never the main event; and
‘Free gift’ — have you ever paid to receive your own gift?
Whenever I encounter this kind of useless language in television advertisements or on signage, I find it annoying and perplexing. First, the language is clumsy and unnecessary; why not just reduce the wording to communicate clearly and efficiently? Second, I fear that many people really do fall for this stuff. Third—and this is the big one—it concerns me that the people who are employed to write such advertising copy don’t realise that their use of language sounds stupid, therefore continuing to think that it is professional, elegant and proper.
One unexpected example of retail tautology struck me this week, consequently arousing the third point in my mind from the above paragraph. You can see it in the image below, which was taken at our local Woolworths.
In case you can’t read it properly, this overhead sign in an aisle is advertising packs of reusable food containers for two dollars. Under the large (main) price, however, it notes the price for separate food containers, which is 40 cents. The smaller text says ‘40¢ per ea’.
40¢ per ea
I stopped in the aisle and stared at this, confused by what I was reading. Was this sign actually displaying a slightly shorter way of saying ‘per each’? If that was true, one might as well have written ‘per per’ or ‘each each’! Surely ‘40¢ each’ would have been sufficient and correct for the sign.
After taking the photo and walking away, I reconsidered things and thought to myself, ‘Aha, the part that only says ”ea” must be an abbreviation or contraction of something, like “item” or “unit” instead’.
Well, after some basic searching on the Web, I confirmed this to be the case. When writing ‘per ea’, the ‘ea’ part indeed means one unit—it’s just a way that businesses tend to shorten it. Still, I wasn’t satisfied without knowing what ‘ea’ was actually shortening… then I found this, which confirms that ‘ea’ really does shorten the word ‘each’!
Thinking about this, although ‘ea’ stands for an individual unit, some bright spark in the business world decided to invent the phrase ‘per ea’, knowing full well that the latter part simply stood for the word ‘each’ and doubled things up, when words such as ‘item’, ‘product’, ‘unit’, ‘object’, ‘goods’, ‘wares’, ‘merchandise’, ‘article’ and ‘produce’ were already available in the English language.
Let’s not forget that the main price in larger font also contains the letters ‘ea’, which in this context refers to each package, rather than each unit. Each ‘ea’ for ‘each’ technically means something different. What a mess!
In the typical style of overused initialisms like ‘ROI’, ambiguous terms like ‘synergy’ and ‘learnings’ and empty phrases such as ‘touch base’, ‘circle back’ and ‘take offline’, businesspeople have invented a useless, confusing, tautological phrase to refer back to an item in an abbreviated form that could have been noted simply with the word ‘each’ next to a price.
Ultimately in closing the end of this rumination to achieve a result, I’d like to finishfinally with this culminating conclusion on broader linguistic habits (including and beyond tautology): people in business simply like to complicate things to appear specialised and intelligent, then need to shorten things to make them easier and quicker to say, which then leads those who follow them to accept such constructions blindly with little idea of what they mean and why they came to be.
A term that I’ve read repeatedly online over the years is ‘adulting’. Generally, twenty-somethings carry on painfully about how they feel like they’re ‘adulting’, just because they managed to open a savings account, go shopping for groceries or choose to stay home on a Friday night (rather than head out with friends to embarrass themselves while intoxicated at a slimy late-night venue with an entrance fee and toilet cubicles sans doors).
In case you haven’t got the vibe, I find the term ‘adulting’ to be tiresome and an Insta-shriek for attention.
Yet this week, I noticed a change in myself that could be categorised as ‘adulting’. As background, for some time I have been wearing shoes to work that could best be described as—in my own ignorant parlance—low-cut, matte, suede-ish dress boots. They are comfortable, easily paired with both formal and smart-casual outfits and quick to slip on and lace up. Unfortunately, they have faded heavily and the soles have become warped. It’s not the best look to turn up to work this way but I have been unable to decide which other pair of shoes in my cupboard would be appropriate; you see, they’re all more expensive, more formal and more fragile.
On the weekend, while shopping and out for lunch with Natasha and her mum, it occurred to me that I should buy new shoes. I needed a pair that was, as I have already stated, appropriate for smart-casual and more formal situations but also more durable than my current boots.
Natasha was pleased to hear that we were going to a visit a shoe shop; she then helped me to pick out a comfortable leather shoe with more of a sneaker sole: comfier, more durable and inconspicuous in black. Perfect!
As I stood at the counter, making inane conversation with the shop attendant about the security of Apple Pay, it hit me: while already an adult for years, I was in the process of ‘adulting’. Natasha was happy to visit the shoe shop because I avoided shoe-shopping for so long. I was wearing my shoes into the ground because that’s what I did as a kid. Shoe-shopping is boring.
There I was, as an adult, standing in a shop to buy work shoes because they were a necessary and sensible purchase, all the while discussing the necessity of a secure enclave on a wrist-worn device for tap payments.
In 2020, with these new, totally unremarkable yet comfortable shoes, I am fully adult.
As a lifelong Mac user and general Apple fan, I believe strongly in caring for what are quite expensive, well-designed devices.
As a sign of my commitment to keeping products as close to their original condition as possible, I once took my then seven-year old unibody MacBook for a trackpad repair (where I worked at the time) and was told by the technician that it was the most pristine item that he had ever seen brought into the shop.
Not everyone, however, is as careful as this. I was reminded of just how unusual and careless some computer use can be during my recent flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. Across the aisle from me, a young man had a 13-inch MacBook Pro in the pouch of the seat in front of him and was using an iPhone 11 Pro. When he wasn’t sleeping, he watched consecutive instalments of the Fast and Furious franchise on his iPhone. First, this was the unusual part: rather than preload his movie files (from iTunes in the TV app) to watch on the Mac’s larger display, he held the iPhone in his lap, hunching forwards and looking down. It’s odd not to want to use a larger display for movies but fair enough.
Then came the careless part, which made this choice seem stranger: tired of holding the iPhone and straining his neck to look down, he removed his Mac from the pouch, put it on the folding tray table and opened the lid slightly, in order to sandwich the iPhone between the trackpad and the top of the lid. He was using his pricey, current-generation MacBook Pro as an iPhone stand.
Eventually, he became tired of this too, as his iPhone repeatedly slipped out from underneath the display, hitting his Mac’s trackpad with a frustrating crunch. What was the solution? He closed his Mac’s lid and propped up the iPhone against the back of the seat in front of him, probably hoping that the person in front would not recline. Fortunately, they didn’t. Still, his iPhone slipped more than once.
I understand that not every Apple product user is going to be as much of a fan as I am. Damage happens and my own devices aren’t in perfect condition. What baffles me is that people who can afford such products are generally ungrateful for them and treat them poorly. Casting my mind back to when I worked for an authorised Apple reseller, I can recall people who brought in desktop Mac’s with heavily dinted edges, iPods that had been dropped in toilets, iPhones with smashed and missing bezels and laptops full of dog hair. I also remember my wife Natasha mentioning how she once distributed new staff iPads during a meeting, with one staff member deciding to place soy crisps on the her new iPad’s display like a plate, while it sat flat on the table in front of her.
More and more, we see people buying products that they perhaps don’t even need, just to fulfil their own personal desires or aspiration for fashion and status. Not once did this guy turn on his laptop during the entire 14-hour flight. This is the true mark of consumerism: not just lots of unnecessary stuff, but also treating it as disposable.
There are people all over the world who would love to be able to afford such devices. As those who are privileged, being careful with and grateful for what we have is the least that we can do to justify what we buy.