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The PBS special Affluenza examines the growing malady of excessive consumerism

By Vance Lauderdale

SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:  Saddled as I am with a vast family fortune -- a personal bank vault so crammed with bullion, in fact, that the Disney artists used it as the model for the overflowing coffers of wealthy Scrooge McDuck -- I considered it supremely ironic that my editors suggested I preview an upcoming PBS show called Affluenza. It was an interesting concept, I had to admit -- a one-hour affair that examined the national "malady" of what the producers called "the excessive consumerism that is sweeping America."

I failed to understand their concern. After all, were it not for the good citizens of America purchasing the well-crafted products of Lauderdale Industries, or journeying to Europe aboard the tramp steamers of the Lauderdale Line, why, how could I possibly sustain my shiny fleet of Daimler-Benzes and maintain the lifestyle which I so richly deserve?

So it was with a bit of disdain, you understand, that I had the butler pop in a preview tape (so kindly provided by KCTS Television in Seattle and Oregon Public Broadcasting) and settled back. The show opens with a rather hokey skit featuring a doctor and a patient. The patient whines, "I feel so awful, so bloated," and the doctor tells her, "I'm afraid you're suffering from [pause for dramatic organ music] Affluenza." Then we cut to a "real doctor" (that is exactly how he is identified on-screen), who insists that Affluenza really is a "major disease, no question about it," and he is followed by a "real psychologist" who informs us, "Many people suffer from it, but few are aware they are suffering from it."

Not a very good start, I thought. But the more I watched, the more captivated I became, and the more uncertain I felt about my own decidedly avaricious lifestyle. Filmmakers John de Graaf and Vivia Boe rather dramatically show just how desperately we pursue the American Dram. A collection of vintage television commercials and corporate training films demonstrates how consumers have been manipulated to buy, buy, buy. One particularly shrill General Motors commercial from the 1950s has a young woman wailing, "I want a Corvette, I want a Pontiac, too" while another old TV spot, this one for Chevrolet, has the announcer intoning, "It's fun to drive, it's fun to buy."

Interspersed are scenes of jam-packed shopping malls, weary shoppers, endless lines of traffic, and overflowing landfills. Hosted by Scott Simon of National Public Radio, Affluenza drives home the dangers of the "work, spend, work treadmill" -- increased stress and frustration, less and less free time, growing numbers of personal bankruptcies, and lasting damage to the environment. Most unsettling of all, perhaps, were scenes from a corporate marketing seminar at Disney World especially targeted towards the lucrative youth market, where the energetic speaker preaches about effective techniques for "branding kids and owning them in that way."

Various experts discuss the problem. "Your life is taken up by taking care of things instead of people," says Dr. Richard Swenson, author of Margin. "Everything I own owns me." Glenn Stanton, a public policy analyst with the conservative Christian organization called Focus on the Family, frets, "The market in a very real sense is hostile to the family. It needs to bring in consumers. And quite tragically it brings in consumers at any price."

Affluenza shows us what happens to some of those consumers: A Colorado couple who gets $20,000 in debt and has to sign up for credit counseling, a hard-working woman in an apartment complex who must explain to her sons why they can't have $95 athletic shoes, a group of little girls happily playing a board game called "Mall Madness" --buys the most stuff, wins.

I gradually became convinced that Affluenza could indeed be a problem, and the producers offer a number of remedies, some of them rather obvious: buy less, stop wasting, own fewer "things." Others are more innovative. A "co-housing" group in Portland, Oregon, shares homes, gardens, and meals. An organization in Vancouver, Canada, advocates more extreme measures, such as "TV Turn-Off Week" and "International Buy Nothing Day."

Quite a thought-provoking show, really, and when it was over I decided to adopt a few measures of my own, beginning with no more Christmas bonuses for the hired help. Don't need them coming down with a case of Affluenza, you know.

(Affluenza airs on Monday, September 15th, at 8 p.m. on WKNO-TV Channel 10.)

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