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It's A Mann's World: Blinded by the light

BY Olly Mann

8th Sep 2022 Life

It's A Mann's World: Blinded by the light

Consumerism is everywhere so let's have fun with it, says Olly Mann, as he champions the perfect teabag and microfibre scourer pad brands

Yesterday I met Liz; a highly intelligent woman in her fifties. She’s a school friend of my mate Brett, and she’s spent the last 20 years working in brand marketing.

As a result, she has a swimming pool. And a designer handbag. And a silly job title I can’t quite bring myself to recall: "Chief Inspiration Leader" or "Treasurer of Top Ideas" or something equally cringe, calculated to put the FUN in "strategy-led market research".

She’s very smart, I said to Brett. “Yes,” he replied. “What a shame she’s wasted her brain, rather than doing something PROPER”.

I smiled at this and indicated agreement—I knew what he meant; it’s not like she’s curing cancer or engineering electric planes—but then, having thought about it for a second, found myself responding defensively.

"She’ll know exactly why Pepsi Max is associated with extreme sports, but Pepsi Max Cherry isn’t"

“It’s quite a rigorous job she has though, isn’t it? I mean, she’ll take a product that seems… pedestrian, and think about it so deeply that she’ll know exactly why, say, Pepsi Max is associated with extreme sports, but Pepsi Max Cherry isn’t. It seems trivial, but I guess if they flog more products as a result, then more people keep their jobs.”

Brett looked at me like I was totally mad. “There are scientists,” he said softly, sipping from his smoothie, “dermatologists, with PhDs and CBEs and everything, working on formulas for make-up.”

He virtually spat out the words. “Cosmetics already exist! The world doesn’t need more wrinkle cream! You can’t reverse the progress of time! They could be doing something that benefits everybody, instead of shilling something pointless!”

Again, I reflected for a moment. Brett was correct, of course, that someone with a sharp mind and a state-subsidised further education turning their back on public service, and accepting the most lucrative job offer on the table, is, to some extent, unethical.

Illustration of man say on tower of branded tin cansIllustration by Elly Walton

But, truth be told, I for one enjoy the novelty of trying and buying new products. I like that clever people spend time planning how to tell me about them. I want to be told about them.

Take, for instance, the day that Nestlé launched Kit Kat Chunky Peanut Butter.

Even though I knew exactly how it would taste—"Kit Kat" equating to wafer and chocolate, "Chunky" indicating an oblong gob-full, and "Peanut Butter" promising an umami hit of salty-sugar yumminess—I still felt compelled to pick one up as soon as they hit the shelves (and I was not disappointed.

In fact I have seriously considered travelling to Japan to try the 300+ limited edition flavours they’ve released over there).

Even when I have absolutely no intention of buying the products being thrown at my brain, I still obligingly inhale those newspaper columns in which a food writer tries out ten supermarket brands of rosé, or compares the rind of blue cheeses, or rates the best brandy butters at Christmas.

It somehow matters to me when hey, guess what, Tesco Finest tastes better than M&S! Or Aldi trumps Lidl with a marginally superior chutney.

"It somehow matters to me when hey, guess what, Tesco Finest tastes better than M&S"

Scanning back through my Amazon history is to encounter a time capsule of household goods and pop-cultural ephemera (my first purchase, in 1999, was The Best of Texas on CD; my most recent bargain is an anti-microbial copper tongue scraper).

It’s also proof of my efforts over the years to try out different items; always seemingly on some unspoken quest to uncover the ultimate exemplar of each product category.

It's weird, but there’s a part of my brain that behaves as if it runs its own Test Kitchen. Perhaps that’s just what happens when you’re brought up with consumerism all around you, and you’ve lost religion.

For instance, I experimented with dozens of tea bag brands before settling upon Welsh Brew (having had a free sample at the South Bank food fair, and falling in love with their calming Kenyan Assam blend).

I’m equally evangelistic about Dual Action Microfibre Sponge and Scourer pads from Lakeland (so soft, yet so robust!), my Powerbeats Pro wireless earphones (so low-key! So reliable!), Lush’s Big shampoo (sea salt flakes! But MOIST!), the Baby Jogger City Mini Stroller (a pram you can steer with one hand!), Mayonnaise de Dijon, by Amora, imported from France because the shops don’t have it here, and my phone holder from Typo.

I could go on.

"It's weird, but there’s a part of my brain that behaves as if it runs its own Test Kitchen"

Brett, meanwhile, is a Head and Shoulders kind of guy. He considers it a waste of energy to think about stuff like this.

When he goes shopping, he simply selects a well-known product he knows works just fine, and if there’s an own-brand rip-off on offer for less, he’ll buy that one instead, even if it’s not as good.

I’m jealous, in a way, of this approach to life. I sympathise with Brett’s prejudices—but I can’t deny my interest in shiny bright new things.

Would I like, in an ideal world, to turn off, or at least turn down, the part of my brain so flooded with pointless knowledge about peripheral brands? Perhaps.

But Brett should feel a little jealous of me, too. When the apocalypse comes, I’ll be the one eating the best baked beans.

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