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Guest Opinion: A Modest Consumer Activism Proposal

A Modest Consumer Activism Proposal

By Mark W. Bradley

I had a wickedly simple idea the other day, you know, one of those ''I wonder if anybody's ever thought of this'' kinds of ideas. It came to me about a week after November 2nd, that most educational of days, when those of us who happened to be paying attention caught a glimpse of Lady Liberty scrubbing off her powder and mascara, and revealing the ravaged face of a scrofulous, two-bit street-hoe.

At a local cafe the following afternoon, I shared the idea with a writer acquaintance of mine. As he sipped his fruit smoothie and I inadvertently tie-died the front of my sweat-shirt a lovely Tanzanian peaberry, I fleshed out the details of my proposal, half expecting my friend to suddenly glance at his watch and recall some important bit of business that required his immediate attention, post-haste. Instead, he sat there actually listening, one eyebrow slightly elevated. When I finished, his face came dangerously close to exploding with laughter.

"Outrageous", he muttered incredulously, "It might even work".

Which would, of course, be the most perverse of outcomes. After all, with dozens of underground websites scrambling to recruit our participation in boycotts against every malign corporation from McDonalds and Coca-cola to Microsoft and Disney, what could be a more counter-intuitive than the idea of undermining a company by purchasing that which it wants so desperately to sell us? Yet that is the concept at the very core of my proposal.

Picture, if you will, a most felicitous scene. It's 9:00 A.M. on a brisk, clear Saturday morning, and the parking lot of the local Gall-mart Superstore is just beginning to fill with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bright, shiny automobiles, each one chock-full of happy, eager holiday shoppers (actually, they just seem like happy shoppers. In reality, they are pathologically disgruntled activists, seething with rage against a toxic corporate death-machine that takes great pleasure in laying gargantuan political, social and economic turds on their collective heads, and then using their otherwise meaningless ballots to wipe its bloated behind).

But never mind all that unpleasantness. Instead, imagine the excitement of the intrepid buyers, as they pour in through the welcoming electronic doorways and into the bulging treasure-trove of flashy, worthless, glittering doodads and mega-fantastic cybertronic wonderjunk, jostling each other along the catastrophically clogged aisles in search of that one item, that absolutely perfect gift. And that magical something could turn out to be just about anything. Except that it can't. For the one rule by which each of these activist shoppers has agreed to abide, is a proviso that no purchases may exceed the cost of one dollar.

That's right. Meet economic warfare's latest and most deadly guerilla fighters: the 99-cent club.

What weapons are they likely to employ in their attacks? A toothbrush, perhaps. A fruit-roll. A flashing musical necktie for their pet hamster. Fact is, the selection may be entirely at random. In this particular war, the choice of weapon is less important than the nature of the tactic in which it is employed.

But unlike the sort of unimaginative wars cooked up by puzzlewits like George W. Bush (that is, the ones in which vast numbers of children are routinely separated from their arms and legs), this war will be loads of fun for everyone involved, guaranteed. Unless, of course, you own stock in Gall-mart.

In fact, once each shopper has located the polystyrene objet d'art of his or her dreams, the shopping experience only gets better. Think of it: the joy of forming endless conga-lines that snake down every aisle in the entire store; the palpable thrill of watching dozens of flashing lights being frantically switched on above dozens of checkout stands; the human drama of watching strenuous pseudo-smiles catatonically imposed on the faces of the floor managers and professional "greeters". Imagine legions of relentless shoppers engaged in a scene from The Sorcerer's Apprentice, each intent on the purchase of one (and only one) token gift.

[Regrettably, in a melee of this sort, many shoppers hoping to purchase larger-ticket items (riding lawnmowers, say, or flat-screen plasma TV's) will, in all likelihood, be discouraged from doing so by the prospect of Cecil B. DeMille-size crowds of low-end buyers coming between them and any reasonable chance of encountering a cash register. Many will wish they had brought their lunches. Many more will find it preferable to slink off to some rival retail outlet, even if it ends up costing them a few extra dollars. Some may actually go berserk. A shame, of course, but what can you do?]

Meanwhile, nautical miles away at the checkout counters, guerilla shoppers will be wanting to ask as many annoying and time-consuming questions as possible. Some suggestions might include:

"Can you please tell me how many other Sponge Bob coloring books you carry in stock? I'm not sure, but I think my grandson already has this one." or

"Does this Santa Claus corkscrew come in other colors besides red? Do you have one that works on plastic Champagne corks?" or

"I wanted a four-pack of these dry-erase markers, and you only have the three-packs. Can you check to see if there are any four-packs on the shelf?"

I'm guessing it wouldn't take all that many consecutive shopping days like this to cause a sizeable downward spike in Gall-mart's sales figures, and who knows, it could even turn into an interesting way to meet people.

Most likely, after a few days of this kind of "good, clean fun", floor managers would start spotting familiar faces in the crowd, so we might need to switch things up a bit by sending in the "B" team to do their shopping at Gall-mart, while the "A" team cruises, en mass, to the Hexxon gas station down the street, where each of them proceeds to buy, say, 17 cents worth of unleaded. Here as well, asking the right sort of questions will prove invaluable in bringing the wheels of industry to a screeching halt.

"Can you please check the air pressure in my tires? Each of them has an inflation tolerance that's slightly different from the others. Here's a chart, I think. No, wait, this is the one that's written only in Swedish..." or

"I'm kinda worried that I might be low on oil. The reason I think that is because my oil light hasn't come on in quite a while. I don't want to put in too much, though. Do you sell 30-weight by the cup?"

Come to think of it, while we are doing all this, maybe we really should put on costumes for the occasion. We could dress like Young Republicans, wear American flag lapel pins, sing "God Bless America" and other patriotic songs while we shopped. Some of us might enjoy taking the opportunity to engage local merchants in conversations about how much we love Jesus, or why God hates homosexuality so much. We'll want to make a lasting impression.

If enough people are recruited and we use our time wisely, it would only cost each of us about two or three hours a week...and we'd be hitting greedy corporate types in the only part of their anatomy capable of experiencing actual feeling - their wallets. And the real beauty of the thing is, unlike a sit-in or other civil disobedience, it's all perfectly legal! After all, what are they going to do, arrest us for shopping in their stores?

So there you have it, my humble contribution to the preservation of the holiday spirit: guerilla shopping. But, hey, we'd better get going. There are only a few shopping days left until Christmas...

So little to buy! So much to do!


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