ALLIES OR RIVALS? (COMPETITION as MIRAGE)
By John Watts
I will never forget how good I felt stepping up to pay for my 4 new tires that I purchased at Midas Tire and Auto. Even though I had been suckered yet again into buying a complete set of 4 tire–rather than just the one flat replacement for the sake of balance and completeness—I felt empowered. Forget the fact that I had been bullied and rushed into signing the dotted line much like dealing with those assertive teenage employees at the movie theater concession stands that badger me into buying a heavy jumbo popcorn and super large drink until the add-ons skyrocketed.
The main reason I felt good was that I had felt like a discriminating costumer who voted with his legs, and steered CLEAR of Merchant’s, which I viewed as much worse in my own personal experience in terms of poor communication and higher priced. Maybe I wasn’t powerless after all?
To be thorough—I even made sure to tell the Midas clerk of my less than stellar recent experience at Merchant’s down the road so as to make them feel warm inside. As I did so, I couldn’t help but feel proud and very tickled to let him know that I had done it the “American way.”
Natural consequences. Merchant’s had their chance to woo me as a costumer and had blown it.
Something about the freshness and newness of going to this other franchise appealed to me. Midas had different color patterns and mottos for one thing. Their TV waiting room had more cable channels and even an all-day coffee pot. Mainly what I liked best was that the clerks were unknown to me and carried the prospect of being better at the things that Midas and NTW were not.
The cold hard reality of cost proved less conclusive. Instead of paying them several thousand dollars at Merchant’s, I was instead paying several thousand dollars with these guys at Midas. And I swear one of the Midas repair guys in the garage looked uncannily like the repair guy I had seen in a different uniform at Merchant’s!
It had been an evolutionary process. I had gravitated to Midas some years ago as a way of getting back at NTW, which I was even less happy with, as their employees had been very evasive in telling me the actual price and time frame for my tire repair and replacements.
And so it was that I started with NTW—switched to Merchant’s and then ended up with Midas.
For me, it was a small, but very symbolic victory. It was my way of letting the world see once and for all that at THIS point in my life, I was no longer content to be a lazy, passive consumer—this time I had tried ALL the competition and not been content to merely settle with the cards dealt me.
But a few days later, after relaying my successful consumer move to one of those typical “always looks to rain on your parade” co-workers at the office; my “Midas touch” new tires victory sprouted holes in it and was rendered irrelevant. According to this savvy colleague, Midas and Merchants and even NTW were all just under the same umbrella, the TBC Corporation.
So I looked it up on my google machine. Sure enough the corporate flow chart between all 3 companies was connected together. The color patterns, jingles, and waiting room décor were all just superficial disguises of the same face.
The truth hit me hard. “What? It all goes in the same coffers anyway” I thought to myself. “I’ve been taken ONCE AGAIN!”
And then everything about my retail selections and purchases began to unravel. I lost the rose tinted glasses in which I saw a capitalist rainbow of varieties and choices. The Seattle’s Best coffee, which is only available at a few choice book stores, and which I championed and sipped very slowly, turned out to be owned by Starbucks anyway and had the same master plan and coffee bean formula.
Same thing with Chipotle and all their appealing TV ads sounding so authentic and natural. They turn out it to be in league with McDonalds.
In fact every facet of public travel seemed dominated by pretend competitors that weren’t really competing. While behind the wheel, I have recently discovered that that one of the least objectionable FM radio stations that I tuned in to, 100.3 classic rock, was merely one genre of music radio stations ALL owned by the conglomerate company I HEART RADIO the holding company of iHeartCommunications, Inc. (formerly Clear Channel Communications, Inc.), a company founded by Lowry Mays and B. J. “Red” McCombs in 1972, and later taken private by Bain Capital, LLC and Thomas H. Lee Partners through a leveraged buyout in 2008.
There. That reads about as well as a box of artificial ice cream ingredients.
This means that there are IHEART country radio stations, IHEART hard rock radio stations and IHEART top40 radio stations. And the love of the actual music all takes a back seat to the monopoly that they HOLD on it. The originality of the DJs and the song selections are all standardized and predictable. In fact, whether I switch my preference from 100.3 to DC101 matters not a whit to the conglomerate because it ALL flows out of the same IHEARTradio corporation.
On longer trips, my decision to favor Quality Inn’s over Comfort Inn’s, due to the poor AM wakeup call service and lackluster donuts, turned out to be all in lock step conformity with the CHOICE HOTELS Trademark.
“Choice?” Ha. How ironic.
Just like the COLD WAR ending in the late 80s and early 90’s, I was unsure of who and want to count on in the world anymore. “Who was an ally?” “Who were bitter enemies?”
And stuck helplessly in the middle of it all, in this vast information age, was US once again—poor old you and me—the gullible, advertisement as opiate addicted citizens getting duped over and over again by the appearance of competition and choice, only to have it be irrelevant and illusionary.
All of this made me flash back in my mind to those magical, misty 1960’s as a kid growing up, witnessing the widely popular cereal wars of Quisp versus Quake on TV. Of course they were both from the same company, Quaker Oats, which they made no bones about disguising. Nevertheless it was an ingenious campaign of fomenting consumer interest with a phony VOTING competition for the 2 cereal brands. And succeed it did–selling like proverbial hotcakes and lining the same company’s coffers as it tilted the consumer power from parents to their children.
But for a 5 year old kid this was moot point. The cartoon characters were engaging and the desire to weigh in on a SELECTION was paramount and irresistible. This begat other cartoon cereal masterstrokes—“Count Chocula versus Franken Berry” being one big one in the 1970s.
But isn’t it pretty much the same thing for us adults?
We fall hook, line and sinker for aligning ourselves with symbolic fast food and brand names that define us and differentiate us from others when we chat at cocktail parties.
And I don’t know about you but it would deeply wound my romanticized view of travel were I to find out that some local or regional chain restaurant were in fact, OWNED by McDonalds or some other all too familiar standardized brand.
Fortunately one of my most passionate brand preferences—“Miracle Whip” has no affiliation whatsoever with mayonnaise. We need some polarities to stay polarities.
As an older adult who is bewildered anyway by the changing priorities of what sells and where to BUY IT—(on line), the increasing ambiguity and subterfuge, makes me wonder—“What do we really know for sure?”
Unfortunately, no matter how much we demand SUBWAY restaurant type transparency in seeing our products prepared right in front of our eyes, we can never know what happens with all the board rooms and corporations around the world. We can’t just look at an ingredients label and read about the impurities.
Because deep down the cynic and conspiracies in me suspects that at the end of the day, just as I am about to be shipped away to a convenient senior center where I no longer have to make real decisions, I will discover that all the passionate choices and allegiances I have stockpiled and felt to be sacred truths, will all end up being funneled to ONE massive umbrella corporation anyway that is behind the scenes and out of my purview.
Imagine the most unimaginable unions and counterintuitive blending’s happening behind the scenes: Dyed in the wool Republicans working with Democrats (actually that sounds suspiciously like cooperation doesn’t it?). The Global Warming industry and the NRA—vegetarians with McDonalds rainforest slashers, Disneyworld and every other rival amusement park on the same payroll. All these entities will just be 2 sides of the same coin. All of them voguing in front of the cameras, pretending to fight while they rake in the same money pile.
Perhaps thinking of this vulnerability then, it is best not to get too allied with ANY bumper sticker causes or be too strong a booster for some product.
Knowing this, I might as well just throw the proverbial dart to the dart board and patronize whatever place is closest to me in the future. Because all this switching of businesses only brings about a conspiratorial look from the clerks as they wink back to their bosses who will be laughing all the way to the bank while I naively think I am keeping the spirit of capitalism alive!