Lonely Hearts, Classy Dreams, Empty Wallets

After a man died several months ago at the Virginian Retirement Community in Fairfax, his family went to collect his worldly goods. They found more than they bargained for: His home was crammed, floor to ceiling, with possessions they never knew he had. There were kitchen gadgets, costume jewelry, bed linens, and cleansers, all by the dozens. He had bought it all from the world's most accessible stores: the home shopping networks that came through his television into his living room 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This man, whose name the retirement home withheld for privacy, ordered a package from QVC or Home Shopping Network (HSN), the two leading home shopping channels, almost every day. Some of what came he gave away. Most of it simply piled up, unused. What had brought him to line his walls with the fruits of home shopping? In a word, companionship. Home shopping hosts didn't just sell to him--they spoke to him. An employee at the Virginian recalls that the man spent a lot of time by himself. He did not make friends easily and he spoke of being lonely. But when he bought, he said he could keep operators chatting to him for half an hour. He had found a way to fill his days and sleepless nights. He was not alone in his discovery. As the hours cycle past on home shopping channels, the disembodied voices of buyers, calling in to offer "testimonials" on their purchases, float above the sparkling descriptions of cubic zirconium jewelry. Most are female--Dorothy from Daytona, Betty from Fresno, Helen from Mexico City, Indiana. Many of the voices are beginning to crack with age. And their extraordinary enthusiasm for the products--and the hosts, and the show itself--masks something else: a deep, abiding need for human contact. "I live alone," says a woman named Erma who calls in on a Monday morning. "All I've got to do is watch QVC." To Erma, the man from Virginia, and many others like them, home shopping channels sold more than $3 billion of goods last year. QVC, which stands for Quality Value Control, alone sold $1.4 billion worth of goods in 1994, logging 55 million phone calls. The channel is the world's largest purveyor of gold jewelry. It once sold $1.4 million worth of Kodak products in 70 minutes and $1.9 million of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers paraphernalia in two hours. In a record day, it took $18 million in orders. The second-place Home Shopping Network, or "Club" (as it's known on the air), nearly matches that pace. That the two channels, and a host of smaller rivals, could do so well runs counter to conventional wisdom, for in an age of ironic, sophisticated advertising, the home shopping pitch seems amateurish. The camera zooms in on an item, which rocks back and forth, back and forth on a pedestal; the hosts, in living-room sets, praise each bauble in a frenzy of superlatives. A clock counts down to whip up a sense of urgency as the number sold mounts on the screen. The suggested retail price hovers above the low, low home shopping price. Many of the goods--imitation jewelry, collectibles, gadgets, polyester pantsuits--are junk, often selling at more-than-junk prices. And while "convenience" is a favorite home shopping buzz-word, the description could not be less apt: It might take hours, even days, of home shopping viewing to come upon something you need. Spend some time in front of the television, though, and you sense that while the pitch is predictable, it is anything but amateurish. As low-tech as they are, the home shopping networks understand that the real work of advertising is not to publicize bargains--it is to appeal to deeper needs. They turn their constant, mesmerizing presence and viewer participation into a mock community, a "universe," as QVC calls it, that seems to break the isolation television perpetuates. And even for those who are not lonely, home shopping promises something else: the lives of the rich, the famous, the glamorous--on the cheap, and just a phone call away. SOMEPLACE VERY SPECIAL Home shopping is just one more chapter in the evolution of marketing to a consumer culture--a process that began in earnest in the twenties and accelerated with the post-World War II economic expansion that established America's middle class as a potent consumer force. In response, advertisers went to work creating what one General Motors executive called the "organized culture of dissatisfaction"--bringing out new, "better" models each year so previous models seemed inadequate, or offering consumers a choice of, say, 15 shoe colors so one no longer seemed enough. Advertisers were so successful in unleashing desire that a traditionally frugal nation began to redefine "need" as whatever ads told them they had to have. It was the creation and fufillment of these needs that John Kenneth Galbraith probed in his 1958 classic, The Affluent Society. Ad men, he wrote, "are effective only with those who do not know what they want. In this state alone, men are open to persuasion." In such a culture, home shopping, with its introduction of newer, better items every 10 minutes, finds fertile ground. The channels target the credit-card carrying working and middle-class consumers who may have enough but can be persuaded they need more. "It's things you need, but you don't realize you need," one regular home shopper tells me. "But then you see it and it looks so good." Between midnight and 1 a.m. one night, QVC sells 8,400 terrycloth robes ($24.95 apiece--the day's "special value"), an item the host also pushes as "a beach cover-up." Nancy calls from Middletown, Ohio. "What did you like about the robe?" the host asks. "Well, I thought it would make a nice beach cover-up," Nancy says. "Do you live near a beach?" asks the host. "No," admits Nancy, "No, I don't." In their effort to cultivate such needs, the effervescent female home shopping hosts and their unctuous male counterparts know their audience well: more than 80 percent female, mainly middle-aged or older. Occasionally, they fall back on the tactics glossy women's magazines have used for decades to target younger women in the prime of their insecurity. "Summer's coming up," says the no-nonsense marketer of a nail buffing kit. "That means beach weather, that means sandals, ladies. Do you want to show your toenails the way they look right now? ... If you're not picking up our kit today, you're a loser." But most often, the hosts head straight for the class-anxiety jugular. They play to a modern-day version of Gustave Flaubert's Emma Bovary, the woman who drives her family into debt because of her conviction that material things will bring some sort of transcendence from her bourgeois existence. "In Rouen she saw ladies with charms dangling from their watch fobs; she bought some charms.... Though she had no one to write to, she had bought herself a blotter, a writing case, a pen, and envelopes." In America after the twenties, the rich held their edge over the Bovarys not by the gaudiness of their wealth but by their elite tastes--knowing the right vintages or the right vacation spots, which meant shunning Cancun once the Smiths from Des Moines could afford it. In the eighties, arguably for the first time since the twenties, conspicuous consumption came back into style. Television programs like Dallas and Dynasty ogled the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the media elevated moneymakers like Donald Trump to celebrity status. Taste was suddenly very, very expensive. For those on the outside looking in, the problem was, as home shopping hosts put it, how to get gemstones at costume jewelry prices. Into this anxious void rushed HSN, which went on the air in 1985, and QVC, which followed a year later. Both began offering truckloads of low-quality "luxury" items, most of it costume jewelry and imitation gemstones--merchandise that caters to the need to look like you have more than you do. Home shopping pretends to offer the requisite knowledge to establish good taste. For several hundred dollars, the host sells a rug and the conversation to go with it: "Well, it's an Aubusson rug, it goes back to the time of Louis XV, Marie Antoinette and so on.... It's made from long-haired sheep in Northern China. They have long hair because it gets very cold up near Siberia and Mongolia...." Halfway into the downscaled nineties, though, what home shopping really pushes are the values of the eighties. "This bracelet says money, money, money, money," QVC's Gwen Owen gushes over a fake diamond bracelet, which sells for $80. The home shopping hosts are marketing the pearly gates of upper-class heaven. They just happen to be faux pearl. That this market is a gold mine is apparent in the cadre of celebrities--from Pete Rose to Joan Rivers to John Tesh--who now peddle on home shopping channels. Since home shopping is about making excess affordable, it's no surprise that among the most popular celebrity-salespeople are the icons of the eighties. A decade ago, on Dallas, Victoria Principal embodied everything out of reach. Today, on QVC, dressed down, with minimal make-up, she's in middle-America's living room, eager to talk and take calls. Her presence seems to represent a leveling, an accessibility unprecedented in American culture. The idea is tantalizing, but deceptive. The celebrities foment status anxiety as successfully from a living room like yours and mine as they did from the pages of glossy magazines a decade ago. HSN showcases Vanna White, the Wheel of Fortune letter-turner who rocketed to fame in the eighties by wearing a different designer dress every night, and who now, stripped of her gowns, sells her own label clothes and shoes on Home Shopping Club. A woman calls in to tell Vanna she has 20 pairs of Vanna White shoes, and begins listing the colors: red, white, gold, silver.... "I'm so happy to hear that," White interrupts, "but do you have this one?" She is holding up a shoe described as "halfway between gold and silver." And then there is Ivana Trump, perhaps the ultimate emblem of eighties excess-as-success, a woman, her co-host Bobbi reminds us, "who knows what it is to roll down Rodeo Drive and go shopping." In her pink silk "House of Ivana" outfit, girlish blond curls, and what looks like tens of thousands of dollars of plastic surgery, she comes on HSN to share her designs and her secrets (and plug her new book). She is holding out a hand from the Beautiful People to the Little People. "You have the opportunity to have in your wardrobe items that Ivana has in her collection," co-host Bobbi observes, "and that takes you someplace very special." You can, Ivana explains, wear an outfit "to drop your kids off in the morning, go to the doctor, go shopping, put some earrings on and go to a lovely lunch. It's perfect for a cruise." That women are unnervingly grateful for these nuggets from Park Avenue, Palm Beach, and Hollywood lives is a poignant reminder of just how central an issue class continues to be in American life. "You can afford anything, Ivana," one caller says, "and due to you, people like me--I'm a nurse--can too. We live vicariously through you." But even as Ivana seems to forsake her class advantage, she leverages it. Her perfume must be good because "I could purchase any perfume in the world," she boasts. "Silver is in this year," she proclaims. "I already knew that last year, because I go to parties ... I'm always dead ahead." And then comes the tease: "But now everyone's going to catch up to me." Truth is, Ivana has no intention of letting everyone catch up to her. "I have a suggestion," a caller named Anne says to Ivana. "Everyone is crazy about your engagement ring. You should do it in imitation stones and put it in the collection." Ivana giggles: "I have to discuss it with my fiancee. I don't think he will like it. He'll say, 'I spent millions on it and now you share it with the ladies?'" In the end, home shopping channels peddle only the illusion that you can fake your way into the upper class, that snobbery can come cheap. They are less interested in democratizing status than preserving the status quo. Like all home shopping hosts, HSN's Alan Skanz regularly plugs cubic zirconium by asking: Why pay for diamonds when you can get Como Diamante (as they call the imitation gems) for so much less? "You are going to walk into a room," he says, "and people are going to think you spent $15,000 for these earrings." So it seems a cruel joke when one afternoon he sells a diamond ring by mocking its cheap cousin: "Enjoy your cubic zirconium," he says sarcastically. "I have a real diamond." 24 HOURS OF SUNSHINE In their possession of an audience's hopes and fears, home shopping hosts are like no one so much as the fictional advice columnist in Nathaniel West's 1933 novella Miss Lonelyhearts. A young reporter takes the job as a joke, but then realizes that the letters to him are genuine expressions of suffering. Even worse, their writers take him seriously. "Dear Miss Lonelyhearts...." begin the letters from "Desperate," "Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband," "Sick-of-it-All." "On most days," West wrote, "he received more than 30 letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of human suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife." The pain in his correspondents' lives, and his own powerlessness to help them, eats away at Miss Lonelyhearts. For each letter, he searches for a sincere reply, and always, he comes up empty. Finally, unable to bear the pathos of human existence, he is driven to self-destruction. Today, the lonely and desperate turn to home shopping hosts who seem to have no such interest in acknowledging the limits of their powers. They appear perfectly comfortable marketing miracles. "It's raining," says one caller with a hint of sadness. "We'll keep the sunshine going," Bobbi replies. Another host reads a written testimonial from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The letter begins like any to Miss Lonelyhearts could: "I was really at a low point. I needed something." But then comes a distinctly un-Westian salvation: "Then someone turned me onto Destiny Perfume. It smells so good that it has really given me strength to go on for me and my family." When real pain and loneliness do seep through, the home shopping solution is to studiously ignore it. Alan and Wendi are plugging a diamond ring. Edna from Ohio calls in. "If you think your life is going pretty good right now, wait until you buy this ring," says Alan. "Well actually," Edna responds. "It's going pretty bad." Her words vanish, unacknowledged, beneath the chatter of the hosts. Sally from Chicago has bought some perfume, and she calls in to talk about it: "I'm lying in bed, this is my day off, I'm being a princess." Her voice is raspy with age and cigarettes. She works in a store, and says men tell her how good she smells. "That's wonderful," the host asks, and then asks, suggestively, "Did you put some on before you went to bed last night?" "No," says Sally. "I'm a widow." When women describe their bouts with cancer or their hospital stays, as many do, the testimonials become farcical struggles between hosts trying to truncate the calls or push them toward the product-driven point, and callers hanging on for dear life, trying to prolong the conversation. The question is why anyone would turn for comfort to talking heads out to make a sale. The answer lies partly in the same post-World War II social transformation that gave more Americans spending power. With increased income, Americans moved into dispersed suburbs. As women moved into the workforce, neighborhood networks and social clubs shrunk, isolating the women left behind. Driven to spend more, men and women worked more. Families broke more easily, and even those that held together felt the pressures of work and mobility. And television pulled us off streets and front porches and into living rooms. As political scientist Robert Putnam writes in Bowling Alone, Revisited, affiliation to organized religion, parental involvement in schools, participation in voluntary associations have all declined over the past two decades. Our community participation now takes the form of writing checks to organizations. So it's not all that surprising that people have figured out how to line their pockets by bleeding our unhappiness. Harder to come by naturally in our social environment, connection has become a commodity. Well before home shopping offered purchasing as a path to salvation, televangelists were offering prayer, usually for profit. Pat Robertson's 700 Club, for example, markets itself as "Friends you can turn to!" and tells viewers, "You're like a part of the family!" The Club's prayer counselors, on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day (1-800-Help-4-Me) took 1,785,000 calls last year. Most callers ended up paying to join the Club. To belong to the home shopping "club," you have to buy. If you don't, you can't go on-air to talk to your friends, and you can't win their approval. And that is how home shopping channels prey on the lonely, the alienated: by offering a haven, then charging admission. Despite the cynical sell, it's not hard to understand the appeal of home shopping's soothing, ever-positive hosts, who respond to their devoted customers with matching enthusiasm: "Thank you so, so, so much for calling in today.... We took a risk and brought some new items. You responded with an outpouring of support--and we love you for it." The format plays on our nostalgia for a simpler, friendlier time. The cheery home shopping pitch--"Get some coffee and OJ and come right back!"--is a far cry from the bleak, unsmiling Calvin Klein ads that characterize the cutting edge of advertising today. The home shopping hosts exclaim "Nice to meet you!" and "Thanks for stopping by tonight!"--as if the caller had ambled into the corner store in a small town for an evening's gossip. In its evocation of Tupperware parties, the kaffeeklatsch, Mary Kay cosmetics saleswomen stopping by your home--all traditions that have fallen, or are falling, by the wayside--home shopping hearkens back to the past in another way: It speaks to women as they were before women's liberation. Callers are "honey" and "dear." "That executive look" is just another fashion statement. Women lunch, they shop, they entertain, they go on cruises, they have craft parties. Femininity sells. Dolls, cooed over by hosts as if they were children, are very popular. Watching this throwback to another era, it's easy to forget that for many women, the underbelly of that era was a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction. But that's the idea: to banish both the dark side of history and the bright side of real life from living rooms. For a woman like Dorothy from North Carolina, who says, "I watch home shopping from the time I get up until my husband comes home from work," home shopping channels affirm, indeed encourage, her choice to wile away her days with them. "I hope you're going to stay with us for the whole show," hosts implore callers. The community that home shopping offers is made even more enticing by something no real community can offer: anonymity--the freedom to dream without being judged. The flip side of that, though, is the absence of any of the complex, enriching interactions, images, or conversations of daily life. There is no such thing as neighborliness or charity or civic virtue in this universe, no relationship that extends beyond the purchase. TELEFRIEND In fact, home shopping is the latest advancement in business's quest to make spending money as painless as possible, an effort that picked up steam with layaways and installment plans in the twenties and made a quantum leap with credit cards in the fifties. Academics have proven what common sense suggests: We spend more with credit cards because it feels like we're spending nothing. That's one reason that debt, once a social embarrassment, has become socially acceptable, and why consumer debt in the United States today is close to $1 trillion. Before, advertisers had to make their message powerful enough to motivate shoppers to go to a store. Now it just has to be good enough to get you to pick up the phone. After your first purchase, your credit card number is in the computer. You can punch your "membership" number and the item number into an automated voice system, or feed it to a friendly operator. That's not what spending money feels like. And so women call to confess they have "maxed out" on their credit cards, or to offer thanks for "flex" and "easy pay" plans that enable them to keep buying while putting off the paymaster. "I've got about two-thirds of your things," Vada Sue from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, tells Home Shopping Club when she calls in to make yet another purchase, "and you all have about two-thirds of my money." The marriage of technology and commerce will make consuming ever more convenient: Our homes can become retail outlets, we can visit virtual shopping malls from our couches, shop for new homes on CD-ROM. We will, in other words, never have to leave home to fill the needs that marketing creates. The potential is enormous, but so are the implications. One virtue of the postwar consumer binge in America was the number of jobs it created in manufacturing and retail. But over the last decade, automation of industry eliminated many manufacturing jobs, and now retailing is automating too. "We don't need bricks and mortar," QVC president Douglas Briggs boasted to USA Today. "We can cover the whole nation with twenty salespeople." QVC racked up $1.4 billion in sales last year with a mere 6,100 employees, and that's only the beginning. Shopping services are going on-line; stores are experimenting with robots in place of human salespeople. Since 1989, more than 411,000 retail jobs have been eliminated. The reduction of labor, and costs, is great news for corporations like QVC; it's lousy news for Americans who at least could count on a consumer culture to provide jobs. And then there is the human cost, the deepening of isolation, the erosion of live--in the human, not television, sense--communities. If the success of home shopping portends the future, marketing will turn to ever more sophisticated attempts to play on our nostalgia for what we've lost, to peddle connections to other people via commerce. Take First National Bank in Chicago, which now charges $3 for the use of a human teller rather than an automated one: Getting some warmth requires cold cash. Home shopping foreshadows what's so insidious about that prospect: Even as QVC and HSN try to mimic the feeling of community, they draw us, as television always has, even further away from the real thing. At 6 a.m., a woman named Doris phones HSN to purchase a portable copier for $229. "How are you?" the host asks. "Fair," Doris replies, her voice shaking slightly. She explains that she orders things from home shopping and mail order catalogues, forgets what she orders, and then orders them again. She wants the copier to keep track of her purchases. "Good idea," the host says, smothering her pathos with his enthusiasm. "And running down to the corner copier is so inconvenient." Doris will have her copier. And she will be yoked even more tightly to an isolation that only her television--and another purchase--can penetrate.

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