Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Illusion of Illusion

Most familiar brands are owned by a few large conglomerates. But, there are other options.
This graphic has been making the social media rounds for I don't know how long now. When you type "The Illusion of Choice" into the Search box of Google+, it comes up about a bajillion times. (Give or take a few dozen.)

While I understand the overall point of this graphic, it doesn't really show "the illusion of choice." It merely points out that many familiar brands are owed by a handful of companies. Now, it's true that most people are unaware of this. LexisNexis has a tool that will allow you to see corporate ownership chains down to about fourteen levels deep. I spend about three hours one night after work typing in the names of random companies and being surprised at how many of them were parts of massive webs of corporate ownership, and how the tendrils reached into so many seemingly unconnected areas. But the really interesting bit of it were how many outfits owned complementary businesses. The vacation business is the example that sticks with me. There are hospitality companies that own hotel chains, rental car companies, cruise lines, resorts - the whole nine yards. When you see a block of coupons for a number of different vacation-related services all together, it's a safe bet that there's a single corporate owner for all of them, once you follow the chain back far enough.

What this means in practice is simple: Making a meaningful choice requires more than just taking note of the sign over the door or the logo on the package. Deciding that "This chain restaurant sucks, and I don't want anyone associated with it to ever see a dime of my money again," requires more work than simply walking across the street to a different chain restaurant. Drinking SmartWater because you think you're sticking it to the owners of Dasani is slactivism, pure and simple.

Of course, this diagram is nowhere near complete, but the fact of the matter is that there's no product that any of these brands sell that can't be obtained from someone not associated with them. It takes time, effort and money to do it, however.

And that's what most people are really bothered by.

Finding shampoo that isn't made by Proctor and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson or Unilever is not an impossible task. But it's likely to take time that you may feel is needed elsewhere, effort that you have to slight something else to expend and money that then can't be used for more pressing needs. And to the degree that we understand all of these resources to be in short supply, and worthy of being conserved, it's easy to feel coerced into supporting corporate villains.

We may have every right to live in accordance with our priorities, but no-one has an obligation to make the choices that we exercise in doing so free. The world is interconnected. The choices that we make, and that other people make, all have ripple effects, and it's those ripples that shape the contours of the world that we live in. And while that doesn't make our choices illusory, it does make them, at times, expensive.

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