Saturday, July 7, 2012

Insane Prices, Crazy Money - Part One


A while ago, as I was driving, something came on the radio that grabbed my attention.

A self-obsessed musician being interviewed by a sycophantic journalist forced me to hit the re-tune button in annoyance. I picked up a commercial radio station. I usually avoid them because of the adverts. But I left it on, preferring soporific music to inane conversation. Of course, very soon the calm cab of my van was disrupted by a shouting salesman. "It's summer madness here. And we'd have to be mad to offer these insane prices".

I should say, it's not actually adverts per se that I don't like. I have fondness for overly-enthusiastic infomercials and the silliness of shopping channels. I'm just not keen on radio adverts. I think it has to do with the intimacy of the medium. But this advert set me thinking. In fact, it set off a train of thought that's lasted several weeks. I want to elucidate that train of thought in a few posts.

Insane Prices

There's something uniquely powerful about saying a price is insane. It's a strong marketing message. I had a search around Youtube to find a good example for you. This is the sort of thing I mean. A classic from the masters of hyperbolic adverts, the Americans. Look out for the Lord Sugar hand gestures. They must be a prerequisite for selling electrical goods.

You'd think with my love of Money & Freud, the siren call of price, value and insanity would have drawn me to the Insane Price adverts long ago. But without my recent reading of Pirsig's ZenMM and Lila I think I would have remained deaf to them.

So what are these Insane Price ads actually saying? And what do they mean?

Firstly, they refer to their prices as insane, just like Crazy Eddie* above. But of course, a price can't be sane or insane itself. It's a number not a mind. What they actually mean is that their offer of goods at these prices is the action of an insane mind.

Secondly, and following on from the first point, the idea of value is implicit. We have to compare the price of the goods to the value of the goods to be able make a judgement about the sanity or insanity of the person offering the prices. Insane Price adverts imply that if the value of the goods exceeds the price, then the seller is insane**.

There can be other ubiquitous marketing messages in Insane Price adverts. There's the strong call to action. The emphasis on the uniqueness of the opportunity. And maybe others besides. But there is also a vital message without which Insane Price adverts just wouldn't work. A subtext that's built into the fabric of the format itself. It says simply 'We're kidding'. Taken literally, Insane Price adverts ask us to take advantage of someone who's insane. That's of course morally abhorrent. But because the message is relayed through the medium of paid advertising we know not to take it at face value. It's a neat little trick that makes us complicit with the advertiser. In Crazy Eddie's advert this subtext is amplified through a comical mania which reassures us that Eddie's not really mad, he just gives great discounts.

What I want to know is what happens if we do take Insane Price adverts at face value?

Let's start by putting the message of Insane Price adverts into a formal statement to give ourselves something to work with; The Insane Price Axioms. This will throw up all kinds of questions, but let's trust in Crazy Eddie for the moment and stay true to his message. What the adverts claim is that the offer of a good or service for a price that is lower than the value of that good or service is insane. Therefore the offer of a good or service for a price that is equal to, or greater than, the value of the good or service is sane. In other words;

Value being greater than price is logically equivalent to insanity.
V > P :⇔ ✘

Value being less than or equal to price is logically equivalent to sanity.
V ≤ P :⇔ ✔

There's something personal I have invested in this inquiry. The mismatch between price and value and the relationship of that mismatch to insanity is something that my annual money burning touches on. Burning a £20 note - your own £20 note! - brings a certain clarity to your understanding of price and value. At least, that's the way I see it.

Others think I'm mad. In fact, the wilful destruction of one's property is seen as a sign of insanity. I get away without a straight jacket simply because of the magnitude of my burning. Set against my earnings, £20 is just not significant enough to cause real concern. It's interesting though, and a bit scary, to realise that it is only the quantity of currency that stands between my freedom and my being certified.

In the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) - as I understand it - insanity is about valuing intellectual patterns that are generally rejected. Thinking about insanity like this makes it clear that our judgement is a social one. There's no litmus test for your sanity. There maybe some unfortunate biological or neurological event underlying your condition, or there may not. It's not the chemical imbalance that puts you in a straight jacket, it's declaring yourself Jesus Christ incarnate or burning your own money.

Pirsig puts it like this:
"No scientific instrument can be produced in court to show who is insane and who is sane. There's nothing about insanity that conforms to any scientific law of the universe. The scientific laws of the universe were invented by sanity. There's no way by which sanity, using the instruments of its own creation, can measure that which is outside of itself and its creations. Insanity isn't an 'object' of observation. It's an alteration of observation itself. There's no such thing as a 'disease' of patterns of intellect. There's only heresy. And that's what insanity really is." (Lila p.356)
Of course those who deal with mental health patients may find these ideas about insanity just so much philosophical hot air. That's fair enough. My brother is a psychiatrist, my wife a care manager on a dementia ward. Demanding and challenging work. I'm aware that the practical realities of insanity need a social response. But I also remember how upset my wife was to witness the administration of Electroconvulsive therapy as a student nurse. I know it's serious. There are good people doing bad things to mad people, and there are mad people doing bad things to good people.

I'm not suggesting that we use Crazy Eddie's Insane Price Axioms to create a methodology of psychiatric assessment. It's more the other way round. I want to see if the Insane Price Axioms can reveal something about price and value. That in turn might help me with something that's been bugging me since I was a child; what is Money?

I hope you'll put your white jacket on and join me for the next few posts.

When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye

I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
I... Have become comfortably numb

Roger Waters, Dave Gilmore Comfortably Numb (1979)

* The guy in the advert is not really crazy, or Eddie. He's an actor called Jerry Carroll. The real Crazy Eddie - as in the proprietor of the Crazy Eddie Stores - was Eddie Antar. He was convicted of fraud in 1997, fined $150 million, and has creditors seeking to recover a further $1 billion from him and his family. The originator of the Insane Price adverts (on TV) is regarded as Madman Eddie Muntz (short video bio, wiki). I expect though that Insane Prices stretch as far back a commerce itself.

** Conversely, and as we'll come to later, talking about Crazy Money is usually a phrase used by a buyer rather than a seller which implies that the price asked for the goods, greatly exceeds their value.

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