Not entirely omniscient
26 October 2014 11:20 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

In defence of Boney M

  • Ivo Vegter
Deck the malls with plastic holly, tra-la-la-la-la, la-la-la. T'is the season, fill your trolley, tra-la-la-la-la, la-la-la. Garish glitter, snow in summer, tra-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la. Dodge a fat red-suited plumber, tra-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

It is a mark of good taste and highbrow intellectualism to sniff haughtily at Christmas decorations. But what are we really so snooty about?

The shops are never as brash and gaudy as at Christmas time. Sure, by the first week of January, you'll be told to spoil your kids on their way Back To School, or implored to spend vast fortunes on luxuries for your Valentine. Your wallet will not yet have recovered its former bulk before the chocolate eggs hit the stores, and the post-Easter nausea probably only makes you more vulnerable to being guilt-tripped into splurging on Mother and Father. And you're not even halfway the year yet.

But Christmas is the high season. It's the Pink Cadillac of merchandising, the Las Vegas of shopping. It coincides with a long holiday and, for most people who are not freelance journalists, with a thirteenth cheque. That cheque is what it's all about. For retailers, it is a bounty, and only the best merchandiser gets the chance to separate it from the clutches of its recipient. Maybe.

This explains why retailers are so eager to attract customers to their stores at this time of year. They know people are likely to have money to spend, and have an excuse to spend it. They want some of it, and they know they're competing not only against the other stores in the mall, or on the high street, but also against all the other possible ways in which someone might spend that cheque.

Don't go skydiving. It's expensive and scary. Here, have a stunning photo book about it instead. Instead of jostling elbows with the flabby crowds and getting sand in the most annoying places, why not get your very own plastic plunge pool for the kids? All right, you're determined to go hiking. At least get yourself some decent boots; these are both breathable and waterproof, like magic. Can I interest you in a new day pack while you're at it? This one here comes with a rain cover and a watertight wallet-and-camera pouch. It's a must-buy, and you get 20% off our special (read: inflated) festive-season price.

The desire to earn a share of your custom does not, however, explain the form the competition takes. What is it about tinsel, flashing lights on plastic trees, and fake snow in the sweltering heat of summer? Many people claim to be repelled by such crass merchandising. They would say it offends their sense both of good taste and decorum.

How often have you heard people gripe about the erzats Christmas carols rendered in Kenny G style on a Casiotone keyboard? Does Boney M deserve being dusted off every year for endless loops in shopping malls?

Thing is, most of these complaints appear on the evidence to be pretentious snobbery.

If people really did dislike the crass commercialism of Christmas, retailers surely would not stoop to such behaviour? Often in spite of their own taste (or cynicism), they spend money on this gaudiness because they know that really is what most of their customers want.

Perhaps there's a psychological reason why people seek refuge in the false cheer of retail therapy. Perhaps they're happy to be led into making time they otherwise wouldn't have to spare for their families. Perhaps they have a real desire to express their love and gratitude to their loved ones, and feel less bashful about doing so if they can do it under the cover of Christmas traditions.

Whatever the reason, the fact that the vast majority of retailers – from restaurants to supermarkets to petrol stations to business services companies – all invest in attracting customers with festive baubles, bows and banners, suggests that it works. People respond, and voluntarily part with their money at the shop that does the most to attract their attention.

When there are real complaints, such as the claim that the term "Christmas" is offensive to those of another (or no) religion, they simply change it to Xmas, since most everyone is oblivious to its derivation from the Greek acrostic ΙΧΘΥΣ, which means "fish", but in which the X stands for Christ.

The whining about Christmas decorations is much like the whining about retailing in general. People claim to despise discount supermarkets and shopping malls, because they pay low wages, depersonalise the shopping experience, and drive mom-and-pop stores out of business. Yet people clamour for them if they lack them. Even the complainers shop there, instead of at the mom-and-pop stores whose welfare they bemoan, because prices are low, the selection broad, and the quality sufficient. The economic upshot is that everyone's real prosperity goes up, because everyone gets a little more choice, a little more of what they need or want, or a little more left over for romantic dinners, meat or dentistry for the kids, holidays, fun gadgets, or the retirement fund.

The same argument goes for fake snow and fake music. (Boney M's Bobby Farrell was exposed for lip-synching long before anyone heard of Milli Vanilli.) Give customers what they want, and they might complain endlessly. But the alternative reality is fewer happy customers and less profit for the retailers that supply our needs. In some places, where locals with bumper stickers that read, "Why is it called tourist season if we can't shoot at them?" are frowned upon as genuinely anti-social threats to the local economy, the Christmas season supports the retailers for the rest of the year.

So the next time someone cavils about the lumpish tackiness of the most merry of retail seasons, consider that the complaint is probably little more than snobbery. Think about the fact that retailers (and plumbers, to whom I owe an apology) merely supply what people want, and this noble pursuit is the only way by which they can profit. The grousing is not only an unbecoming insult to what the complainer no doubt would consider to be the lower classes. Consider that it is might also be a pretentious camouflage for the carper's own dubious taste.

Then go shopping. Have fun. Spend some time with your family. If you insist, hide the Boney M collection you bought for your sister-in-law (she likes it, doesn't she?) and the flashy optic-fibre Christmas tree you bought for your own flat (you did, didn't you?).

That reminds me: have I ever told you how much I detest Boney M? Never again will I shop in a supermarket that plays it. Well, except I need toy crackers, some crepe decorations, red-and-gold wrapping paper and a Christmas fruit cake. And tomorrow I have to stock up on milk and cigarettes to last me until Monday. But never again after that! How shallow and tasteless do the commercial exploiters think I am?

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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