The Tyranny of Free Products
High school Science Team; Manus Dental; 21Minus at the MCA. Memories, condensed into bags of unwanted T-shirts and water bottles stashed in my closet. I neither like nor want most of the free things I’ve gotten. Even free meals, welcome as they are to save me money and preparation, don’t strike it quite right: the pizza makes me worry about sodium levels, and dairy-based sweets upset my stomach. And yet, like the image of the glutton, I eagerly help myself to anything that is offered for free.
The urge to take things that are free is a strange combination of a nonchalant “hey, might-as-well” and a deeper-level obligation to make use of the resources around me. Why not take something if it costs nothing? But on another level, there’s the knowledge that in this moment, I am being given access to a resource that might not always be there. It’s a fear the privilege I have now will disappear. There are times, people, and places that will demand payment I won’t be able to give. With free bottles, bags, and T-shirts, nostalgia and the desire to fit in with everyone else who is sporting that logo make it hard to let go, even when the item is redundant or useless.
So I pick up a pen from the conference, I jostle for a complimentary cupcake.
The trick, of course, is that nothing is free. Everything has a logo slapped on that some other soul will subconsciously incorporate into their stash of mere-exposure effects (the psychological phenomenon by which people develop preferences for things purely based on familiarity).
The food is there to bring more people to some event. The tote bags or tees or hats are to encourage repeat customers. Free items are compelling, but they drain your time and your energy. The driving force behind the compulsion to accumulate free items is the need to insure. It’s the fear of losing wealth and of having nothing. Not everyone can make it, but anyone can also lose it all. The pile accumulating in my closet, bag by bag, is a wall to stave off loss.
I plan on turning my bag of unworn T-shirts into a quilt … one day. I don’t look forward to all that cutting and sewing, even if I do own a sewing machine. Until then, I’ll watch that pile in my closet grow and grow, straddling the border between unneeded and potentially wanted in the future.
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