Advertising, marketing and retail promotions all want something from us: time, attention and money. How can Buddhism help us notice and withstand their effect? Thought for the Day  1/12/2012

Like most people, I believe I’m largely immune to advertising. I know when I’m being lured into thinking that a certain product will make me the kind of person who appeals to beautiful women and hangs out with celebrities in exotic locations. Actually, I mutter, I’m a bald bloke from Croydon, so you keep your flattery and I’ll keep my money.

But we all have vulnerabilities, and it’s safe to assume that marketers have targeted mine. I experience shopping as a battle and I like a bargain because it feels like a small victory. That’s what draws me to those half-price, three-for-two, 50%-off offers in supermarkets. But all retail victories come at a price. For one thing, the offers haven’t always been real savings, and this week eight major supermarkets agreed a code of conduct, having been told by the Office of Fair Trading that their promotions weren’t within the spirit of the law. But even if the offer is genuine, it’s tempting to buy discounted items that you don’t really want.

Marketing, in general, is becoming ever-more pervasive. Beyond the obvious adverts and promotions, marketing messages constantly gather at the edges of our awareness, calling to us as we walk down the street or search the internet. They all want to attract our gaze, win our attention and, if possible, get us to spend our money.

This makes attention a limited resource, and we should take as much care in paying it as we do to paying money. Buddhist psychology has long understood that we aren’t nearly as rational or self-controlled as we like to think. We’re attracted to things that stimulate our emotions, and our thoughts and actions follow. Then we become attached to our possessions and get drawn into a cycle of craving and consuming. Advertisers understand that, but Buddhism adds that being led in this way won’t make us happy. As the Buddha put it, craving is, in fact, what brings us suffering, while true happiness is connected with contentment.

Understanding our susceptibility to temptation, Buddhism advises us to ‘guard the doors of the senses’. That means controlling, so far as we can, what we expose ourselves to, and managing how we respond. Of course, I’m going to continue shopping in supermarkets and looking out for bargains; but, as best I can, I try to navigate the anxieties that prompts. I also try to remember that the sources of deep contentment usually have little to do with getting and spending. And, if you think about it, that’s quite a bargain.