Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Old Windfall Profit

At least they are only flogging yellow ribbons on the backs of soldiers, not smokes
(For those coming to this post from a link, feel free to read it but also the updated story here)

Its a funny old world. Who would have thought that a crappy and improbable pop song about getting out of pokey and getting some lovin' would find itself the inspiration for the late 20th/early 21st century equivalent of the Victorian sailor's wife's widow's walk? Somehow (and I suspect the dark forces of the Oprahization of western culture) the central conceit of a song about a horny convict has become a badge of stoic patriotism. Tie a yellow ribbon, indeed.

Of course, its the perfect symbol for our war on terror. Sitting up there in a point-of-purchase display at the gas station, supermarket, and pharmacy the yellow ribbon allows one to show solidarity with the troops (although I suspect that they would prefer that we forgo our tax cuts so that they can get armored humvees) while not having to a)spend a lot of money or b) actually do anything meaningful. In this modern age, merely admitting to feelings is apparently the moral and societal equivalent to buying a War Bond or saving scrap metal to make into B-17s.

Heaven forbid anyone in this country (or increasingly back in the UK) pause for a second to consider what an empty gesture buying a yellow ribbon actually is. The rigorous anti-intellectualism of our culture permits therapy (either the expensive in person kind or the Wal Mart version of Dr Phil) but not introspection around one's motives for action. A yellow ribbon is designed to be displayed; on one's property, lapel, or vehicle, and therefore is supposed to signal "I am a conspicuous patriot; what's your problem, you Osama lover in the Prius?"

What buying a yellow ribbon really means of course is that the purchaser is a shallow, silly, individual with the intellectual processing power of a Commodore 64.

I don't consider myself a particularly vigilant shopper (although Mrs. Weasel is encouraging it despite the fits it causes in the grocery when I realize that my favorite corned beef hash is an environmental nightmare) but I did pause to look at the $3 car magnet yellow ribbons on sale at our local supermarket recently. Of my $3 spent "to support the troops" I saw that 10% of it would go to "military charities" (unspecified) and that the ribbon was made in China. Mrs. Weasel was off in the detergents so I took the time to do a little math. Given that the store probably "keystoned" (double wholesale) non-grocery prices the ribbon cost them $1.50. Now, making the reasonable assumption that the donation was made by the wholesaler not the retailer, the military charities would receive 15c a ribbon, the store would pocket $1.50, and the Cantonese ribbon machine would continue to produce the outsourced symbols of our patriotism. I did what any curmudgeonly thirty-something would do and wrote a note to this effect on the back of the grocery list that I then left on the display for the other shoppers.

I didn't think of this little peeve of mine (the above took place about a month ago) until Mrs. Weasel brought home an interesting one page profile from People or US Weekly or similar of the two gents from North Carolina who came up with the magnetic car ribbon idea: Dwain Gullion and Chris Smith. These two public spirited chaps have sold over a million of the magnets (their ones are made in the USA, although their website doesn't say where or by whom. I bet its not a union shop though) at between 55c and $3 a piece. They reached for the stars and named their company "Magnet America". The article states:

"Magnet America donates a portion of their profits- at least $45,000 so far- to nonprofits that support soldiers."

OK, math time. Lets be conservative and say that they sold just 1 million magnets at their lowball price of 55c. The gross profit in that case would be $550,000. A donation of $45,000 is just over of 6% of gross sales. And remember, to maximize tax deductions, a business is allowed to take the deduction on the gross not the net. If even half the magnets were sold for the top end price of $3, the gross profit would be $1.5 million. If we then assume that those 500,000 $3 magnets correspond to half the donated $45,000, then the proceeds on those decals donated to service charities amounts to 1.5% of gross profit. As Gullion himself said in the article, "We just wanted to help the troops in Iraq." Indeed. North Carolina is a fairly military state: perhaps Magnet America can put wounded and maimed veterans to work making yellow ribbons to "support" their comrades still fighting in Iraq.

At the end of the article, it states: "Soon Gullion was swamped with orders, and he and Smith are thrilled about that (sic). 'It's a patriotic thing,' says Smith. 'People like to show what they believe in.'" Apparently Mr. Gullion and Mr. Smith believe in war profiteering.

By the way, if you want to visit Magnet America, their website can be found here. It's very enlightening: you can also see how they create opportunities for enriching themselves through the misery of cancer, domestic abuse, and religion.

Sidebar: what a sad illustration of the pandering and pathetic nature of the American media this article is. Apparently nobody cared to do the math when preparing this report; helping the magnet adorned saps in the gas guzzling, GI killing SUVs feel good about themselves is much more important than asking real questions of public interest. What a shame on us all this tame media of empire is.

If you really want to "support the troops", forgo that yellow ribbon that was produced overseas or helps fill the pockets of war speculators and instead send your three bucks directly to a service charity. Then your patriotism can be represented as it should be, as an internal force for good rather than a showy and sham piece of kitsch on your bumper.


Jim said...


It's amazing how much we agree on the marketing of the current wave of faux patriotism.

The current cultural climate always places a premium on style over substance--in this case, feelings always trump actual action.

It's nice that you assiduously took the time to do the math, illustrating the P.T. Barnum effect for your readers (although I just read something indicating that the "sucker" comment attributed to him actually wasn't uttered by him-oh well!).

Speaking of "kitsch"; Paul Fussell in "BAD, or the Dumbing Down of America" defines it as "something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating." He later laments that "kitsch is our culture".

Obviously, I could go on with this subject, as it drives me bonkers when I see the cheap crap foisted on Americans as the genuine artifact.

Lastly, America's greatest symbol of meaningless is the American flag, which stands for genocide, slavery, hatred and many other things, yet Americans treat it with the reverence and idolatry of a religious icon. As Zinn says, "There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people". I guess we could inject "yellow ribbon" for "flag" here and get a similar meaning.

weasel said...

Jim, in many ways I'm less angry at the manufacturers as they are simply following the predetermined laws of our economic system than I am at the general public. The national laziness that has resulted in the obesity epidemic extends to thinking about the impact of our lives and actions (or inactions) on the greater community. Even from a purely self preservationist place we are badly failing our own interests.

A refusal to think or act in the collective interest weakens this country and forces even the most good intentioned politicians to pander to the stupid. As noted in the latest Atlantic, the only times the two presidential candidates were honest about the war on terror (Bush: "We cannot win" in the traditional sense; Kerry: at best we can "reduce terrorism to a nuisance") they were flayed alive. National immaturity is going to get a lot of us killed.

The same applies to the left, by the way. whenever a challenge presents itself we pile into the streets or onto websites with all our creative energies focused on finding someone else to blame for our woes.