Addictive Virus" -- later to become the thirteenth chapter of their bestselling book Affluenza -- John De Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor engage in a highly rhetorical comparison of addictive shopping to physical addictions such as alcoholism and drug addiction and behavioral addictions like compulsive gambling. It becomes clear shortly into their paper that their purpose is largely alarmist and moralistic, rather than medically or therapeutically intended: none of the authors has any medical or psychiatric credentials. I hope by addressing three aspects of their paper -- their rhetorical strategy, their shifts in focus, and in particular their examples presented as evidence, particularly their closing example -- that I may show the ways in which their thoughts actually confuse rather than clarify issues of behavioral addiction.
The title alone of the essay gives, in miniature, a fair taste of De Graaf et al.'s rhetorical strategy: the phrase "the addictive virus" makes it sound like we are talking about a matter of public health, but we only realize this is a metaphor by realizing that this metaphor makes no sense. Are they suggesting that addictions transmit themselves like viruses? Although in the body of the essay they will use it in good faith, claiming there are "social factors that trigger the addictive virus," but from a medical standpoint this is all empty rhetoric intended to provoke panic in the reader, or to attempt to pathologize behaviors of which they disapprove ethically, or else merely represents a serious misunderstanding of what a virus actually is (i.e., a fragmentary set of DNA strands that manage to invade cells in host organisms), or some combination of the above. In terms of the basic definitions they offer, they begin with the following:
"Coffee's not the worst of our addictions, not by a long shot. Fourteen million Americans use illegal drugs, twelve million Americans are heavy drinkers, and sixty million are hooked on tobacco. Five million Americans can't stop gambling away incomes and savings. And at least ten million can't stop buying more and more stuff -- an addiction that in the long run may be the most destructive of all." ("Addictive Virus" 72)
How can they possibly make this claim that shopping "may be the most destructive" addiction when alcohol, tobacco, and various illegal drugs are the direct cause of numerous deaths every year? One does not need to quote the equivalent medical statistics about lung cancer and cirrhosis, overdose or drunk driving fatalities in order to counter De Graaf, Wann and Naylor's dubious logic here: one only needs to point out that fatalities related to shopping are rare indeed and in no cases is shopping the actual cause of death.
This rhetorical overkill is accompanied by weird shifts in focus, and shifting the definitions of their terms so that they may maximize the alarmist sentiment they are permitted to express. By the fourth paragraph it becomes clear that they are using addiction in a loose and metaphorical sense, since they have already stated that "addiction to stuff is not easily understood" ("Addictive Virus" 72). They will continue blurring the distinction between an addiction to shopping and a more general "addiction to stuff" because this extends their opportunities for moralizing about consumer culture, so we learn later that "the thrill of shopping is only one aspect of the addiction to stuff," before claiming that "many Americans are hooked on building personal fortresses out of their purchases" ("Addictive Virus" 73). Again, the language here is purely rhetorical and they can hardly offer genuine large scale evidence of what otherwise would have to be called a behavioral pandemic. Soon enough they make a further rhetorical jump to calling the phenomenon alternately an "affluenza virus" and "the addictive virus," which means that they are engaged in fearmongering to encourage the belief that there is a behavioral pandemic -- but all of a sudden the medical condition of addiction has become a purely rhetorical "virus." Any way shopping can resemble a rogue segment of DNA which invades the cells of a healthy organism and causes sickness -- which is the actual medical definition of a virus -- is purely rhetorical. What they mean is that a large number of people shop -- and according to the purely subjective standards of De Graaf, Wann and Naylor, they shop too much.
But De Graaf, Wann and Naylor cannot point out consequences to shopping that are as grave as lung cancer for smokers or overdose for hop-heads -- instead they concentrate on an argument that likens the business aspects of "planned obsolence" to the phenomenon of "tolerance" in substance abusers. This is sheer nonsense. The case study of Liane (from Elle Magazine) is offered early in their paper as a generic example of the "shopaholic" but she does nothing but shop for clothes that she does not bother to wear. If she doesn't bother to wear them immediately, then her motivation cannot be the fashion-following and novelty-seeking motivation that they later single out as crucial. In point of fact these are two different phenomena, which is why they have to make the leap from "shopping addiction" -- which may be a behavioral addiction not unlike compulsive gambling, but which mostly manifests itself in cases like Liane's, in which emotionally susceptible women self-medicate with visits to the Discount Shoe Warehouse -- into a jeremiad about America's "addiction to stuff," by which they mean the notion that Ford produces a new line of cars every year and Apple launches a new and interlinked computer product every year or two -- and any other example of "planned obsolescence" -- is in some way analogous to the experience of a heroin addict. The day that somebody is found dead on a linoleum floor after an overdose of iPods is the day that De Graaf, Wann and Naylor are actually entitled to misuse the concept of "addiction" to make their crude anti-consumerist point. But they are willing to draw alarmist conclusions even when not warranted. Drawing a comparison between advertising executives and drug pushers, they state: "In terms of the social factors that trigger the addictive virus, our thanks go first to the "pushers" on the supply side...When we get used to certain level of sexually explicit advertising, the pushers push it a step further, and then further, until preteens pose suggestively on network TV ads in their underwear" ("Addictive Virus" 73). This is absolute fearmongering: no-one has claimed that sexually explicit advertising requires increasing levels of novelty and perversity until it devolves into kiddie porn. It also comes perilously close to suggesting that sexual pathologies (like pedophilia) are acquired through sheer boredom or overexposure to sexual stimuli, which is utter nonsense. The simple fact here is that De Graaf, Wann and Naylor are perfectly aware that the vast majority of the American public likes shopping and dislikes pedophilia, and they'd be happier if the American distaste for pedophilia could be transferred onto shopping-malls. Hence the vague hint that shopping itself is responsible for underwear prepubescents posing suggestively in TV commercials, which makes one wonder if De Graaf, Wann or Naylor actually own a television.
The examples that De Graaf, Wann and Naylor present as evidence of their thesis are frequently flawed. They leap upon the first and most obvious example of anti-consumerist zealots everywhere, which is McDonald's, by raising the issue of "restaurants, fast-food outlets, and movie theatres, where portions get bigger, and then get huge" ("Addictive Virus" 73-4). They do not mention that McDonald's reduced their "Super-Size" portions in response to public pressure after a long campaign of complaint, including Morgan Spurlock's feature-length documentary Super-Size Me and Eric Schlosser's muckraking journalism in Fast Food Nation. Their concluding moralistic example is particularly egregious in this regard: they offer Thomas Monaghan as an example of a man who was able to overcome the fictional epidemic virus of "affluenza":
That is, unless they find a way to beat the all-consuming bug, as Thomas Monaghan did. In 1991 the founder of Domino's Piza suddenly began to sell off many of his prized possessions, including three houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and thirty antique automobiles, one of which was an $8 million Bugatti Royale. Production was halted on his multimillion-dollar home, and he even sold his Detroit Tigers baseball team because it was just a "source of excessive pride." HE was quoted as saying "None of the things I've bought, and I mean none of them, have ever really made me happy." ("Addictive Virus" 75)
This concluding paragraph of "The Addictive Virus" genuinely represents De Graaf, Wann and Naylor ar their worst. They give an extremely selective account of the life of Thomas Monaghan, largely to indicate that it is possible for someone to own a lot of expensive things and then suddenly get sick of them. What they do not note is that Monaghan did not spontaneously undergo the world's most massive case of buyer's remorse -- he underwent an explicitly religious experience, and…