I Just Had an Emotional Breakup—With CVS
How companies play on our heartstrings, and why we should resist.
Oh, how I wish I had not succumbed to saving $10 last month when I was buying some supplies for a work event at a CVS miles from my house.
“Sign up for our CVS club-card! You’ll save $10! Right now!” the wonderfully high-pressure manager-saleswoman said to me when she was ringing me up.
“I hear you, but I actually don’t live anywhere near this or any other CVS, so I would really not be able to ever use the club card…” I pleaded back.
“But you can cancel at any time; just sign up now and then cancel tomorrow morning!” she insisted in the spirit of the most aggressive and successful lifetime-gym-membership pitch person ever.
“OK…But I really don’t have a lot of free time… I really would rather not…,” I begged.
“Look, I totally get it; just sign this — it saves you $10 on the spot, and you can cancel as soon as you get home by just calling this number” was her final offer.
“OK,” I said as I experienced the oddly compelling, shameful, and angering experience of agreeing to a transaction that I was deeply regretting even in the very act of enacting: I used that damn pen to channel not just my binding signature but my utter and complete protest against the very thing I was signing onto.
Embarrassing, but true. And yes, I am the same person whose last pre-COVID hurrah involved being pressured into spending $135 on a $12 tube of lotion by a mall kiosk guy. (Solution: Never return to that mall again — a promise that the pandemic has helped me stick to with unfortunate ease).
So onto the breakup. I finally got around to canceling the club membership. Today. One day shy of the free-trial period. This is a miracle. No, I am serious: A miracle. I could have just as easily gotten around to this in 133 months from now, a good $665 into the $5/month payment cycle. Or also I could have just as easily gotten around to it never. (Case in point: I am definitely currently paying monthly fees for other similarly ill-fated club memberships that I don’t even know about never mind have the wherewithal to figure out how to cancel).
“Ummm hello, yes; I am calling to cancel my club card membership…” I haltingly started as I strapped in for what I knew was going to be a rocky ride to the finish line.
And then Call Center Guy came at me with a phone-script designed to pull at my heartstrings and trigger a full-on guilt-spiral — as if I were breaking up with a beloved partner of twenty years who was just hoping we could get through this one rough patch, and what about that time we danced after midnight, and I love you so much can’t we just give this crazy thing between us one more try?
“Oh no… I am so sorry to hear this; I am really terribly sorry…what can we do to make you stay?”
“Ummmm… uh…. OK, well, nothing really; I don’t live near a CVS…”
“I am so sorry about this; we really don’t want to lose you…”
“It’s not you, it’s me; I just don’t live anywhere near a CVS…”
“I am so sorry and so sad to see you go. I understand. But are you sure you want to give up [list of selling points designed to make me feel bad about breaking up with CVS]?”
“I am so sorry; yes; I am going to have to cancel my membership.”
Success. He let me go. But not before telling me one more time how sorry he was and that if I changed my mind to please come back any time. Unconditional love from the machine — awwww…
…But also: ugh. I won, but they did too. The transaction succeeded in making me actually feel bad. And what’s more, this experience is nothing when compared with what marketing does to us every day when it convinces us to fear things we needn’t fear, desire things we needn’t desire, and buy things we truly (truly) don’t need. Which is itself the sweet little brother of the hyper-aggressive strategies social media uses to make us keep clicking our way to wasted time and equally unnerving measures of FOLO and self doubt.
How about we resolve this new year to break up with some of the fake promises of happiness being shoveled our way? How about we buy a tiny bit less stuff and spend a tiny bit less time online and take even just a moment to recognize how at least one brand we “adore” or media platform we “can’t live without” is manipulating us, plain and simple? Let’s all take a solid 3 minutes to get pissed at the fact that [name of clothing company] is making you feel uncool unless you buy a new pair of their leggings, [name of restaurant] is making you feel like a loser unless you and your friends gather together over one of their deep-fried onions, and [name of jewelry company] is making you and your partner mistakenly correlate depth of true feelings for one another with dollars spent on a glittery rock or metal that someone extracted from the earth and decided was your new way to honor one another’s worth.
But it’s not just about getting pissed. Like good therapy, coming to terms with the problem is actually the first step towards better outcomes. Sure, knowing about it doesn’t magically make everything right. But there is simply no way to break a bad habit if you are unable — or unwilling — to acknowledge that there is a monkey on your back. Face your monkey!
Taking a moment to reflect on some of the ways that outside forces quietly (but powerfully) force us to feel things we wouldn’t otherwise feel is a way of giving ourselves back to ourselves. And it’s a way of giving ourselves back to each other: When we free ourselves even a tiny bit from the least kind forces around us, we free up more of our time and attention for the people in our lives who actually love us and who are our only real hope for real hope.
Sarah Pessin is professor of philosophy and interfaith chair at University of Denver. She worries about intra- and inter- human flourishing in increasingly complicated times. She is working on books on the importance of pardon in the writings of 20th century French-Jewish phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas and on something she calls “Uncomfortable Virtues” towards better civic outcomes. And she is apparently an easy mark for motivated salespeople. Visit her at sarahpessin.com.