I was meandering around a shopping centre last week, with no particular purpose other than to enjoy the air con and wile away half an hour or so. Shopping close to my house is not a particularly fulfilling experience, but as we are in Asia, occasionally leads to some great finds. Not the kind of great shopping finds that you are probably imagining though. I am not referring to wonderful bargains, as those are few and far between. I speak not of unique items that will make us stand out from the crowd, as they simply do not exist here. No, I am talking about products that are so utterly pointless that they become a talking point.
You may be familiar with goods that are made cheaply in Asia from market stalls in your own country. They are often of low quality, and they rarely function well or last for long, but out here, it is a different ball game. You see in most, if not all, of the western world there are standards set for consumer goods. Generally speaking, if a product is likely to explode in our faces, stab us, cut us, or cause us to fall on our arses, it will be banned from sale by the powers that be. If goods are of sufficiently low quality, then the laws regarding your entitlement to a refund will generally deter vendors from selling them in the first place because it becomes a real pain for them to keep taking them back, not to mention the fact that it harms their reputation. Out here though, no such laws exist. Just about anything can be sold, it will be tested in the shop, and if it breaks after five minutes, there is no recourse to a refund because it was working when they gave it a brief once over. In short, as a consumer, you are very much on your own. With larger items, there is sometimes a warranty which entitles you to a repair, but that is as far as it goes.
This sounds pretty terrible I know, but in reality, you get used to it, and at least you know where you stand. ‘May the buyer beware’ has never been more apt a saying than it is here, and that’s fine with me. Actually, I think that there is something quite positive about the fact that consumers are expected to use their common sense when parting with their cash.
The only thing that really used to annoy me about the whole thing was the toys that would catch my daughter’s eye when she was younger. They were brightly packaged, colourful, generally quite visually appealing, and absolutely everywhere. The problem was that they were so appallingly made, that the new gift from Mummy or Daddy would turn into a pile of cheaply moulded plastic parts within a couple of hours, and result in a not inconsiderable number of tears. After identifying the pattern, I named them as little packets of sadness and stopped buying them. My daughter has since developed a zen-like acceptance that all is transient, so I suppose something good came out of the experience.
The reason for this article isn’t to complain. It’s to pose a question that genuinely confuses me; Why do people make this stuff?
I understand that manufacturers will cut corners to save money, and the results are not always the best, but this isn’t my conundrum. You see, there is a whole sub-category of products out there that however well they were constructed, would still be of absolutely no use to anyone. Nor would they be any fun to play with. They are generally badly made into the bargain, but their main faults stem from when they were merely concepts. They are shit by design.
When I stumble upon a rubber monkey with light-up eyes, or a vibrator/egg whisk utility tool (and I often do), it is often a brief source of amusement, but I can pass them by without missing a beat. There are teams of people somewhere in the world however, who come up with these things for a living. These are the people that give me pause for thought.
I’m not sure what kind of environment they work in, but I always imagine them to be part of small to medium-sized companies. There are other people in my imagined companies, all doing their bit to make a couple of their overlords wealthy and allow themselves enough income to feed their families. It’s all pretty standard stuff.
Assuming then that this is a regular company set up, at some point there would have to be a product meeting in which not only does someone propose a rubber monkey with light-up eyes, but at which a rubber monkey with light-up eyes is the best idea proffered. This is a meeting that closes with 10 executive types nodding as some other bloke triple underlines ‘rubber monkey with light-up eyes’ on one of those A1 presentation pads that simultaneously drain the life force out of a room and render an orangutan homeless.
Maybe the proposer of the pliable primate had already drawn up designs for his creation, or perhaps it was only formed in concept. Either way, there would have been several stages for the idea to go through before it appeared in the shops.
First off, it had to get past the other people at the product meeting. Then it would have to go to have the design either created or streamlined. After that, machines would have needed to have been tooled, packaging designed, shipping arranged, retailers found, shelves stocked etc, and at no point during the whole process did anyone find it within their heart to mention what a total pile of shite it was. Did nobody realise that a rubber monkey with light-up eyes was never going to set the world on fire (I should add that many of the electrical items on sale here threaten to do exactly that), and would end up being sold for pennies in the rear areas of shops full of only slightly more worthwhile crap?
I have had a few winning ideas over the years. A friend and I are mulling one over right now. It is difficult to get stuff to market. It’s expensive, it’s risky, and it’s time-consuming. It is, in short, a real pain in the bum. You need to pretty sure of your product before you take a punt on it. So how this utter bollocks gets to the shelves is beyond me.
Perhaps I’m missing something. Perhaps very poor families buy this shit for their kids’ birthdays, but quite honestly, they’d be better getting them an extra bun, or a glass of pop. Maybe there are collectors or some other sort of weird enthusiasts who plunder the shelves in search of that ultimate piece of shite. Perhaps there are more people like me than I thought there were, who buy the occasional bag of this commercial mucus for no reason other than showing it to a friend, I have no idea.
Whatever the reason, there are people all over the poorer parts of Asia who, when asked what they do for a living, can raise a calloused finger and say, “I make rubber monkeys with light-up eyes’.
When asked why, they can reply, “Because it puts food on my family’s table.”
And for that, I suppose, we should be thankful.
Minister of Stuff.