Have you ever thought of all the choices that we are bombarded with every day? And, more interestingly, have you ever thought of how it is we are actually able to make a choice from among all the choices that we have? I’m talking about consumer products here, of course. I’d never really thought about it until I lived out of the U.S. for 5 years–and then it hit me.

Each time I came back for a visit I was absolutely and completely overwhelmed with the choices. I couldn’t imagine how I had ever lived here and managed to somehow filter out 95% (I then realized) of the choices that were assaulting me from all sides-on radio, TV, billboards, in magazines, newspapers and in store promotions and even on grocery store shelves-it was incredible and it was everywhere. It was/we were–and still are–The Ultimate Consumer Society.

I am often reminded of that now, now that I’ve been back in the U.S. for 7 years, and I want to buy something simple–like something for a headache. Let’s say I don’t even have to struggle with the choice of which brand of medication, which of course is the first obstacle that one has to overcome in making such a choice–and that alone could take the better part of a year. But I’m already settled on the brand, so the rest should be easy, right? Not so fast.

Within the same brand, I then have to make a few more choices. Do I want “Migraine,” “P.M.,” or “Aspirin Free,” “Extra Strength,” “Regular Strength,” “Low Strength,” “Children’s,” “Adult,” or “Chewable”? And that raises several more questions: can I get “Chewable Children’s,” for example, or “Aspirin Free Migraine?” And WHY would anyone want “Low Strength???” How low is ‘Low’ exactly? What if it was TOO ‘Low?’ What good could ‘Low’ possibly be in this case??

Well, once I’ve gotten that part of things settled (and don’t ask me how), then the next choice is, do I want coated tablets (which are white & round), coated caplets (which are white oblong), gel tabs (green and white and round), gel caps, or liqui-gels???? HOW in the world should I know??? Nothing in my past could ever have prepared me for this!

And this scenario with the headache medicine is just a warm-up exercise for when you get to the toothpaste part of the counter! Have you noticed? This is really nightmare material.

Let’s just suppose a wife sends her husband to the store to buy a particular brand of toothpaste. Off he goes–blissfully unaware of what he is about to encounter. I know, though-I was just there and here is what I found (keep in mind that all of the following choices are for the SAME BRAND): 12 choices in the traditional tube, 4 of these choices in the stand-up tube version, 2 more kinds of the “sensitive” variety, and 6 versions intended for kids. How could the poor man in question EVER begin to know which one his wife meant–and undoubtedly she would have had a specific one in mind.

Want to know what the specific choices were? I don’t have the heart to drag you through the entire litany, but suffice it to say that the words “tartar control” must be big among consumers when looking for a toothpaste. Of the 12 choices in the original tube-type container, only 3 did NOT mention the words “tartar control” in their names. That tells you something. We are a nation of tartar controllers!

We seem to be considerably less impressed–and this is a bit of a shocker–with making our teeth white. You could have fooled me. I say that because of those 12 ‘basic’ types in the tube, only 3 of them have the word “whitening” in the name. And all along I’ve always thought that making teeth whiter was an infinitely bigger deal than controlling tartar–shows what I know!

I found it interesting to see all of the flavor options. There was “regular flavor” (what could that possibly be?), ‘fresh mint’, ‘clean mint’ and just plain ‘mint’-just try to figure out the differences there! And oh yes–there was also ‘winter fresh’ (winter freshwhat is what I’d like to know)–in gel form. I guess if you are bent on ‘winter fresh’ in some other form, you are OUT OF LUCK.

But we haven’t even gotten to the kids’ flavors yet-‘Wild Mint,’ ‘Berrylicious,’ ‘Bubblefruit,’ ‘Barbie Sparkling Fruit,’ ‘Barney Bubble Fruity,’ and last but not least, ‘Star Wars Gallactic Bubble Mint.’ J.K. Rowling must have been consulted to come up with these.

So, shoppers beware–there are several solar systems of choices out there even for the most mundane of household products–just headache remedies and toothpaste have taken up all this space. Just think of the rest…no, on second thought, DON’T. It will only send you in a mad frenzy to find a remedy for the ensuing headache…and now you know where that search will land you! Are you really ready for that?

*Since this was written, “whitening” seems to have at last overtaken “tartar control” in terms of marketing bait, but don’t worry, that will change too–it always does.

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