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“New & improved” or “old reliable” — it’s not that simple

April 16th, 2007 by dk

Today I’m wondering both about “new & exciting” and “old familiar.” This time around, I’m not looking at these conflations from a marketer’s point of view, where the confusion is advantageous (and hopefully benign.) “New & improved” and “old reliable” have docated retail carton corners since planned obsolescence began keeping English majors employed and capitalism chugging forward after WWII. Looking instead from a social justice point of view, the mixing up of what appear to be twins can be devastating.
Right now I’m taking up some issues that are so new and exciting that I’m losing my way sometimes between “lather-” and “rinse-repeat.” I forget where I am, what I’m doing. But how much of the disorienting excitement is rooted only in the novelty of it all? Will it later become the “new normal” and will it then become routine? Well and good, it certainly will, but then what of the excitement? It will diminish, but how much? I barely slept the night before and the night after I published my first issue of Comic News. I looked at every page, as if to confirm that all the work we did actually made it to the page. I probably had an urge to check all 15,000 copies, to be certain that each conveyed the work we poured into it. After doing this 300 times or so, I didn’t feel the urge to check the printers’ work. I would often not open an issue after it arrived — why should I? I saw it going in. It looked the same coming out. But I never tired of watching others open an issue. I always felt a surge of satisfaction when issues were stacked eyeball height for delivery. The newness went away, but the excitement remained.
Is there a way to hurry this process up? It would be handy to know which excitements rely upon the newness and which don’t. Once you’ve tried what’s New! and Exciting! on the menu, how long before you can tell whether it will become your new favorite? We know the marketers are watching us, and if others don’t choose it often enough, it will likely be yanked from the menu for yet another New! and Exciting! offering. Do some of us resist the new out of fear that we’ll be denied the opportunity for it to become our new “old reliable”? (Marketers do have power, don’t they?)
“Old reliable” can get our synapses crossing in much the same way. We often confuse comfort and familiarity. Most profoundly, victims of domestic violence and other traumas can return to hurtful situations because it’s what they know. As the saying goes, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” When the trauma metastasizes into an expectation that life will always involve pain (and little else), the “comfort” of the familiar can become very like an addiction. But of course, there is no real comfort there. The definition of “comfort” gets revised downward until it means nothing but survival.
We all make this mistake at times, though the blows we absorb don’t leave bruises. We wrap our identity around our strategies, until we can’t see that a new way might be better, no matter how clear that may be on the face of it. The more successful we’ve become, the better our strategies, and the harder we find it becomes to change. The last shall be first.
“New & improved” keeps us eternally restless, always a sucker for something we’ve never tried. And only later do we discover we’ve been snookered into something that was never “improved” and is not long “new.” Our disappointment drives us into the arms of “old reliable,” which serves us no better. We settle for second best, unable to see what’s changed inside and around us, until we become a rote version of whatever it was we once were.
Lucky for us we’ll always have failure. The old reliable will eventually wear out. Sometimes the others who also favored the old reliable will similarly get worn out, until it’s no longer offered and we have no choice but to try the new and improved. And the new and improved is sometimes also falls like a firebomb, reminding us that we don’t have to change if we don’t want to. Did anyone ever thank the bottlers and marketers for the wake-up call that was New Coke? We can accept change when we didn’t want it and we can resist change when we’ve been told it’s inevitable. In this way, freedom is always improved and ever reliable.

“Freedom is nothing else but a chance to be better.”
-Albert Camus

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