The wedding industry isn't targeting you… it's targeting your parents

Guestpost by Sarah Thomas on Jan. 16th

Wedding porn makes parents happy too. Photo by Faller Photography

So: during the Plague Years I was a telemarketer.

Now, I am aware that telemarketers are the lowest form of life. I am aware that, in a joke about lifeboats, lawyers, and Josef Mengele, telemarketers are not only thrown off the boat, but ground into a fine paste and rubbed into the boat ropes to reduce friction or something. I feel an appropriate (read as: burning) level of shame that I did this. But I call them Plague Years for a reason. I wasn't making my best choices, but I needed money. That's a pretty good summation of where I was mentally at the time.

Now, not only was I a telemarketer, but I was a telemarketer while living with my grandfather. It was right about the time his mental acuity started to take a turn for the worse; he was still basically together but it made the whole family feel better that there was someone there with him full-time, and my life was clearly going nowhere (see: telemarketing). I reminded him to take his medicine, we went out to the Old People Lasagna and Spinning Pie Restaurant for lunch, and he asked me every day if I had A Fella Yet. But he could still drive, he could still go dancing with his girlfriend and hold a conversation on whatever Fox News had told him to be scared of most recently. In short, he was his old self.

With one exception. Like a lot of elderly people, my grandfather was prone to falling for scams. He never used a computer, so we didn't have to worry about Nigerian princes, but he'd answer the phone every time it rang and end up with subscriptions to magazines he'd never heard of and couldn't cancel. Packages from the Home Shopping Network would arrive, sometimes every day, with jewelry for me and my mom that we didn't need and never wore. When he died and we were cleaning out his house, we found dozens more that he'd never gotten around to giving us.

And I couldn't protect him. Because for the eight hours of the day when he'd get taken in by these scams, I would be out. At work. Perpetrating the exact same scams on other people's grandparents. Like I said… Plague Years.

One thing that my time seeing both sides of the telemarketing system gave me — other than a very black conscience — is understanding about how different generations process and interpret media. For my grandfather, those voices on the phone and on the television were authoritative and legit, because there is a certain way men my grandfather's age expect shady people to sound, and if you sound that way you don't get a job telemarketing. If clean-cut sounding Justin on the phone said these Time Life books were a once-in-a-lifetime offer that his grandchildren would cherish, then it was true. If it wasn't true, how could Justin say it?

I'm not convinced that my parent's generation, as they become the new old people, process authority in media a whole lot differently than my grandfather did.

It's strange to me to contemplate, but had I taken a different fork in the road before the Plague Years then my mom would now be someone's grandma. My fiance's mom and dad are already grandparents. I don't see them that way — as old — but marketers sure do. And I'm not convinced that my parent's generation, as they become the new old people, process authority in media a whole lot differently than my grandfather did.

We spend a lot of time here laughing about the Wedding Industrial Complex, and we should, because it's fucking hilarious. Someone the other day alerted me to the existence of Cake Knife Corsages. Which I assume is flowers you tie onto your cake knife, so if your wedding guests experience temporary amnesia while you're cutting the cake, they can quickly reassure themselves that they aren't at one of your regular cake-cutting formalwear ballroom parties but in fact at your wedding. This is transparently hysterical, and should be laughed at, but we should also understand that it's not really directed at us.

It's directed at our mothers.

I'm not saying this is because we, as a generation, are so cool and savvy. I'm saying it's because we, as a generation, are so fucking BROKE. More and more people are paying for their own weddings, and that's great. But the most recent statistic I was able to find was from 2010, when it was still about a three-way split between all couple, all parent, and half and half. That means that in 2/3 of the weddings in the country parents are making some purchasing decisions.

If you're a young person, you haven't hit your peak earning potential yet anyway, and paying for your wedding has to slot itself around a lot of other life changes that, statistically, you're likely to be making at around the same time — like children and houses. Also, if you're a young person, chances are you will have some immediate familiarity with weddings as you're planning your own, because your peers are planning theirs too and inviting you to them.

For all your parents know, when the ladies on TLC say that $3,000 is utterly as cheap as wedding dresses get, it's true.

It's different for an aging parent. In many cases, their major life choices are already set, and they've already peaked or plateaued at the top of their earning potential. They have, proportionally, more disposable income now than they ever have before. And they may not have been to weddings for years before you come along and say you're having one. For all they know, when the ladies on TLC say that $3,000 is utterly as cheap as wedding dresses get, it's true.

The older you are, the more money you're likely to have, and the less basis of comparison for how much of that money is really necessary to spend you're likely to have. That combination is a telemarketer's wet dream, and probably a wedding marketer's, too.

I've been to a half-dozen weddings in the last three years, and every one of the brides told me the first thing their mothers did when they said they were getting married was buy a stack of the fattest, glossiest bridal magazines in the local Barnes and Noble. When I went home for Christmas, they were all over my parents' house too. I don't know if there were cake knife corsages in any of them, but it wouldn't surprise me.

It would never occur to me to buy a bridal magazine; for planning I'd go straight to the Internet. Not my mom. From a glossy magazine, it's more authoritative. It's the WIC equivalent of Justin's soothing voice, reassuring them that this book set is the one that's going to be an heirloom that their families will cherish after they are gone. And of course, on a diet of glossy magazine weddings, every road leads to Martha Stewart Debtor's Prison.

When I argue with my mom over the things she wants to spend money on, I hear the same tone I used to hear in my grandfather when I'd tell him to stop buying me things. Why won't you let me love you?

Over Christmas, my family watched the Steve Martin remake of Father of the Bride, as we have a million times, but I appreciated it anew from my engaged perspective. That backyard barbecue wedding George imagines Annie having? TOTALLY LEGIT, and would probably end up featured on Offbeat Bride if it had happened. And his change of heart, when he fully embraces the WIC, doesn't come when he sees the pretty cake pictures, or argues with his wife, or even goes to jail. It comes when he sees his daughter reading a budget bridal magazine, and fears that, because of his actions, his daughter might remember her wedding day as a day on which her dreams were compromised. And he can't have that. He loves her too much.

When I argue with my mom over the (to me) foolish, frivolous things she wants to spend money on, I hear in her voice the same tone that I used to hear in my grandfather's when I'd tell him to stop buying me pearls from HSN. Why won't you let me love you?

I wish I had an awesome answer of how we're supposed to help our mothers (and fathers, let's not be gender essentialist — my dad was the one whose bottom lip started quivering when I ragged on cake toppers) avoid these scams, and feel like they're loving us. Like they're doing this wedding thing "right," without letting Martha's marketing director determine their conception of what "right" is. We — the people actually getting married — have blogs, we have a healthy disrespect for tradition, we have recently married friends, we have a whole giant trampoline of awesomeness cushioning our wildest experimental leaps. Our parents have nothing but the fear that they're going to let their children down, and a bunch of Franck Eggelhoffers whispering that that fear can be assuaged with this lovely cake knife corsage.

Read more posts about: , ,


About Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is a newspaper editor and freelance writer based in Salem, Mass.