beware the coercion of malls

Gruen Pains

It was back in the mid 90’s when I first noticed it. After a lot of years of relative poverty and the busy-ness of both co- and single-parenting, I decided to take them on one of the favorite activities of my youth:
We were all going to the mall. I remember fondly going with my parents to Paramus Park in New Jersey, with the shiny stuff in Sears and Farrell’s Ice Scream Parlor and KayBee Toy and Hobby. Heck, while I don’t really remember it, my mother used to work at Shepherd Mall in Oklahoma City and apparently as a four-year-old I was quite popular among the shopkeepers.

I had a little disposable income, it was time to carry on that family tradition with my daughters. My girlfriend and I took the double-seated stroller and went off to East Towne with all four of my daughters, a caravan of fun. Unfortunately, about fifteen minutes into the visit, I started feeling lightheaded. Then nauseous. I felt weak, unsteady on my feet.

Thinking it was some kind of hypoglycemic attack, I bought a snickers and tried to power through it. No such luck. We left the mall after only about forty-five minutes. I was sad, but figured it was something I ate, or perhaps just a bug.

No such luck. Over the next two decades, even now, every time I go into a mall I am on a timer to see at what point I will just start to feel crappy. I blamed new security systems, I blamed flourescents, I even blamed overly-enthusiastic perfumed items.

Guess what? I was right, and wrong at the same time. What I was experiencing has been called “the Gruen Transfer” (or Effect) and it is well known. In fact, it’s intentional, though perhaps not to the extent that it happens in me.

Unintentional Coercion by Design

Viktor Gruen was an Austrian-born architect who emigrated to the U.S. in 1938. He built a career here practically from scratch and in 1954 designed the first open-air mall in Detroit (ironically, the man who created what has become a symbol of American capitalist values was a committed socialist).

He didn’t intend for his invention to cause the effect that was later named after him, but it happened anyway:

The Gruen transfer is the moment when consumers respond to “scripted disorientation” cues in the environment. Spatial awareness of their surroundings plays a key role, as does the surrounding sound, art, and music. The effect of the transfer is marked by a slower walking pace. – Wikipedia

While Gruen did want to prioritize walking (he designed many of the pedestrian malls in several cities) as he watched many retailers and other architects capitalize on the effect by intentionally making it more intense, he reportedly became “heartbroken”, especially since his attempts at publicly decrying the practice resulted in the effect being named after him.

Casinos are often held up as models of this kind of intentional disorientation, where “coercive atmospherics work in a way that does not acknowledge us as humans, but rather as brains with five senses” according to former ad man turned media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. However, if you think you are immune to it, you really simply aren’t paying attention: Mark Pollard gives a good description of how IKEA uses this method, for example, with everything from providing you with measuring tapes (better measure something!) as well as putting expensive items before cheaper ones. And, of course, there is the layout of the stores themselves, which make my old Dungeons & Dragons maps look downright banal.


Forewarned is For Naught

Remember when I talked about conditioning, and how even when you know about it you are still susceptible? Rushkoff has a term for it: the “Cool Kids”, who spot the advertising tricks and therefore feel as though they have shielded themselves from them. Unfortunately, this is only true on a superficial level; these kinds of sensory bombardments bypass the conscious mind through the biological stimuli and affect people regardless of their awareness.

On the other hand ,if you can’t control how you feel, you can control your actions. There are going to be a lot of people going to malls this weekend; here’s some techniques you can use to keep the coercion to a minimum:

  • Don’t Go. OK, it may be the most obvious, but it’s also your best defense. If you don’t want to get wet, don’t jump in the lake. There are many other ways to get fish.
  • Leave when you want. Listen to your fatigue level, and keep yourself from having to visit every store “just to see if there’s something on sale”
  • Go with a list. Know what you want, know what you need, and go in like you’re Marine Force Recon: get in, get it done, get out. Make a timed goal of it, deploy your friends as auxiliary forces, use your phone as comms and turn it into a live-action game.
  • Go as a rapturist. Instead of having the goal of “I gotta get something” try having the goal of “I’m gonna randomly make people’s lives better.” That might mean giving them your place in line, or lifting things down from shelves, or just smiling at the tired kid to distract them from crying.
  • Guilt Yourself Out of It. Given recent events in Ferguson, and the responding demonstrations in many other U.S. cities, do you really think participating in “Black Friday” is the best use of resources? Perhaps you could feel a rush of joy spending your money in other places.

I’m not trying to be a spoilsport, or even a socialist (you won’t find me designing any malls!). I’m just saying that when you walk into the mall, you are consenting to a coercive environment. So be aware. And be safe.
And be thankful. I know I am!

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