In his classic anthropological study of 1925, The Gift, Marcel Mauss showed that the ritual of gift-giving in tribal societies is rarely motivated by selfless good will, but is a tangled web of mutual obligation, duty and status-seeking. Mauss’s insights about ritualistic exchange could equally be applied to modern-day retail anthropology. Christmas shoppers will have been struck in recent years by the rise of the non-transferable gift: the product that no one would think of buying for themselves, and whose only function is to serve as a nicely packaged, reasonably priced present for someone else. At Christmas time, department stores devote large areas of floor space to these ‘gift ideas’, and newer stores like the Gadget Shop make a virtue of selling things of little practical use. The bizarre gizmos in the much-mocked and now-defunct Innovations catalogue seem to have been reincarnated on the high street.
There are several types of pointless gift. First, there are the ‘accessories’ linked to particular hobbies. Golfers fare particularly badly here, fobbed off with ball monogrammers, digital score cards, shoe bags and telescopic ball retrievers. Second, there are items that promise to provide their owners with a sense of humour by proxy, and which are usually associated with mildly loutish behaviour. Examples include beer belts (‘holds an entire six pack – hands free for convenience’), Friday afternoon hammers (‘It’s Friday afternoon. Get hammered: handy beer bottle opener with hammer’) and handbags inscribed with the words: ‘I smoke – deal with it’. Third, there are gifts that feed into media-created anxieties about health and hygiene, like talking calorie counters and ‘brush guards’ (toothbrush covers). Lastly, there are objects that do have a prosaic use but need to be given a veneer of classiness or labour-saving wizardry to turn them into gifts. Battery-operated corkscrews and metallic car tax disc holders fall into this category.
Pointless presents are linked to the burgeoning science of retail management. Companies now spend fortunes researching which areas of the store customers find most alluring, what forms of lighting and piped-in music make them buy things, and how shop layout and fittings can encourage customer traffic flow and ‘stopping power’. Shops spend most time and energy on so-called ‘point of sale’ displays situated near the checkouts, or in the queuing aisles at the checkouts themselves. These areas are called ‘impulse zones’, and are designed to sell customers things they never knew their friends and relatives needed. A logical move, given that not many people enter a store with the firm intention of buying an office voodoo kit.
Market analysts have seen these geek playthings as part of a new ‘kidult’ economy, as adults embrace grown-up toys to escape from stressful lifestyles and prolong their childhoods. But this assumes that customers make rational choices based on clearly defined needs. People don’t actually want any of these things; if they did, they would buy them for themselves, all year round instead of just at Christmas. In The Gift, Mauss discovered tribal communities that tried to drive each other to economic ruin by perpetually exchanging gifts of ever-ascending monetary value. At least there’s not much chance of this happening with grooming kits and screwdriver sets. The aim of pointless presents is to routinize the social minefield of gift-giving, making it profitable for companies and relatively painless for the rest of us.