If you’ve ever wanted a glimpse inside the Culture of Coupons, Sam Pocker’s Your Mileage May Vary is your ticket to ride. This 2007 documentary explores the religion of saving money via paper vouchers and examines the lengths individuals go to in order to save as much money as possible.
Pocker’s documentary is quite barebones in its approach, with no musical score to speak of beyond the title menu (maybe he didn’t have a coupon for music licensing) and no narration, charts, graphs, or screen text of any kind beyond the title credits and a Sandy Ennis quotation.
There are “interviews” of a series of consumers, all of whom have in common the inborn capacity to sniff out incredible bargains, clip copious coupons, and even trade these cash-saving techniques amongst their peers and fellow professional bargain hunters.
Everything about Your Mileage May Vary appears to be very positive. There are no consumer experts, no talking heads, no individuals to conceivably counteract the lifestyles of the coupon clippers with some compelling questions. It is all very straightforward.
It is interesting to live on a continent that has, by and large, become fanatical and chiefly identified with consumption. Consumerism is a creed and shopping has become a hobby. People rush stores and flatten one another on Boxing Day up here in Canada to get in on what we’re told are alarmingly awesome sales.
Indeed, consumerism seems to give many individuals in our society a great deal of happiness. It no longer becomes about purchasing what one needs or what is required. It also isn’t about supporting one’s local economy or putting money towards smaller business, neighbouring farms, markets, and so forth. The mammoth supermarket outlets mine consumers with everlasting aisles of options and most of us cheerfully shovel them into our carts.
Pocker’s exploration of the Culture of Coupons presents the same sort of people, only they are presented as savvier than the rest. They combine coupons with other coupons, mash deals together and get rebates, take advantage of store offers and couple those with coupons, and walk out of stores with crates and boxes filled with items. One woman boasts having 90 bags of M&Ms; another boasts hundreds of bottled sauces and a carport filled with groceries dubbed a “storehouse.”
What I couldn’t help but notice with Your Mileage May Vary was just how dedicated and infatuated these individuals were with coupon clipping and the general lifestyle of consumerism. The assumed stipulation here is that they are not spending as much money as the rest of us, therefore their colossal piles of Lipton Iced Tea and other products are, well, less materialistic.
On the commentary, Pocker and others from his YMMV Radio program discuss the purpose for making the film. Essentially Pocker, a “stand-up economist,” wanted something to go along with his Retail Anarchy book (which I will also be reviewing soon). The documentary is another aspect, presenting a “more positive” presentation, and there is also a live show. By the by, YMMV Radio is a talk show about bargains, coupons, deals, and freebies.
As I watched individual after individual discuss their coupon collecting techniques, their shopping approach, their coupon club meetings, and so forth, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that this was just another form of consumerist hysteria.
There are some documentary subjects who boast encyclopaedic knowledge of coupons, right down to the numerical codes on the coupons themselves that inform them as to whether or not the coupons will double at the cash register. I couldn’t imagine being that ill-fated cashier.
Most individuals featured in Pocker’s film ask why other people don’t do what they do. Everybody could be saving an awful lot of money, we’re told, and we could receive free diapers for years. The rub is, of course, that the Culture of Coupons depends on a select few taking the time to do what they do. Corporations do not lose money on purpose and, when the money begins to dribble out of their coffers, the CEOs and fat cats are not going to be the ones to foot the bill.
What would happen if the majority of shoppers practiced the Culture of Coupons’ philosophy and began to receive free goods or pay nickels and dimes for what others pay dollars for? Would the retail industry be thrown into anarchy? Somehow I don’t think so, although it may be interesting to find out. From where I sit, there would be layoffs of the lower level staff and many young kids working in retail 35 hours a week for obscenely low wages and no health benefits would be the first to lose.
Perhaps my evaluation is wrong, but it is based on the incontrovertible concept that corporations do not lose money on purpose. CEOs don’t lose, either.
In the end, Your Mileage May Vary left me with more questions than answers. What if the Culture of Coupons and bargain-hunting passion were more pervasive? What kind of a consumer culture would it be then? Would North America and most of the Western world cease being a culture identified with how much we devour and, indeed, how much we waste? What, if anything, about this obsession is harmful? What of those who buy what they don’t need purely because it is on sale? What about combating consumerism and gratuitous corporate brand support by becoming educated and buying locally instead of snapping up sale items?
Who is the loser in the “coupon game?” I doubt it is the corporations. Perhaps it is the workers, maybe those in China stringing together products for pennies. Perhaps it is the neighbourhood Albertson’s outlet. Perhaps I am wrong. The clear winner is the customer and for Pocker it appears as though that is enough.
Sam Pocker is a professional bargain hunter. His documentary presents the lifestyles of several others in the same “business.” It makes for an interesting watch, to be sure, but it left me wanting more dialogue and another side to the story. It also left me in want of different, better solutions to the rising tide of obscene consumerism, waste, and inequitable corporate practices.