Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Magnum and free will

published 28 Mar 2012, MST

I ate ice cream thrice last week. On Monday, my 18-year-old daughter told me about seeing a crowd of college students around a Magnum freezer in the Mini-Stop outlet near us. It’s more expensive than the usual ice cream, she said. We wondered whether it was worth the P55 price tag. Out of curiosity, we got our own Magnum bars.

I am not especially fond of chocolate but to my non-expert taste buds, the ice cream bar was good enough. On impulse, my daughter and I took pictures of the wrapper and of each other enjoying the ice cream. For a moment I wondered whether I should post the photos on Facebook. I decided not to. Nobody else needed to know that I had satisfied my curiosity and shared a nice dessert with my daughter despite our respective workloads (it was finals season).

That evening, my 16-year-old son learned what his Ate and I had for dessert and said he wanted to try it, too. He volunteered to go to the store at 11PM. It was still nice, but by then, the novelty had worn off. It tasted better the first time around.

Three days later, our helper celebrated her birthday. The kids teased: “Magnum for everybody!” (there were seven of us at home that day). I relented, said my happy birthdays—but decided Magnum was definitely something we could live without.

The ice cream bar hit social networking sites with equal pomp that week. Many raved about how delicious the ice cream was—even though it was a bit pricey.

Certainly, P55 (P50 in malls) is a big deal for millions of Filipinos. Did not protesters, just two weeks ago, take to the streets to protest the rising prices of oil? Did not students and lowly employees complain about the just-imposed 50-centavo increase in the minimum fare for jeepneys? This, not so much the calories, is what makes Magnum a guilty pleasure.

So how come the stock is always wiped out at the end of the day?

Dean Rolando Tolentino of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication promptly wrote about the Magnum fad last week in the Web site Bulatlat.com. In Tagalog, Tolentino characterized the popularity of the Selecta ice cream as “gitnang-uring aspirasyon” (a middle- class aspiration). He says Magnum establishes that pleasure is a birthright—and anybody who aspires to be in the middle class should feel entitled to the Magnum experience.

In the end, Tolentino says, it is all about belonging—of personally experiencing a collective desire.

In the span of a few days, however, the rave reviews of Magnum turned into ridicule of those who had earlier posted photos of themselves enjoying the ice cream. Now they were not just pleasure seekers or ice cream lovers. They were social climbers buying an overpriced ice cream even if they had little money left for everything else. They had low self-esteem who could only feel superior if they could show they have caught on with the latest “in” thing.

A blog, www.sowhatsnew.wordpress.com, ran an article about Department of Trade and Industry Secretary Gregory Domingo ordering Unilever, the company behind Magnum, to roll back the product’s price. That the news report is a satire becomes clear as you scroll down and read the part where the top-secret component of Magnum is revealed: 10 percent ice cream, 90 percent status symbol.

But, really, why all this fuss about an ice cream that has become a fad for its price, if not for its taste? This is a free country, a free economy. Companies present consumers with options. Cajoled, perhaps, but not coerced, it is the buyers who decide where to put their money. They may patronize a product for its taste, for the trustworthiness of its manufacturer, for its exclusivity.

I want to eat Magnum every night after dinner? That is none of my neighbor’s business, in the same way that I have no right to question why he might line up for milk tea or frozen yogurt or even good old Starbucks—unless the money he spends comes out of my pockets.

If my neighbor feels entitled to this pleasure, let him be. After all, who is eventually going to suffer from her imprudent financial decisions? Who will have less funds for good books or savings or other more meaningful purchases?

We think it’s overpriced? Then let’s not buy.

But if it gives my friend extra satisfaction to upload photos of herself and her family enjoying an ice cream bar, then I will let her be. I won’t comment, or if I hate it so much, I will unfriend her. If I think she is all about Magnum and other status symbols and nothing else, then I will start to wonder why we are even friends in the first place.

Free choice—this is our real birthright. In the meantime, let me enjoy my buko-flavored ice candy from the corner store. It now sells for P5, tenfold its price when I was a kid, but it tastes just as heavenly. Want a picture?



adellechua@gmail.com

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