While surfing TV channels over spring break, I noticed a show on ABC called Shark Tank. A knock-off of a British and Canadian show called Dragon’s Den, Shark Tank provides entrepreneurs and ambitious small business owners with a chance to pitch their business or product to boardroom of “sharks,” shrewd, self-made millionaire investors with a considerable talent for making money. The contestants approach the sharks requesting a specific dollar amount for a percentage of their company, make their pitch, and wait to see if the sharks care to make them an offer. Many propositions are immediately dismissed as ridiculous and hopeless, while others are so potentially lucrative that the sharks will compete with one another for the contestant’s partnership.
The show has good entertainment value, as it combines dramatic negotiations with innovative thinking and feel-good stories about hard-working people just trying to taste the American dream. However reaching a deal with the sharks is almost universally seen as a good thing, despite people often losing over 50 percent of their business for a few thousand dollars. The sharks wield all the power, as they know that these people need their investments to fulfill their dreams, and, as a result, they are able to take advantage of just a about every contestant for the sole purpose of making these self-described “filthy rich” people even wealthier.
However, even more concerning is what the show reveals about the true nature of our brand of capitalism and consumer culture. With respect to the success of the contestants, the show actually does profess some positive principles, demonstrating considerable rewards for hard work, diligence, and innovation. It may appear easy on the show, but for the most part, those who come away from the shark tank with a smile do so because they have earned it with their sweat and brainpower. Even if they do lose a disproportionate amount of their business to the sharks, they still are able to earn a solid living with the investment they received on the program.
Nevertheless, with a closer look at the products and services actually being presented, we can begin to see the core problem highlighted by the show. Rather than creating items and investing in businesses that help improve society as a whole, the show encourages and rewards the invention of consumer goods that are utterly worthless to people except in their ability to provide very temporary and rather meaningless pleasure.
For example, one bright group of teenagers created a line of cheaply-made bracelets called “Flipoutz.” Each bracelet was made for approximately 69 cents, though they sold for nearly five dollars in retail. Hence, if the business were to become a success, it would mean people are wasting $5 for something that really isn’t worth more than the plastic it’s made with. The bracelet, like many of the items on the show, offers no utility and is simply another scheme, though well-intended, to get people to spend their hard-earned cash—cash they should be saving to invest in healthy foods, housing, education, and numerous other outlets that can improve one’s health and their society.
Of course, saving five dollars on a bracelet is not going to help pay your mortgage, but this example demonstrates a larger principle at work—that we, the consumers, frivolously spend our money on far too many useless things like novelty bracelets. This notion carries over to excessive luxury purchases, which, although we may use them in our daily lives, often far exceed what we actually need to live a healthy and enjoyable life. While voters lament the lack of affordable housing, crises in public education, and decaying infrastructure, they continue to buy numerous pairs of shoes, new clothes, touch-screen phones, and even cars that cost far beyond their families’ economic means. Not only do we diminish our own savings, but our money ends up in the hands of sharks, whose only plan for it is to create the next useless item or luxury product that we will indiscriminately spend on, and not to build schools, feed the poor, or provide a better work environment for their employees.
Consequently, while I appreciate the entertainment value of Shark Tank, it raises several crucial concerns about our consumer society. Though probably few would argue we place too much value in the acquisition of material goods, it is important that we start to understand the dire consequences of what may seem like meaningless transactions. If we can better orient our spending and investment towards the improvement of society, rather than the pursuit of useless goods, we will have found a broadly effective response to many of our nation’s core issues.