How my vendetta against the Benetton family was born

Another cashier reads from a script; another rent is torn in the fabric of civilized society. There is no escape. But we can bitch.

Published June 17, 2008 4:14PM (EDT)

While packing my children off to Florida to spend the next month with their grandparents, I found myself standing in line early this morning at a concession stand inside the Oakland International Airport, waiting to purchase some Advil for my daughter. Without paying too much attention, I heard the cashier ask the woman in front of me if she would like to purchase some water or another beverage along with her newspaper, in that tell-tale rote recital tone of voice that is the clear stamp of corporate-mandated retail behavior. I heaved a little sigh. I'm a grown-up, I know this is a "would-you-like-some-fries-with-that" scrounge-every-possible-penny-from-the-customer's-wallet world. But each new insinuation of such prescripted interaction into my daily life feels like another minor defeat for civilization, another instance of normal humanity subtracted from the world and replaced by a corporate-concocted algorithm designed to maximize sales. I hate it.

My turn came, and I was ready -- I cut the cashier off with a brusque "no" before she got two words into her spiel. I felt a little guilty for being boorish -- I know it's not her fault that she's required to ask me if I want some-water-or-another-beverage. I, on the other hand, had no boss ordering me to be uncivil to a perfect stranger. But hey, what can I say? It was 5 in the morning and I was a little under-caffeinated and a little grouchy. (Maybe I did need a beverage, after all.)

But then my 10-year-old son, who was buying some chewing gum with his travel money for his upcoming flight, stepped up to the counter. And the cashier asked him: "Would you like some water or another beverage with that?" His brow furrowed, and I could see him wondering, is she offering me a drink? But even as he was shaking his head, I was barking, from the side, "No, he doesn't want any water, either."

Undismayed, the cashier moved to the next line on her script -- "Are you sure you don't want a breakfast item with that?"

As longtime readers of How the World Works know, it doesn't take much to set off my sense of indignation. But now my grouchiness was blossoming into full-fledged infuriation. "Don't push him," I growled, and behind me I could feel my son's mother's hackles rising. As a preteen growing up in California, my son is on the receiving end of a 24/7 marketing blitz more sophisticated and unrelenting than anything any generation of children in the world has ever been subjected to. And sometimes it's just too goddamn much. What kind of world have we wrought where concession-stand cashiers are instructed to wheedle 10-year-old boys into making that extra purchase? Where does this remorseless commodification of human interaction ever end?

And who can I call up to bitch about it?

The concession stands at the Oakland International Airport are operated by HMSHost (formerly Host Marriott Services), which describes itself as an "innovative company" that is "world-renowned for creating customized shopping and dining spaces in travel venues." HMSHost "operates in more than 100 airport locations around the globe, including 19 of the 20 busiest airports."

HMSHost is a subsidiary of the Autogrill Group, an Italian multinational listed on the Milan stock exchange that calls itself a "recognized leader in retail, food and beverage concessions serving people on the move."

"Autogrill is active in 42 countries with around 67,000 employees. It operates over 5,300 shops in over 1,200 locations, serving 890 million customers a year."

The Autogrill Group, in turn, is controlled by Edizione Holding, one of two holding companies operated by the Benetton family -- Edizione focuses on retail operations around the world.

Ha ha, isn't that funny. A lesson in globalization for How the World Works. My son's interaction with a cashier in Oakland is part of a web of millions of similar interactions that occur in airports and other places where "people on the move" congregate all across the planet, every one of them no doubt fundamentally the same, a direct result of transnational corporate bottom-line maximization. Where does one even start complaining? Should I call up Luciano Benetton, the chairman of the Benetton Group since its inception? Or should I take my beef to his brother Gilberto, who is president of both Edizione Holding and the Autogrill Group? What about sister Giuliana or kid brother Carlo? Would they please stop trying to push bottled water and breakfast items on my kids? I find their behavior extremely rude. I thought Europe had more culture than that.

But I am powerless. Might as well strain to stop the tide from rushing in. Best I can do, henceforth, is promise myself an inward sneer every time I see the Benetton logo. It won't do a darn bit of good, and of course I know that the real blame rests in the inherent structure of capitalism itself, and not in any single company or mogul.

But it still makes me feel better to blame someone. Yes, I'm looking at you, Luciano.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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