Dumpster Divers or Culture Jammers?: TLC’s Extreme Couponers
Extreme Couponing fits squarely within TLC’s lineup of programs, all of which put peoples’ oddities on display for viewers to judge. Like Hoarding: Buried Alive, Quints by Surprise, My Strange Addiction, and Toddlers & Tiaras, Extreme Couponing evokes surprise, and even disgust for the lengths to which people go to accumulate coupons, acquire products, and display their stockpiles. It fails, however, to thoroughly explore people’s motivations for their actions.
Each episode typically tells the stories of two extreme couponers: how they began couponing, what methods they use, and how they store what they have accumulated. With this established, most episodes focus on a major shopping trip in which couponers strategize to bring home “the biggest haul” of their lives. Planning and executing this shopping trip consumes the couponers, who after hours in the checkout line watching every move of the cashier, have to transport the enormous volume of products to their homes. For example, Amanda spends 3 hours in her grocery store to fill 9 carts. The store’s computer crashes during the 2-hour checkout, requiring the cashier to begin again and drawing crowds of gawking shoppers and staff. Throughout the process she worries about whether she planned properly and if she will have a larger bill than she can afford. In the end, she needs two vehicles to transport her haul, but feels victorious: using 1000 coupons, she paid only $51.67 for products with a retail value of $1175.33. She already had 10,000 food, cleaning, and health care items at home, including a 40-year supply of toilet paper.
While the show focuses on these shocking spectacles of consumption, I am more drawn to the brief moments when the couponers offer justifications for their actions. For instance, Jaime describes how couponing was a hobby until her husband lost his job and her daughter was hospitalized. She shares that couponing empowered her to support her family for very little money. Joyce reveals that she has been “on her own” since she was 12 and that she began couponing when she realized that coupons could help her stretch her budget. Thirty years later, she is debt free and teaches couponing in her community. Nathan has been couponing for 4 years, prompted by the realization that he and his wife were “drowning in debt.” He boasts that they are now debt free and believes that the stash of products in his 2-car garage is “every man’s dream.”
These human stories are incredibly compelling, demonstrating a clever way that some Americans make ends meet during a major economic recession. With the 2010 unemployment rate at 9.6%, the 2009 poverty rate at 14.3%, and the 2009 median household income at $49,777, extreme couponing is a clever and fairly subversive way of using manufacturers’ and retailers’ marketing techniques against them. Reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s “tactics,” extreme couponers combine coupons with store policies to maximize their savings potential, taking home piles of goods for little or no money. Certainly the couponers’ ostentatious collections of methodically organized canned goods, toilet paper, and hand soap do reveal some compulsive tendencies, but the earnestness with which couponers work the system to acquire their stashes provides a peek at the warped economic system that has grown so big that it simultaneously threatens the financial security of working class citizens, provides them with the tools to exploit the big businesses at its core, and displays it on cable television!
In 2010, consumers redeemed more coupons for consumer packaged goods than ever before, saving $3.7 billion. Despite this, they redeemed only 3.1% of the 332 billion coupons available. It is easier for TLC to portray extreme couponers as unstable dumpster divers than as culture jammers—and this certainly fits squarely within the channel’s identity. But certainly viewers frustrated with layoffs, bailouts, and corporate greed can read between the lines to think about how they could get more for less. I, for one, will never experience the grocery store in the same way again.