It’s shopping season, which means it’s time to pick on capitalism

The latest meme for doing that is to create a collage of very similar products and tag it with the comment “Capitalism breeds innovation.” And the latest version of that meme, illustrated here, uses the Hallmark Christmas movie genre as its illustrative example.

It’s a good joke. (Though I’m a bigger fan of the prose version that goes: What has 15 actors, four settings, two writers, and one plot? 632 Hallmark movies.) And there is something both creepy and funny about all those smiling, shiny, green and red clad couples posed affectionately on the movie posters. 

But it’s a pretty bad criticism of capitalism’s ability to inspire innovation.

These Hallmark movies all look alike, it’s true. And they are, in a certain sense, really all alike. But they are alike only in the same way that Coke and Pepsi and their variants are all alike. Or in the way that Dr. Pepper and its knock-off versions (another popular meme target) are all alike. 

As anyone who has encountered a die-hard Pepsi or Coke fan knows, there are distinct differences between the two brands, and equally distinct differences among their sub-brands. Coke Zero drinkers want little or nothing to do with Diet Coke, for example, and would probably rather drink water than Diet Pepsi. To me, all their variations taste like overly sweet battery acid mixed with television static, but to connoisseurs, the distinctions among them are subtle, nuanced, and important.

And when it comes to all those knock-offs of Dr. Pepper? I’m sure their consumers are similarly loyal to their own favorite version. In addition, to me, there seems to have been considerable creativity put into finding innovative ways to name each of these drinks in order to point consumers to the resemblance to Dr. Pepper, without actually violating its copyright. Equally, while the can’s share some visual similarities, a closer look demonstrates wild innovation in typefaces and other design elements. Many of the cans are also store brands, indicating innovations in price points and purchasing convenience for shoppers–no matter how much the drinks may taste alike to casual consumers.

So shouldn’t we approach Hallmark movies with the same assumptions? I cannot see the variety that they surely contain, and I’m not overly interested in watching a few dozen of them in order to discover it. But surely we can trust fellow consumers who do enjoy them, and who have particular favorite films to which they are devoted. They see subtleties and distinctions that many of us do not, and the market is fulfilling their preferences for them.

And even if the movies are all essentially indistinguishable, that is, in itself, an innovation. It’s an innovation in marketing, and an innovation in family traditions for many people for whom “watching the new Hallmark movies” is now as much a part of the holiday season as caroling or decorating a tree.

I’m not going to spend my December cracking open a Coke or Pepsi while I watch a Hallmark movie. But I’m also not going to spend it claiming that my ability to choose among a few hundred ways to do so is a sign that capitalism is a failure.