Many people see marketing as a form of manipulation, particularly prevalent around events such as Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day. But the best kind of marketer knows that rather than trying to manipulate people, it is much easier to understand and work with innate human predispositions.
In fact, only amateur marketers would think that they can manipulate us – although those who are “good” at their jobs do manipulate the environment in which we consume. Indeed, a good marketer aims to move us toward certain decisions that benefit their particular agenda, i.e., selling us stuff, without us consciously engaging too much on what we are doing and why we are doing it.
By drawing upon a plethora of psychological and sociological research to develop tactics that nudge us towards consumption, they subtly give us permission to buy and not to think too much, or too deeply about why we are buying.
Indeed, this is an excellent example of how marketers work with our natural predispositions – not thinking all the time is a very efficient way for us to get by in the world. It conserves energy, and allows us to live relatively easily by responding to our psychological predispositions, social norms, and general cognitive imperfections.
These little “wrinkles” in our perceived rational existence is no more pronounced during the year than when we ecounter the marketing and spending frenzy which we lovingly refer to as Christmas.
All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth – the scarcity effect
One particular technique used by marketers around this time of year is the idea of scarcity. Not just the well-recognised product scarcity often referred to in classical economics, but also experiential scarcity – the idea that scarce time will influence how we approach our decision-making.
What scarcity does is accelerate our perceived perishability of an offer. Christmas is a hard-deadline, and thus we are limited in our freedom to delay the purchase decision.
Research in economics and in social psychology suggests that scarcity influences our ability to use cognitive strategies in decision-making (so we think a little less clearly). This makes something seem even more valuable simply by the fact that we give it more utility if we think it is only available for a short-time; what might be colloquially referred to as the FOMO (fear of missing out).
We feel that if we don’t participate in the Christmas ritual we will miss out on a significant social experience. Scarcity theory tells us that if we think something is scarce or only available for a short-time, our mind will give it more weight predominantly because we uncritically apply an implicit rule of “what is rare, is good”, or “what is scarce, is extreme”.
For example, Melbourne City has their annual “Shop the City” promotion in the first week of December leading up to Christmas, where major retailers and department stores offer shoppers a range of discounts that were only available on the one day. Similarly, many shops are offering Christmas only bundles or gift sets, often at a “discount”, which “doubles” the scarcity effect. All of these tap into our willingness to respond to the scarcity effect and feel the need to buy things that we would normally ignore.
So, even though Christmas comes but once a year, remember that this won’t be your only opportunity to show others how much you love them, or to spend time with your family. It seems obvious, but you can buy people gifts at any time of the year! All that marketers are doing is tapping into your predisposition to value experiential scarcity during socially validated moments to behave in particular ways.
I believe in Father Christmas – social norms, rites and rituals
Humans at their core need to create rites and rituals to create meaning and a sense of security. If we have these festivals it connects us with a community, and gives us a perception of normalcy and predictability. However, many of us don’t stop to think about what the festivals and rituals mean to us; not in some historical, overly scholarly kind of way, but thinking about why we are actually celebrating it.
We are also incredibly social animals; so many of us are influenced by this need to provide a lot of food, or gifts, in the hope that we will be valued by our friends and family. To not do so, especially at Christmas, means resistance to a whole bunch of rites and rituals.
At our core, humans are social, conforming and compliant creatures, despite our hopeful belief that we are all individuals, making independent decisions and choosing what we want; when we want it. The reality is that it would simply be impossible to think about everything we do in isolation, and on its merits. So, we look to others to help us to decide.
If we see that “our people” are doing something, then we tend to assume that this is something we should also do. If we are looking around and our environment is signalling this is what we do at Christmas time, then it is easier to comply than to resist.
And there is nothing wrong with that. It helps us to operate in the world, and if you engage at some reflective level, Christmas can be a really wonderful time of the year. But, the moment you participate in the Christmas ritual, you are complying… which is fine, you are just demonstrating that you are human.
Merry Christmas (I don’t want to fight tonight) – Overwhelming stimuli
By surrounding us with stimuli designed to overwhelm our cognitive processing, we are less likely to think through our decisions in any complete way. When we walk into a shopping mall filled with Christmas tinsel, Christmas music, lights and sounds, we are going to experience some form of ego depletion.
But ego depletion doesn’t mean you instantly become a humble, thoughtful person who only cares about others, when you are subject to overwhelming stimuli. In psychology, we use this term to describe how people don’t always think through their decision-making in a rational and linear way when placed under situations of stress. It is sometimes called ego or cognitive resource depletion, and it is very important in this context, and in contexts where people are put under duress to make decisions.
So, all that noise, colour and movement, isn’t just the shopping centre or strip getting into the festive season. It’s also a technique to get you to think a little less completely, and respond to emotional cues, such as social norms, FOMO, and rituals.
‘Zat you Santa Clause – our inability to forecast
One of things psychological research tells us is that are not very good at predicting the future. Or maybe, it would be better put is that we have an over-inflated sense of our accuracy in predicting the future – we rely on how we feel right now to predict how we might feel about something later. Psychologists call it affective forecasting. So, in the moment, and just in that moment, we buy things that we think we will need. But we discount all the other things that we have bought, and also discount how having all that stuff didn’t necessarily make things great last time.
If we think about Christmas lunch or dinner, many of us are not good at planning how much food we will actually need and we aren’t very good at knowing how much we will actually end up eating (or needing to eat). We pile our plate high, because we don’t really know how much we need, but do know how much we want. Lots and lots. Just in case we miss out on something great.
It’s the same with gifts. We don’t plan, and so we are more susceptible to the gentle nudges that the marketers – with their tactics developed in the cold, hard, rational light of psychology – give us at Christmas time… when we are stressed, in a hurry, and trying to do ten things at once.
Put a little love in your heart – How to resist the temptation
But this is all what makes us human. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves or others. Christmas is a tough time to commit to reducing consumption, but it is possible. To resist any natural response requires a commitment to the idea of resistance, a willingness to practice that resistance at all times (we know that the more we do something, the easier it becomes), and, importantly surrounding ourselves with people who will help us to resist, or at least won’t sabotage that resistance.
This doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from society, but it does mean coming to terms with the idea that you are open to manipulation, framing, priming and persuasion, and coming up with ways to avoid it. By focusing on the idea of Christmas – time with family and friends, treating ourselves to novel food, eating all the great fruit that is available this time of year – rather than succumbing to the commercial nudges that seem to have become imperative to Christmas.
Give gifts if you must, but think about what is moving you toward buying those gifts, and you just might make better choices
… and you never know, the world may be a better place.