By Tempest Wright, Staff Writer/Illustrator –  February 25, 2021

The Power of Want

Desire is as natural to human nature as eating, breathing, and sleeping. We desire shelter to keep us safe, clothes to keep us protected and warm, and nourishment to keep us from getting sick and starving. However, at what point did the propensity to splurge on non-necessities, such as a luxury wristwatch or multiple pairs of the same shoes in different colors, develop? What fuels our incentive to want more, and how much of it is influenced by marketing and advertising?

First, it’s important to have a grasp on the ins and outs of consumer behavior. Technically, everyone is a consumer, including marketers and advertisers themselves. If a person has shopped for anything or purchased a service in their life, they are a consumer. While markets are diverse, consumers exhibit similar patterns of behaviors and motivations for why they seek out the things that they buy. Additionally, all consumers are subject to the same elements of conditioning.

Classical conditioning, as defined by Psychology Today, trains people to associate a product with a certain desired result, and achieves this through repeated exposure. For example, internet ads, tailored to a person’s interests based on their browsing habits, constantly show them brands related to the thing they looked up on Google that morning. A similar phenomenon is the mere-exposure effect. Something arbitrary that doesn’t initially catch an individual’s attention gradually grows more pertinent the more a person is exposed to information (advertisements) about it. It’s the same way a song “grows on” a person the more that they hear it, even if they initially didn’t like the music.

Another cognitive experience is the framing effect. A person sees something that’s of mild interest to them, but the product becomes of greater concern to the person when they learn that it was once twice the cost but now it’s on sale. A $70 pair of earrings seems ridiculous until they find out it was once $140 – the excitement of a good deal pulls consumers in.

However, neither classical conditioning nor the framing effect wholly explains why people are inclined to seek things that they don’t need and spend money for pleasure. One could argue that this behavior is a manifestation of the consumerist society that we live in, and that people’s desire to fit in and belong to a group of familiars overrides rational thinking. Not to mention, our brains release hits of dopamine that make us feel good when we buy new things. Beneath all of this, there is a psychological explanation called the Diderot effect.

The Diderot effect is named after Denis Diderot, a French philosopher who described his experience with this feeling. When Diderot, who spent the majority of his life in poverty, was suddenly bestowed a fortune, he treated himself to a beautiful silk robe. The issue, however, was that this luxurious item fit nothing in his home – it seemed out of place in comparison to the humble living space he’d resided in before he had money. Therefore, Diderot furnished his entire house with expensive rugs, furniture, and accessories all to compliment a single garment. In the end he’s quoted, “Let my example teach you a lesson. Poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles.”

The cumulative result of conditioning, framing, and the Diderot effect makes up today’s consumerist society. While it brings into questioning the ethics of marketing and advertising, most marketers who take true pride in their work prioritize honesty and customer feedback. There are no bells and whistles or attempts to deceive their markets. Additionally, ethical marketers don’t market directly to children and are conscious of their messages to other vulnerable populations (such as the elderly and the impoverished), avoid negative or dehumanizing stereotypes, and respect consumer privacy.

Ultimately, marketing and advertising are more than just selling products. A grasp of the human condition, what motivates people, and how to help them instead of causing harm are requirements. There is so much deep thought – philosophy and psychology – pumped into the world of marketing that makes it successful. As a result, marketing is a powerful tool that shapes people’s perspectives and can shift entire cultures and the minds of generations of people.


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