A Happier, Commercial-Free Future

One day in the not-so-distant future the TV-advertising industrial complex will come crashing to the ground and be replaced by super-targeted location-based smartphone ads that will drive civil libertarians to start a colony under the sea. Fortunately, once we get past the privacy issues, the new system will be a good thing. There will be more efficient person-product matching, and our economy will waste less money on nuclear arms race advertising (e.g. Miller Lite and Bud Light spending billions of dollars to maintain the status quo and not create any value.)

A new study by a group of Northwestern researchers points to a third  and potentially more important consequence of a new advertising paradigm. Less exposure to desirable goods or “consumer cues” makes us less materialistic at the margin, and in the end that makes people happier.

Correlational evidence indicates that materialistic individuals experience relatively low levels of well-being. Across four experiments, we found that situational cuing can also trigger materialistic mind-sets, with similarly negative personal and social consequences. Merely viewing desirable consumer goods resulted in increases in materialistic concerns and led to heightened negative affect and reduced social involvement (Experiment 1). Framing a computer task as a “Consumer Reaction Study” led to a stronger automatic bias toward values reflecting self-enhancement, compared with framing the same task as a “Citizen Reaction Study” (Experiment 2). Consumer cues also increased competitiveness (Experiment 3) and selfishness in a water-conservation dilemma (Experiment 4). Thus, the costs of materialism are not localized only in particularly materialistic people, but can also be found in individuals who happen to be exposed to environmental cues that activate consumerism—cues that are commonplace in contemporary society.

Try and count how many times during the day you’re exposed to something you want but can’t have. It’s impossible. And each of those moments may be chipping away at your positive affect. There will always be ads that induce a materialistic mindset, but in a future without TV or print ads there will be less of them.

Another downside to our current world is that when you see an advertisement you expend some thought considering the costs and benefits of various products and the state of your current material possessions. Because these thoughts are relatively fruitless, not only will fewer ads lead to less materialism and more happiness, it should also free up some mental capacity for more important thoughts. Like why all important decisions are not made via a tournament bracket format.
Bauer, M., Wilkie, J., Kim, J., & Bodenhausen, G. (2012). Cuing Consumerism: Situational Materialism Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429579

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