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File image of people Christmas shopping on Grafton Street. Alamy Stock Photo
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Conspicuous consumption at Christmas: How marketers get us to spend more and more

The average consumer is set to spend around €600 on gifts, with close to 30% using some form of borrowing to do so.

CONSUMERS ARE UNDER pressure to spend more and more at Christmas, with the average person set to spend around €600 euro on gifts.

Close to 30% of Irish consumers also expect to use some form of borrowing to finance their spending this festive season, according to research from the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.

Meanwhile, Kantar research has found that grocery sales in Ireland are expected to surpass €1.4 billion for the first time ever this December. 

For many, this impulse to buy can be explained by the deluge of advertising that we are exposed to, a torrent of communication that begins earlier each year.

Dr Sarah Browne is an Assistant Professor in Marketing at Trinity Business School.

She told The Journal that businesses generate a disproportionate amount of their revenue during the festive period, so that from their point of view, “it makes sense to elongate occasions where we tend to over consume and overspend”.

She noted that marketing strategies are amplified during the festive period and that Christmas advertising and in store displays are “encroaching earlier each year”.

“From a marketing point of view, there can be no gaps in the seasonal shopping calendar,” said Browne.

dublin-ireland-november-24-2021-circus-themed-christmas-window-display-at-arnotts-department-store-on-henry-street Circus themed Christmas window display at Arnotts in 2021 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

In the UK, advertisers are set to spend a record €11 billion during the Christmas season and there is research that shows that every £1 spent on advertising returns £6 to the UK economy.

“Advertising works, it does have an impact,” said Browne, “but it also has an impact on individual consumers.

Browne added: “Every Christmas, large scale surveys are done to forecast consumer spending and year-on-year there’s an increased sense of anxiety about the higher cost associated with Christmas, and increased pressure to spend at this time of year as well.

“So for a lot of people, instead of being a time of joy and merriment and catching up with family and friends, Christmas time can be quite stressful.

“It’s a bit of a paradox – we are feeling the higher cost of Christmas, we know there’s this increased pressure to spend, and yet we still continue to buy for the sake of it and I’d argue marketing has a lot to do with it.”

‘Consumption happiness myth’

While some say money can’t buy happiness, there is certainly a tendency to try.

“There’s a theory in psychology called the consumption happiness myth,” said Browne, “and marketing really exploits that.

“We’re bombarded with messages that if we want to be happy, there’s a route to happiness and that is through consuming things.

“But all that results in overtime is a deep-rooted dissatisfaction and insecurity with what we already have, because we’re conditioned by advertising to always be thinking the next best thing.”

Brown adds the advertising attempts to sell us the idea that if we drive a certain car or wear a certain brand, “we will eventually reach this state of happiness”.

“But it doesn’t play out that way,” said Browne.

“But at Christmas, this consumption happiness myth is really amplified because we are persuaded with carefully-crafted and entertaining commercials that the more we buy, the more we spend, the happier we will be, the better our Christmas will be, the more our family and friends will know that we appreciate and love them.”

Browne adds that this pressure to consume creates a lot of physical waste – Ireland produces up to 30% more waste at Christmas time.

“That’s because of those messages from marketing and advertising to be the perfect Christmas host and to have the perfect Christmas you have to have all of this extra luxurious, decadent food in the house and you have to buy all of these gifts and all that kind of thing.”

Browne also warned that we have reached “hyper-consumerism” – a level of consumption well beyond our functional needs and driven by an intense pressure to consume.

“There is a tendency to blame individual consumers – ‘make smarter choices, don’t listen to advertising, you don’t have to spend, it’s your fault’.

“There’s also a tendency to put blame wholly on marketing,” said Browne.

“My argument would be that all marketing is doing is performing its job. Its duty is dictated by a capitalist society that we must continuously grow and create generate profitability at all costs.

“This endless economic growth, that imperative has to be challenged as opposed to victim blaming and putting the blame on individual consumers.

“We are just victims of decades and decades of aggressive marketing telling us that we need to consume to be happy and marketing is just a symptom of a bigger problem, which is this growth and profitability at all costs, which is the underlying principle of capitalism.”

The Christmas TV ad

We may be watching less linear television, but the Christmas television advertisement is still a core part of many retailers’ festive marketing campaigns.

Browne explained: “With TV advertising at Christmas time, there’s a tradition and history of very kind of emotionally laden messages.

“The grocery retailers aren’t just telling us to buy their turkey and their Brussels sprouts.

“They’re using emotional tactics and pulling at our heartstrings to sell us the idea that through food, Christmastime is when you can share special moments with your family and it’s those types of appeals that make us take the wallets out and spend more.

“We’re constantly told to treat yourself at Christmas, give into those indulgences and make Christmas extra special with this limited-edition type of product and service.”

While the marketing will sometimes rely on “rational appeals on price and value for money”, the emotional story-telling is amplified at Christmas to get us to spend more.

“Marketing is really good at storytelling and marketers tell us a compelling story that we want to believe in,” said Browne.

“But that story has perpetually been about spending and that we need to continually buy to be happy and that’s never truer than at Christmas time.

“They tell you, ‘if you want to have the best Christmas and show appreciation for your loved ones, you should spend that little bit extra on food and luxurious gifts’, things that we wouldn’t normally spend our money on.

“That conspicuous consumption is really aggravated at Christmas time through marketing.”

British retailers Marks & Spencer and John Lewis spend huge sums on their Christmas TV ad campaigns.

Both retailers have, in their own way, tried to get across the idea that we shouldn’t feel pressured to do things a certain way at Christmas.

M&S has celebrities chucking away board games and burning Christmas cards, with the narrator encouraging: “This Christmas, do only what you like.”

Meanwhile, the John Lewis ad features a boy planting the “perfect Christmas tree”, only for it to turn out to be a cheeky carnivorous plant who messes up the living room.

After being banished to the back garden, the small boy gives the plant a present on Christmas morning.  

“Let your traditions grow” is the ad’s tagline.

“It’s funny, because what they’re saying is you don’t have to buy into the whole idea or the hype of Christmas and spending,” said Browne.

“But it’s coming from two large retailers at Christmas time who probably have the biggest marketing spend at this time of year.”

She added: “What they’re maybe trying to touch on a shift in consumer mindset that we’re starting to see, that maybe there is an alternative story out there and there is an alternative way we can enjoy Christmas that doesn’t involve extortionate amounts of money being spent on things that for the most part, people don’t need or want.

“But I don’t know the authenticity and legitimacy of that coming from large multinationals whose entire business model is about selling more things at Christmas.”

She also remarked that grocery retailers “don’t sell food at Christmas, they sell us experiences and sharing magical moments with your family – and that’s through food”.

“They don’t directly insinuate that, they let us come to that conclusion,” said Browne.

“They’re selling us ideas about what Christmas should be and how we should spend Christmas without going for the hard sell that you have to buy our products.”

She points to Coca-Cola as a good example of avoiding the “hard sell”.

“If you ask the lay person on the street what advertising comes to mind when they think of Christmas, it will probably be the Coca-Cola advert and the Coca-Cola truck.

“There’s not really a direct mention of the Coca-Cola product in that advertisement and yet globally, it will be renowned and associated with Christmas.”

She explained that Coca-Cola wanted to increase their winter sales and in doing so, “they took this innocuous image of Saint Nicholas, and amplified that kind of image in our head of the round-bellied, jolly, respectable, old man who happens to drink Coca Cola as well.

the-coca-cola-truck-on-tour-around-britain-in-bradford-west-yorkshire The Coca-Cola truck on tour Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“They usurped this idea of what Christmas is and the concept of Santa Claus in order to sell more but they don’t go on the hard sell or the rational appeal by saying Coca-Cola is a nice drink to have at Christmas.

“Indirect storytelling as opposed to a hard selling of products is what good marketing is about and Coca-Cola is very good at commercialising Christmas.”

Cost of Living

With rising prices, Browne notes that the consumer sentiment of many this Christmas “isn’t one of jolly merriment and having loads of disposable income to spend”.

“There’s a real cost of living crisis and it’s coming to bite a lot of these large retailers because the story that we’ve been sold for so long is a fairy tale of consumerism, that in order to be happy, we must continually buy lots of things,” said Browne.

“This fairy tale of consumerism is now becoming an ecological, public health, and now cost of living nightmare.

“It’s time that a new story is going to have to be told, particularly around Christmas, and maybe some of those large advertisers are recognising that.

“Maybe a story should really start with the underlying message that less is more.”

Browne told The Journal that she would like to see “marketing kind of becoming the opposite of itself” but acknowledges that she doesn’t anticipate it happening anytime soon.

“Rather than trying to persuade us to buy more than we need and accept debt in order to buy those things, maybe encourage us to spend less.

“So reduce the number of things we buy and increase the time you spend with your family and your loved one.

“Will we ever see a day where corporations decide to cut their advertising spend during Black Friday, and instead donate that money to homeless shelters or food kitchens that do great work, especially at Christmastime?

“That would be a legitimate and authentic way to show that you really are intent on changing the meaning of Christmas and really showcasing what Christmas is all about,,” said Browne, “rather than a superficial marketing communication that pretends to be one thing about the message of the real Christmas, but really, the agenda is still the same and that’s getting us to buy more.”

A rethink of Christmas

Browne also encouraged people to “have a rethink of what Christmas means to you and how you could show people how you care”.

“Anything that means something other than buying material things at a time of year when people are receiving too much anyway.

“So maybe just have an open conversation with your friends and family about how you might spend the Christmas holiday together that doesn’t involve buying things and puts the emphasis on spending time with people.

“It’s almost like de-marketing – I would like to see the message being accepted and shared that it’s okay to not spend lots of money at Christmas time and maybe if people start having those conversations, and it might become normalised as a new way of spending Christmas.”

She also advised consumers to try to overlook the “intense pressure on them to consume”.

“This excessive level of consumption of things that we don’t need, that’s probably quite reflective of how we all shop at Christmastime, and we don’t normally do that throughout the other times of the year.

“Because of that pressure to consume, sometimes what should be a joyous time can become more stressful than happy.

“I would urge people to accept the idea that happiness and having a good Christmas doesn’t necessarily have to equate with buying material things.”

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