“Women who are exposed to repeated images of other women who are unusually attractive – for instance, when they read a lot of women’s magazines – feel less attractive themselves, and their self esteem is diminished. The same thing happens to men when they read descriptions of other men who are more dominant or successful,” writes Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., a practicing psychotherapist and the author of the book “Happy at Last.”
Advertising has learned how to leverage this phenomenon for sales growth. A typical ad shows an attractive woman dressed in highly fashionable clothes, standing next to a powerful man, the two of them looking absolutely gorgeous in a spacious beach house. It represents a dream come true for many women – looking young and beautiful, wearing clothes that almost no one else can afford, with a rich husband. Who wouldn’t want to find their way into that image?
The image may attract the eye, but the underlying message ends up making us feel inadequate. It serves to remind us of a potential we have yet to fill, of a way of life way we crave but don’t have. Whether the message hits us consciously or subconsciously, the effect is the same: we become dissatisfied with ourselves.
Research has shown a direct relationship between unhappiness and exposure to advertising. It’s no surprise, because unhappiness and want to go hand in hand, and, unfortunately, the creation of want is a key component in advertising. With product lines so wide and diverse, and market competition so fierce, companies have to find some way to make us want their products. What better way than to simply tap into the reliable, predictable emotions of desire, envy, and insecurity? The most successful ads arouse a desire to become just like one of the models in the ads. As a potential customer exposed to those kinds of ads, you feel inadequate until you get a hold of whatever the ad is promising. The wanting is like an itch, and you’ve got to scratch it.
We also know that the human brain is wired to always want more of something. When you get what you wanted, you get used to it, and then you want more. That quick adaptation to pleasure is also known as “habituation.” Since we already have that trait hard-wired into our systems, perhaps we can’t criticize marketers too much for tapping into it, can we? After all, they didn’t create desire, they just found ways to tap into it. In fact, perhaps we should praise them for their understanding of the human brain.
Of course, making your customers feel bad about themselves isn’t a great long-term business strategy. Marketers do have to provide some sort of access to happiness in order to create customer loyalty. By making sure that women who continue to buy their products will feel younger and more attractive, companies ensure the future of their businesses. Whether their products actually make women look younger, or whether they simply make them feel younger, doesn’t really matter. The effect is the same. When you become the key to your customers’ rising self-esteem, you’ll sell more. But key to cultivating that loyalty is maintaining a dependency, where at some level your customers fear that if they lose access to, or stop investing in, your product, they will lose their happiness.
I think there is a lesson to be drawn from this for us as consumers. Cut down on the number of ads you are exposing yourself to. Stop reading gossip magazines showing off the lives of the rich and famous. Stop reading fashion magazines showing impossibly beautiful people wearing impossibly expensive clothes in impossibly huge beach houses.
Just say no to this never-ending treadmill, this ceaseless creation of want. Discover your own style and freedom. When you quiet the noise around you, you will find you have more control over your life than you ever thought possible. You will begin to clearly see the path toward your real dreams, the dreams that appear when you aren’t listening to someone else’s version of what you need.