It only takes a few episodes of Mad Men to understand that advertising is meant to elicit certain emotional responses from consumers. Don Draper excels at his job because he effectively infuses need and desire into products, no matter how frivolous. But toying with people's consumer behavior has a more potent effect than driving them toward the check-out counter. A new study in The Journal of Consumer Research finds that those particularly frivolous, or "hedonic" advertised products can cause us to think differently about ourselves -- and usually not in a good way.
When it comes to women and advertising, criticism generally focuses on unnaturally thin models and the beauty ideal they portray. A study from University of Groningen in the Netherlands, however, demonstrates that an ad featuring stiletto high heels against a plain backdrop can provoke self-judgment similarly as an ad featuring svelte Giselle rocking those same stilettos. In a series of three experiments, the researchers compared the extent and quality of how women perceive themselves after viewing an advertised product to a non-advertised product. Just by slapping a brand name and backdrop on a hedonic product, the merchandise set off a "self-activation effect" in participants, which essentially means it made them think more about themselves in relationship to that product. For instance, women who saw ads for mascara and perfume thought more about their personal appearance and accompanying flaws.
Amazingly, the less people really need a product, the more powerful the self-activation becomes. And that paradoxical effect gets at the heart of why advertising works. As the New York Times notes, "The authors quote Christopher Lasch, who back in the 1970s said "modern" advertising "seeks to create needs, not to fulfill them; it generates new anxieties instead of allaying old ones."" Not surprisingly, that false sense of need fosters a false sense of self as well. The researchers explain in the extended abstract: "Specifically, individuals were found to evaluate their self-image more negatively when they had viewed, for example, a high-heeled shoe (a product previously rated as relatively hedonic) in an ad than when they were exposed to the exact same shoe when it was cut out from its advertisement context." So it doesn't take stick-thin models to make women feel worse about themselves; even a product representing that ideal can be enough to kick off the self-loathing.
On Mad Men, Don Draper once tries to reel in a potential client with a dreamy advertising philosophy. In his scotch-tinted voice, Don opines that "Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK. You are OK."
But it seems Don couldn't be more wrong. At least according to this study, advertising of beauty products, luxury items and other hedonic merchandise is based on quite another thing: inadequacy.