The Science of Desire

Conspicuous consumption is often defined as spending money on otherwise unnecessary luxuries. This is usually to gain social status, approval, or recognition.

In other words, spending money on things you don’t need is a subconscious behavioral tendency seen across the West. It’s especially common in the most technologically savvy and developed countries.

For instance, you don’t really need expensive, stainless steel silverware – but it makes a good impression on guests. The nicest restaurants in the world, invest millions in silverware and dining essentials. However, they actually “need” this kind of silverware to maintain their reputation, pricing, and status. For home utensils, there can be no expected financial gain, unless you frequently entertain guests with the goal of doing business together. 

Alternatively, you do not actually need designer clothing, a luxury vehicle, or anything of the sort.

So why do we have a tendency to splurge on luxury items when we can’t afford them?

The answer is simple: survival.

Of course, these are not essential tools for survival. However, social status, approval, and comfort are a part of our hard-wiring and indirectly critical components to our survival.

Subconscious Rationalization

When it comes to sexuality and reproduction, there are genetic markers that alert us to whether a person is a viable candidate to mate with. These markers attract subconsciously, however, there are certain things we can do to distort the appearance of those markers. For example, the Brazilian Butt Lift is a popular procedure where a cosmetic surgeon makes a person’s stomach smaller and their gluteal region, larger.

Makeup can be used to brighten the eyes, create the appearance of a youthful glow, and hair extensions can lengthen a person’s hair.

Testosterone supplements can boost a person’s vitality and strength. While pharmaceuticals can remove the obvious symptoms of an unhealthy body.

Million-dollar sports cars are not a necessity, but have you seen how people respond to the guy driving a Lamborghini?

Why do we buy things we don’t need?

When you see someone wearing a $4,000 Rolex, do you imagine what it’d be like around your own wrist?

Or do you judge them?

Maybe you even try to befriend them?

Either way, it’s likely you’ll have a response – and then begin assigning meaning and judgment to that person, their values, and their character.

The meaning you subconsciously assign will depend on your own beliefs and values.

In other words, what you see in them will tell you more about yourself. 

Mirror Neurons in Conspicuous Consumption

For many researchers, the biggest advance in neuroscience in recent years is the discovery of mirror neurons. According to the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Neuroscience, these mirror neurons can enrich our understanding of advertising processing.

Mirror neurons kick in when you’re observing an act you are subconsciously, but not physically, a part of. 

This is the result of unconscious cognition.  Unconscious cognitive triggers in modern marketing affect how we perceive and associate meanings with brands that are trying to sell their product or service to us. 

A Nobel Prize Winner’s Take on Consumption

In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow he breaks down just how irrational the human mind can be. He explains how the logic and reasoning behind most purchases come from the subconscious meaning we’ve given past experiences.

Further, every time we purchase a new product or service, cortisol levels rise and the body enters into a subtle state of stress and anxiety.

This works similarly in scenarios where any form of learning takes place.

Habits and behaviors have to be learned and repeated before they become a subconscious program.

We weren’t born understanding how to walk, read, or write. Even more complex tasks like driving a car, using tactical empathy (manipulation), and analytical thinking have to be programmed into the subconscious mind.

Therefore, any change requires immense energy and effort. These “natural resources” are directed toward accomplishing a specific task until they are no longer necessary because the act has become a habit.

Subtle subliminal messages, like familiar music playing in the background as we shop around a department store, has the ability to quell this anxiety.

This has the effect of making us feel at ease while making buying decisions. It has no direct implication on whether the product or service will benefit us. Consequently, most buying decisions – and decisions in general – are fundamentally irrational.

That said, let’s delve deeper into how these mimicking or mirror neurons shape emotional marketing to influence conspicuous consumption.

1) Infectious happiness

Have you ever heard that happiness is contagious?

Well, this seemingly dull statement is quite insightful.

Did you catch the 2015 promotion by Coca Cola titled “Choose Happiness”?

It was the perfect example. Large corporations are channeling the power of reflective neurons to tug at the heartstrings of their target market. 

The campaign was a massive success because it featured people smiling and laughing. It sounds simple, but the placement of specific imagery and visuals encouraged people to forge happy experiences and memories. 

Further, the brand was causally associated with this imagery and became extremely attractive to viewers.

By placing the audience in the shoes of people experiencing a wide range of positive emotions, the company catalyzed more buys over alternative brands.

They created a strong emotional attachment with the soft drink and reaped massive rewards as a result.

2) Contagious thirst

Speaking of soft drinks, have you ever wondered why many beverage companies feature someone drinking the product in the ad?

This seems like a waste of air time, as we know that beverages are for drinking.

Have you ever noticed how they strategically use the environment depicted in commercials to create an illusion of thirst?

Often, beverage commercials film in sunny, dry climates. Additionally, the actors are usually doing some sort of outdoor activity.

Well, to put it simply, this is similar to experiential learning. The subconscious mind requires a background storyline to understand the task at hand.

In other words, they have to make you want a drink in the first place. These brands recreate situations which fire neurons that trigger thirst.

Triggering a Physiological Response with an Image

Typically, the ads depict other triggers that tell us the actors are hot and thirsty. For example, the sight of glistening bodies subconsciously tells us the actors are sweating. 

However, these actors are usually being misted in between cuts. It may appear to be a sunny day, but the commercial could also be filming inside a studio or in freezing cold temperatures.

Additionally, this apparent “sweat” tells viewers that the actors are trying to cool themselves down to no avail.

This scenario affects the audience subconsciously. Via mirror neurons, they begin to feel what the actors appear to be experiencing, regardless if it’s real or an optical illusion.

So when the drink in question is presented as a solution, the viewer begins to develop a subconscious preference for it.

Whenever they see it on a shelf, they begin to associate those initial emotions with purchasing the beverage. The viewer may not even watch the commercial consciously for this pattern to develop. During a football game, they may walk away from the TV to grab another beer or chat with a friend.

Ultimately, this makes little difference.

The music, phrasing, and environment of the commercial create well-researched subliminal triggers that toy with emotions and plant seeds in the subconscious mind.

These triggers are resurrected when the viewer sees another ad from the same company. When they’re shopping at a grocery store – even if they’ve completely forgotten about the commercial – these emotions are automatically triggered once again.

3) Compelling fear

Have you ever heard the saying “no press is bad press?”

There’s no denying that emotional marketing is one of the best ways to make a memorable impression, even if the memory triggers negative emotions.

Can you imagine the news if it only featured positive, uplifting stories?

It would probably be more beneficial to society, but ratings would tank.

In 1949, George Orwell published the novel 1984, which depicts the dangers of a civilization where humans believe everything that is depicted on television.

While 1984 is fictional, written almost 70 years ago, it accurately predicted the state of our civilization today.

Our natural tendency to believe what we “see” sets the stage for the masses to give up all self-control and autonomy.

Mass influence is then in the hands of a single person or a small group (ie, social media companies, the news, etc).

Thus, many services and brands have tapped into the power of fear quite effectively. They have hit the sweet spot, where insurmountable fear gets people to react irrationally, yet it doesn’t create mass destruction or civil unrest. It’s the perfect marketing tool.

Fear Marketing

These brands tune into the dark side of emotional marketing. They do this by offering glimpses into an alternative lifestyle and subliminally suggesting what will happen if you don’t take a specific action (this usually involves purchasing their product or service).

In other words, they’re good at implying that their product or service is crucial for solving a specific problem.

Put simply, our emotions become the enemy when large brands take hold of them.

Like the paddles on a boat, our fears guide us to buy things we don’t need.

This type of emotional marketing relies on the confirmation bias, the bandwagon effect, and our inherent fear of missing out – also referred to as FOMO.

Even charities and seemingly good causes implore fear advertising, if you will, to significant levels.

For example, The World Wildlife Fund has done this very well. 

Their “Stop Climate Change” campaign thrusts you into a post-global warming world, where they suggest that we “stop climate change before it changes [us].” The campaign depicts a mutated animal that looks like a cross between a human and a fish. The image is shocking and ensures that viewers are highly motivated to prevent such a future.

By showcasing the adverse consequences of climate change via powerful visuals, viewers develop a fear of ending up in this predicament.

However, this scenario is more dramatic and emotionally manipulative than probable.

The bottom line

Mirror neurons are generally the driving force behind many human emotions, including compassion.

This offers insight into why we feel bad when we see animals or people suffering.

Facebook fundraising is one of those emotionally manipulative triggers that take advantage of unsuspecting users. In recent years, they incorporated a donate button allowing friends and family to “donate to a good cause” without leaving the website.

Many friends, some who have been missing-in-action for years, request donations for their birthdays, and significant life events. Often, the people who donate wouldn’t have given a gift in the first place. This becomes nefarious when a person asks for donations as a “virtue signal” and the true benefit is one of social approval, but nothing tangible.

Emotional marketing has taken advantage of this inherent desire to fit in and satisfy the status quo since time immemorial. 

However, through experiential ads that implore multiple cognitive triggers and subliminal suggestions, we’re seeing a Lollapalooza Effect modern day. This means that people are operating more like brainless droids, and more likely to act on unconscious lingering impressions.