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Buying: the effect on self-worth feelings and consumer well-being


Consuming can boost self-worth feelings, but might adversely impact consumer well-being. Our new research published in Journal of Consumer Research shows that consumption of certain products can restore feelings of self-worth that have been damaged for whatever reason. However, this boost or restoration effect is diminished by overt marketing tactics like slogans or taglines that make products’ link to the hurt self-identity aspect overly explicit.

People buying ©Robert Kneschke

How our self-esteem influences our decision making

Experimental research in consumer psychology tells us that incidental life situations can often profoundly influence consumer decision making. Indeed, people routinely experience very personal setbacks in daily life that may represent threats to fundamental aspects of the self-concept, such as power, intelligence, and belongingness: being passed over for a promotion at work, having a journal submission rejected, or being turned down for membership in an exclusive club. 

These experiences create a deficit in the self-concept, or self-discrepancy, that people are highly motivated to restore (i.e., self-repair). One way they can do this is by consuming or exhibiting products that symbolize success in the context of that part of their self-identity that has been damaged. Purchasing a luxury car signalling high status, for instance, can boost feelings of power. Similarly, buying an “intellectual” magazine can have the effect of making the individual feel more intelligent. 

We found that consumers feel better about themselves when they purchase products or services that they subconsciously link to aspects of their self-identity about which they feel insecure. 

We found that consumers feel better about themselves when they purchase products or services that they subconsciously link to aspects of their self-identity about which they feel insecure.

However, this “compensatory” effect can be undermined by heavy-handed marketing slogans or advertising taglines that spell out the products’ connection with the damaged aspects of self-identity too explicitly.

Marketing tactics might undermine the potential for self-repair

We were particularly interested in the effects of advertising tag lines, slogans, and brand names that make the symbolic connection between the product and the self-threat domain explicit (e.g., a pen marketed as “The Brain Pen”). Such explicit connections might undermine the potential for self-repair.

If the car or the magazine is marketed with taglines or slogans that are overly explicit about things like status or intelligence, the connection only serves to reactivate feelings of low self-worth and so the compensatory effect is undermined. Nevertheless, such consumers may still want to buy the luxury car or the magazine.

This is because we are not consciously aware of the motivations behind compensatory purchasing behavior. We don’t fully understand our choices at a conscious level so we don’t consciously connect, say, our willingness to pay more for a status product to any underlying threat to our feelings of power. Nor are we consciously aware of the explicit connections or references that ads or slogans make to our damaged self-identity.

We found that the willingness to pay for status products did result in self-repair, but only for the people who saw the ad with no tagline.

So whether the thought of a luxury car successfully restores the buyer’ sense of power may depend on whether the billboard for Aston Martin that someone notices includes their tag line “Power, Beauty, and Soul,” and whether purchasing an “intellectual” magazine restores the buyer’ sense of intelligence may depend on whether the person notices or remembers its promotion as “A Gymnasium for the Mind.” Such explicit connections are generally viewed as good marketing: Brands want to convey their positioning on particular attributes or provide clear information about what a product offers.

Yet, from our experiments with volunteers, we found that the willingness to pay for status products did result in self-repair, but only for the people who saw the ad with no tagline. For those who viewed the ad with the tagline, the compensatory experience did not boost feelings of power.

Negative impact on well-being

Our findings have also broader and important implications for consumer well-being. 

If compensatory consumption is not effective in restoring the self-concept, potentially scarce resources are wasted and may lead to financial problems (e.g., if the consumer feeling low on power, indulges in compensatory consumption of a luxury product). 

This possibility is compounded by the fact that consumers are typically unaware that their consumption is related to self-threats and self-repair. Consequently, they may engage in frequent, recurring compensatory consumption behaviors because the self-discrepancy has not been diminished.

Key findings and implications

To summarize, we found that consumption of products that are symbolic of mastery and competence on a particular aspect of one’s self-concept can eliminate self-discrepancies that people may momentarily feel. However, such self-repair can ironically be undermined by particular marketing tactics (slogans, tag lines, brand names) that explicitly make the connection between the threatened or insecure aspects of self-concept and the symbolic nature of the product.

This article is based on the research paper: “Undermining the Restorative Potential of Compensatory Consumption: A Product’s Explicit Identity Connection Impedes Self-Repair”, published in the Journal of Consumer Research in July 2018. This research has also been published on Channel NewsAsia.

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