Tag Archives: advertising

ADVERTISING AND ACADEMIA ARE CONTROLLING OUR THOUGHTS. Didn’t you know? – George Monbiot * A typology of consumer strategies for resisting advertising, and a review of mechanisms for countering them – Marieke L. Fransen, Peeter W.J. Verlegh, Amna Kirmani, Edith G. Smit.

We have the ability to twiddle some knobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behaviour in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feel second-nature but are really by design.”

By abetting the ad industry, universities are leading us into temptation, when they should be enlightening us.

“Our ACE typology distinguishes three types of resistance strategies: Avoiding, Contesting, and Empowering. We introduce these strategies, and present research describing advertising tactics that may be used to neutralize each of them.”

We are subject to constant influence, some of which we see, much of which we don’t. And there is one major industry that seeks to decide on our behalf. Its techniques get more sophisticated every year, drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology. It is called advertising.

To what extent do we decide? We tell ourselves we choose our own life course, but is this ever true? If you or I had lived 500 years ago, our worldview, and the decisions we made as a result, would have been utterly different. Our minds are shaped by our social environment, in particular the belief systems projected by those in power: monarchs, aristocrats and theologians then; corporations, billionaires and the media today.

Humans, the supremely social mammals, are ethical and intellectual sponges. We unconsciously absorb, for good or ill, the influences that surround us. Indeed, the very notion that we might form our own minds is a received idea that would have been quite alien to most people five centuries ago. This is not to suggest we have no capacity for independent thought. But to exercise it, we must, consciously and with great effort, swim against the social current that sweeps us along, mostly without our knowledge.

Surely, though, even if we are broadly shaped by the social environment, we control the small decisions we make? Sometimes. Perhaps. But here, too, we are subject to constant influence, some of which we see, much of which we don’t. And there is one major industry that seeks to decide on our behalf. Its techniques get more sophisticated every year, drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology. It is called advertising.
But what puzzles and disgusts me even more than this failure is the willingness of universities to host research that helps advertisers hack our minds. The Enlightenment ideal, which all universities claim to endorse, is that everyone should think for themselves. So why do they run departments in which researchers explore new means of blocking this capacity?

. . .

The Guardian

“The literature does not provide a clear overview of the different ways in which consumers may resist advertising, and the tactics that can be used to counter or avoid such resistance. This article fills this gap by providing an overview of the different types of resistance that consumers may show, and by discussing the ways in which resistance may be countered.”

A typology of consumer strategies for resisting advertising, and a review of mechanisms for countering them.

Marieke L. Fransen, Peeter W.J. Verlegh, Amna Kirmani, Edith G. Smit.

This article presents a typology of the different ways in which consumers resist advertising, and the tactics that can be used to counter or avoid such resistance. It brings together literatures from different fields of study, including advertising, marketing, communication, science and psychology. Although researchers in these subfields have Shown a substantial interest in (consumer) resistance, these streams of literature are poorly connected. This article aims to facilitate the exchange of knowledge, and serve as a starting point for future research.

Our ACE typology distinguishes three types of resistance strategies: Avoiding, Contesting, and Empowering. We introduce these strategies, and present research describing advertising tactics that may be used to neutralize each of them.

Keywords: persuasion; resistance; reactance; knowledge


Advertising is designed to persuade consumers by creating brand and product awareness, or by communicating social, emotional or functional product benefits. But consumers are not always open to advertising, and often resist its attempts at persuasion. This resistance is nothing new: 20 years ago, Calfee and Ringold (1994) reviewed six decades of research on consumers’ opinions about advertising; they showed that scepticism abides, and that the majority of consumers (about 70%) feel that advertising tries to persuade people to buy things they do not want or need.

This defensive response to advertising has been studied in several streams of research. In marketing and consumer research, for example, Friestad and Wright (1994) developed the persuasion knowledge model to describe consumers’ responses to persuasive attempts. The model has become one of the key theories in marketing research, and is widely applied to understand when and how consumers respond defensively to marketing communications, ranging from traditional TV ads to advergames and social media applications (Panic, Cauberghe, and De Pelsmacker 2013; Van Noort, Antheunis, and Verlegh 2014).

In addition to the persuasion knowledge model, there has been a substantial amount of work focusing on topics such as scepticism, selective exposure, and reactance, which may all be classified as resistance to advertising. Unfortunately the literature does not provide a clear overview of the different ways in which consumers may resist advertising, and the tactics that can be used to counter or avoid such resistance. This article fills this gap by providing an overview of the different types of resistance that consumers may show, and by discussing the ways in which resistance may be countered.

Thus article should not only be interesting for practitioners, but also for academics, as it brings together literatures from different fields of study, including advertising, marketing, communication science and psychology. Although researchers in these subfields have shown a substantial interest in (consumer) resistance, these streams of literature are poorly connected, and this paper aims to facilitate the exchange of knowledge between these subflelds. The presented framework for organizing the different types of strategies provides further integration of different findings, and should serve as a starting point for further exploration of the defensive strategies employed by consumers.

This paper develops a typology of the main types of consumer resistance and provides some (evidence-based) strategies for coping with this resistance. We refer to this as the ACE typology, since it distinguishes among Avoiding, Contesting, and Empowering types of resistance strategies that consumers can use. We first introduce these strategies, and then suggest some advertising tactics that may be used to neutralize each of these types of resistance. The typology is summarized in Figure 1.

ACE a typology of resistance strategies

Knowles and Linn (2004) emphasize that resistance is a motivational state, in which people have the goal to reduce attitudinal or behavioural change or to retain one’s current attitude. Following their conceptualization, we view the mitigation of attitudinal or behavioural change as a (possible) outcome of the strategies that are employed by consumers who are motivated to resist persuasion. In this section, we will define the Avoidance, Contesting and Empowerment strategies. Further elaboration can be found in Fransen, Smit, and Verlegh (2014).

Avoidance strategies

Advertising avoidance is a well-studied phenomenon. Speck and Elliot (1997) investigated advertising avoidance in magazines, newspapers, radio and television. They identified several ways that people avoid advertising; (a) physical avoidance; (b) mechanical avoidance; and (c) cognitive avoidance. Physical avoidance entails a variety of strategies aimed at not seeing or hearing the ad. These include leaving the room or skipping the advertising section in a newspaper. In an insightful ethnographic study, Brodin (2007) found that TV viewers use commercial breaks to talk to others, go to the bathroom, or engage in other behaviours that purposefully or accidently lead to advertising avoidance. Using an eye tracking methodology, Dreze and Hussherr, (2003) found that consumers actively avoid looking at banners when using the Internet. In fact, consumers can employ the modern methods of physical avoidance, such as blocking online ads, filtering email, or subscribing to ‘do not email’, ‘do not call’ or ‘do not track’ programs (Johnson 2013).

Mechanical avoidance includes zapping, zipping, or muting the television or radio when the commercials start. The literature shows that a high percentage of television viewers zap (Tse and Lee 2001) or zip (Stemberg 1987) during commercial breaks. ‘Block zipping’, blocking two or more commercials at the same time, seems the most prevalent form of zipping (Cronin and Menelly 1992). Stafford and Stafford (1996) adopted the uses and gratifications perspective from communication theory to explain why people engage in mechanical avoidance. Boredom was found to explain both zipping and zapping behaviour whereas curiosity predicted only zapping behaviour.

Cognitive ad avoidance means not paying attention to specific advertisements. Consumers may engage in ‘selective exposure’ and ‘selective attention’; the tendency to avoid or devote less attention to persuasive communications that are likely to contain messages that contradict with existing beliefs or opinions (Freedman and Sears 1965; Knobloch-Westerwick and Meng 2009). In other words, people are motivated to seek information that is consonant with their beliefs and attitudes and to avoid information that is dissonant with their beliefs and attitudes. Most research on selective exposure is conducted in the fields of political and health communication (for a review see Smith, Fabrigar, and Norris 2008).

Research on the determinants of avoidance behaviour demonstrates that viewers are less inclined to avoid commercial messages that are emotional and entertaining, and more inclined to avoid messages that are informational (Olney, Holbrook, and Batra 1991; Woltman, Wedel, and Pieters, 2003). In addition, viewers are less likely to avoid advertisements on regularly purchased products (Siddarth and Chattopdahyay 1998).

An interesting question is whether there are differences between active (conscious) avoidance and passive (unconscious) avoidance. To show active avoidance, consumers have to be aware of the fact that an ad is there, but have to somehow force themselves not to see or hear it. Passive avoidance on the other hand does not necessarily require such action, and might therefore call for different types of neutralizing strategies.

Contesting strategies

In addition to avoiding advertising messages, consumers may resist advertising by using a contesting strategy. Contesting strategies involve actively refuting the ad by challenging it. An ad can be countered by considering different characteristics of the ad, (a) the advertising message itself (the content), (b) the source of the ad or (c) the persuasive tactics that are used in the ad.

In the persuasion literature, contesting the content of persuasive messages has been referred to as counter-arguing (e.g., Buller 1986; Wright, 1975; Jacks and Cameron 2003). Defined as a thought process that decreases agreement with a counter-attitudinal message, counter-arguing is often described as a mediating variable between a persuasive message and outcomes such as attitudes and behaviour (Festinger and Maccoby 1964; Silvia 2006). People who engage in counter-arguing scrutinize the arguments presented, and subsequently try to generate reasons to refute them.

Contesting the source of a message, referred to as source derogation, occurs when individuals dismiss the validity of the source. For instance, consumers may question the source’s expertise, trustworthiness, or motives (Jacks and Cameron (2003). As a consequence, the message will lose credibility, which reduces its impact. Source derogation is often used when the source can be construed as biased (Wright 1973). Batinic and Appel 2013) demonstrated that information from commercial sources (i.e., advertising) is perceived to be less trustworthy than information from non-commercial sources, such as consumer recommendations or word of mouth.

Contesting the persuasive tactics used in a message has often been examined in the context of the Persuasion Knowledge Model (Friestad and Wright (1994). When consumers become suspicious of the advertiser’s manipulative intent, they resist the advertising message. For instance, Campbell (1995) finds that borrowed-interest appeals, whereby marketers use consumers’ interest in an (unrelated) topic (e.g., celebrities or puppies) to trigger interest in their product or service, can lead to negative attitudes towards the advertiser. Similarly, consumers are more likely to become suspicious of advertisers’ motives when ads feature negative comparisons to the competition (Jain and Posavac 2014) or incomplete comparisons (Kirmani and Zhu 2007). Finally, consumers may counter-argue the ad and derogate the source when the advertiser is perceived as spending too much money, such as when the ad is repeated often (Kirmani 1997).

Empowering strategies

Empowering strategies are related to the recipients themselves, not to the content of the persuasive message. They involve reassuring the self or one’s existing attitude. Three types of empowering strategies have been described in the literature: attitude bolstering, social validation, and self-assertion.

Consumers who engage in attitude bolstering focus on defending their existing attitudes and behaviours rather than refuting or challenging a message. To achieve this, they generate thoughts that are supportive of those attitudes and behaviours when they are exposed to a persuasive message that challenges them (Lydon, Zanna, and Ross 1988; Meirick 2002). For example, a person who is ‘pro-choice’ might resist a message against abortion by actively thinking about arguments that are in support of their own position, rather than considering the arguments presented in the message.

A second empowering strategy is social validation, which entails validating one’s attitude with significant others (Jacks and Cameron 2003). Consumers who use this strategy will actively look for (significant) others who share their existing beliefs, in order to confirm their current attitudes or behaviours. Social validation is related to the concept of ‘social proof’; when uncertain about how to behave, people have the tendency to look at the behaviour of others (Cialdini 2001). Jacks and Cameron (2003) argue that people may use a similar heuristic when they seek to defend themselves against an unwanted persuasion attempt. They demonstrated that people who are presented with a persuasive message that is incongruent with their existing attitude think of others who share their existing beliefs. Their current attitude or behaviour is validated in this way, which makes them less susceptible to the influence of dissonant messages.

In their research on resistance strategies, Jacks and Cameron (2003) observed a third empowerment strategy: asserting the self. When using self-assertions, people remind themselves that they are confident about their attitudes and behaviours, and that nothing can be done to change these. Self-assertion provides a boost to one’s self-esteem, which reduces susceptibility to persuasive messages (Rhodes and Wood 1992; Leary and Baumeister 2000). In addition to boosting confidence in one’s own opinions, this strategy reduces the extent to which consumers feel social pressure to conform to the norms that are imposed by others (Levine and Moreland 1990).

Now we have introduced our typology of Avoidance, Contesting and Empowering resistance strategies, the next section examines tactics that can be used by advertisers to neutralize these three types of resistance strategies.

Resistance-neutralizing persuasion tactics

Advertisers have available to them a range of persuasion techniques to create successful advertisements. These tactics often focus on making a message more attractive by using, for example, humour, celebrities, or music. Knowles and Linn (2004) refer to these traditional persuasion techniques as ‘alpha strategies’, strategies that focus on increasing approach towards the attitudinal object. In contrast, they propose the term ‘omega strategies’ for tactics that are aimed specifically at reducing consumer resistance to persuasion. These strategies explicitly focus on reducing avoidance forces, in other words: decreasing the motivation to move away from the attitudinal object. Hence, omega strategies aim to neutralize resistance that people may experience when exposed to an ad.

We argue that such resistance-neutralizing tactics should be more effective when they are tailored to the specific resistance strategy that is adopted by consumers. In this section, we will therefore describe for each of the ACE strategies, the advertising tactics that are most likely to reduce resistance and enhance effectiveness.

Neutralizing avoidance strategies

By nature, avoidance-type resistance strategies are perhaps the most difficult to counter, because the avoidance behaviour itself cuts off the possibility of communication. One obvious strategy for preventing avoidance is the use of Forced Exposure. For example, in an online context people are often forced to view or hear commercials when they watch a video stream or listen to a radio channel. Hegner, Kusse, and Pruyn (2014) found that consumers perceive such ads to be intrusive, although this perception is weaker when the ad has a (positive) emotional appeal (a finding that is reminiscent of the finding that TV ads are less likely to be avoided if they are emotional rather than informational. Olney, Holbrook, and Batra 1990). Another form of forced exposure is so-called horizontal advertising blocks, in which television stations broadcast advertisements simultaneously. Research by Nam, Kwon, and Lee (2010) demonstrated that such horizontal advertising blocks are effective in reducing zapping behaviour. This tactic is, however, also perceived as intrusive and may lead to a negative image.

Although some research demonstrates that forced exposure may lead to negative responses and negative associations with the advertiser (e.g., Edwards, Li, and Lee (2002), there are also studies suggesting that ‘any’ advertising exposure can be beneficial. Greyser’s (1973) classic work on imitation in advertising suggested for example that marketers often believe that irritating ads help raise brand awareness. Skumik and colleagues (2005) found that consumers may forget the valence of previously encountered information about a brand, while (positive effects of) familiarity remain. It therefore remains to be investigated how consumers respond to such forced exposure. One interesting possibility is that, while consumers may have a negative explicit response to forced exposure, they could still have a positive (implicit) response to the advertised product. It should be noted however, that consumers who cannot avoid advertising may also adopt different resistance strategies.

Rather than forcing exposure to advertising, marketers may choose to prevent avoidance by disguising the persuasive intent or the sender of the message. Marketers have developed a wide range of strategies to achieve this (cf., Kaikati and Kaikati 2004). One strategy that seeks to downplay the persuasive nature of marketing messages is to embed branded messages into the editorial content of a medium, so that consumers are less likely to recognize these messages as persuasive attempts. Such brand placements may occur in magazines, TV and radio shows, movies and games (van Reijmersdal, Smit, and Neijens 2010). In response to rising ethical concerns about this practice, the FTC and FCC have formally expressed their concerns, and the European Union has even developed regulation that requires marketers to inform consumers of the commercial intent of such messages. Several recent studies have examined consumers’ responses to such disclosures. In general, this research seems to suggest that such information often activates persuasion knowledge and has negative consequences for consumers’ evaluations of the advertised brands (Boerman et al. in press; Campbell, Mohr, and Verlegh 2013).

Marketers may also counter avoidance by enlisting consumers to share brand-related messages with others. Typically, consumers have greater trust in information provided by their peers than in information provided by marketers. Consumers may share brandrelated information via online or offline word of mouth, which can be stimulated through word-of-mouth marketing programs. The power of word of mouth lies in the fact that messages received by friends are not perceived as persuasive attempts, reducing the motivation to avoid such messages. The effectiveness of word of mouth marketing depends on the extent to which consumers attribute the message to enthusiasm about the brand or product rather than ulterior motives (Verlegh et al. 2013). Marketers who make use of such strategies should thus take care to avoid such attributions, and seek to maintain the informal and friendly character of word of mouth as an exchange of information among friends (Tuk et al. 2009).

In addition to exchanging information, viral marketing may stimulate consumers to share branded content. In crafting viral campaigns, marketers often use humorous, surprising, sexual or otherwise appealing content (cf., Golan and Zaidner 2008). It is important, however, to keep in mind that such campaigns should also convey brand-relevant information in order to achieve marketing communication goals such as enhancing brand awareness or attitude (Akpinar and Berger 2014).

Neutralizing contesting strategies

Several techniques are available to advertisers seeking to reduce consumer contesting of their messages. A direct and well-established strategy of coping with counterarguments is two-sided advertising. A two-sided advertisement includes both positive and negative elements. When people are also exposed to negative features of a product or service, they are less likely to come up with counterarguments themselves. ORen marketers directly refute the negative elements or diminish its importance in the ad. Moreover, advertising is perceived as more trustworthy when it includes (some) negative information, so that the overall impact of the ad increases (Eisend 2006). In a classic paper on oneversus two-sided advertising, Kamins and Assael (1987) found that two-sidedness is effective in reducing source derogation. In practice, however, the use of two-sided advertising is not very common, as marketers are wary of spreading negative information about their products. One exception is product failure, where brands often acknowledge their mistake (i.e. negative element) and then present their solution (i.e., positive element). Doing so prevents consumers from generating (perhaps more persuasive) negative elements (Fennis and Stroebe 2013).

There are also more indirect ways of coping with contesting strategies, which reduce the, ability, opportunity or motivation to generate counterarguments or engage in other contesting strategies (cf., Burkley 2008). Knowles and Linn 2004) demonstrated for example that participants generated significantly less counterarguments to a target message when it was presented at the end (versus the beginning) of a series of (seven) persuasive messages. Their finding illustrates the possibility of using cognitive depletion as a tactic for reducing consumers’ ability to contest messages. Recently, similar results were obtained by Janssen et a1. (2014), who demonstrated that mentally depleted consumers were less able to resist advertising, even when they received a forewaming that informed them of the persuasive intent of the message.

In addition to cognitive depletion, marketers may use distraction to reduce consumers’ opportunity to engage in contesting strategies. An example is given by the ‘disrupt then reframe’ technique, which is often used in personal selling (Fennis, Das, and Pruyn 2004). In this technique a subtle, unexpected twist (i.e., disruption) in the sales script, which distracts people’s attention, is followed by the persuasive conclusion of a message (i.e., the reframe). For example, when selling apples one could say ‘these apples are 250 cents, that is only 2.5 dollars, it is a bargain!’ This simple disruption (i.e., 250 cents) in combination with the reframe (i.e., it’s a bargain!’) distracts people and thereby reduces their efforts to contest the message.

Finally, to reduce the motivation to use contesting strategies, marketers may offer safety cues and warrants to minimize the perceived risk associated with a purchase. Research by van Noort, Kerkhof, and Fennis (2008) demonstrated that the presence of safety cues on websites provides people with a safe feeling. When people feel safe they are less inclined to contest the information on the website. Another way of providing a sense of safety is by postponing the payment, e.g., ‘Buy now, pay later’. These offers will reduce resistance and the use of counter-arguing, especially when the distance between the purchase and payment increases (Knowles and Linn 2004).

Neutralizing empowerment strategies

To neutralize resistance strategies that involve asserting the self or an existing attitude, marketers need to focus on the consumer rather than the message. Interestingly, Jacks and O’Brien (2004) found that people who are self-affirmed are actually more open to persuasive messages, suggesting that self-affirmation may also be used to enhance rather than reduce persuasion. Take, for example, an ad that urges consumers to stop smoking. Smokers may perceive such an ad as threatening to their self-view, because it reminds them of their unhealthy behaviour. This threat may be mitigated, however, by reminding them of their previous successes or important values (Steele 1988).

When people are self-affirmed, they are more open to messages that are dissonant with their attitudes and behaviour because they do not feel the need to protect their self-view. Pursuing this logic, it might be possible for advertisers to focus on enhancing consumers’ self-esteem and self-efficacy. One strategy could be to emphasize the experience and knowledge of consumers when addressing them: ‘As a mother, you know that. . .’. Indeed, several studies have shown that assigning expertise and affirming people’s positive self-views may reduce the perceptions of persuasive intent and reduce resistance (Dolinski, Nawrat, and Rudak 2001).

A second way to neutralize the motivation to adopt empowering strategies is to provide consumers with control over the situation; for example, by having consumers decide which ads they want to watch. This strategy may also reduce other forms of resistance, of course. The online television platform Hulu, for example, offers viewers the opportunity to select the ads they want to watch. Permission-based advertising is another way to provide consumers with more freedom. Tsang, Ho, and Liang (2004) demonstrated that advertisements that are received with permission are evaluated more positively than advertisements that are received without permission (e.g., spam). Asking consumers permission provides them control, which fosters acceptation and reduces resistance.


Advertisers can use a wide range of tactics to counter consumers’ resistance to persuasion. Knowles and Linn (2004) suggested using the term ‘omega strategies’ for persuasion strategies that explicitly deal with resistance that consumers may experience when exposed to (unwanted) advertising. In this paper, we argue that such resistance-neutralizing tactics should be more effective when they are tailored to the specific resistance strategy that is adopted by consumers.

We have introduced the ACE typology, and have discussed specific tactics for addressing the different strategies that consumers use to resist persuasion. This overview should be helpful for marketers who are interested in applying communication strategies that enhance persuasion by reducing consumer resistance.

To further the development of such strategies, more research is needed to better understand the various ways in which consumers provide resistance to persuasive messages. We see a particular need for research that goes beyond the study of individual strategies, and tries to establish personal and situational characteristics that favour one strategy over another. Such research could ultimately help to predict which types of resistance are likely to be triggered by a specific message, or in a specific market context. This knowledge, in turn, allows marketers to design communications that avoid these types of resistance. To facilitate this, we need research that establishes the extent to which specific marketing tactics can effectively counter the avoidance, contesting and empowering strategies that are distinguished in our typology.


ADVERTISING SHITS IN YOUR HEAD. Reconnecting to Meaningful Values * JUNK VALUES. Consumerism literally is depressing – Johann Hari.

Advertising is the PR team for an economic system, Neoliberal Globalisation, that operates by making us feel inadequate and telling us the solution is to constantly spend.

We are constantly bombarded with messages that we will feel better only if we buy some specific product; and then buy something more; and buy again, and on and on, until finally your family buys your coffin.

Can we turn off the autopilot, and take back control for ourselves?

Spending often isn’t about the object itself. It is about getting to a psychological state that makes you feel better.

When there is pollution in the air that makes us feel worse, we ban the source of the pollution.

Advertising is a form of mental pollution.

When I was trying to apply everything I had learned to change, in order to be less depressed, I felt a dull, insistent tug on me. I kept getting signals that the way to be happy is simple. Buy stuff. Show it off. Display your status. Acquire things. These impulses called to me, from every advertisement, and from so many social interactions. I had learned from Tim Kasser that these are junk values, a trap that leads only to greater anxiety and depression. But what is the way beyond them? I could understand the arguments against them very well. I was persuaded. But there they were, in my head, and all around me, trying to pull me back down.

But Tim, I learned, has been proposing two ways, as starters, to wriggle free. The first is defensive. And the second is proactive, a way to stir our different values.

When there is pollution in the air that makes us feel worse, we ban the source of the pollution: we don’t allow factories to pump lead into our air. Advertising, he says, is a form of mental pollution. So there’s an obvious solution. Restrict or ban mental pollution, just like we restrict or ban physical pollution.

This isn’t an abstract idea. It has already been tried in many places. For example, the city of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, was being slowly smothered by billboards. They covered every possible space, gaudy logos and brands dominated the skyline wherever you looked. It had made the city look ugly, and made people feel ugly, by telling them everywhere they looked that they had to consume.

So in 2007 the city’s government took a bold step, they banned all outdoor advertising: everything. They called it the Clean City Law. As the signs were removed one by one, people began to see beautiful old buildings that had long been hidden. The constant ego-irritation of being told to spend was taken away, and was replaced with works of public art. Some 70 percent of the city’s residents say the change has made it a better place. I went there to see it, and almost everyone says the city seems somehow psychologically cleaner and clearer than it did before.

We could take this insight and go further. Several countries, including Sweden and Greece, have banned advertising directed at children. While I was writing this book, there was a controversy after a company marketing diet products put advertisements in the London Underground asking, ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY? next to a picture of an impossibly lithe woman. The implication was that if you are one of the 99.99 percent of humans who look less buff than this, you are not “ready” to show your flesh on the beach. There was a big backlash, and the posters were eventually banned. It prompted a wave of protests across London, where people defaced ads with the words “Advertising shits in your head.”

It made me think: Imagine if we had a tough advertising regulator who wouldn’t permit ads designed to make us feel bad in any way. How many ads would survive? That’s an achievable goal, and it would clear a lot of mental pollution from our minds.

This has some value in itself, but I think the fight for it could spur a deeper conversation. Advertising is only the PR team for an economic system that operates by making us feel inadequate and telling us the solution is to constantly spend. My hunch is that, if we start to really talk about how this affects our emotional health, we will begin to see the need for more radical changes.

There was a hint of how this might start in an experiment that tried to go deeper, not just to block bad messages that divert our desires onto junk, but to see if we can draw out our positive values. This led to the second, and most exciting, path back that Tim has explored.

The kids were telling Nathan Dungan one thing, over and over again. They needed stuff. They needed consumer objects. And they were frustrated, outright angry, that they weren’t getting them. Their parents were refusing to buy the sneakers or designer clothes or latest gadgets that they needed to have, and it was throwing them into an existential panic. Didn’t their parents know how important it is to have all this?

Nathan didn’t expect to be having these conversations. He was a middle-aged man who had worked in financial services in Pennsylvania for years, advising people on investments. One day, he was talking to an educator at a middle school and she explained that the kids she was working with, middle-class, not rich, had a problem. They thought satisfaction and meaning came from buying objects. When their parents couldn’t afford them, they seemed genuinely distressed. She asked, could Nathan come in and talk to the kids about financial realities?

He agreed cautiously. But that decision was going to set him on a steep learning curve, and lead him to challenge a lot of what he took for granted.

Nathan went in believing his task was obvious. He was there to educate the kids, and their parents, about how to budget, and how to live within their financial means. But then he hit this wall of need, this ravenous hunger for stuff. To him, it was baffling. Why do they want it so badly? What’s the difference between the sneakers with the Nike swoosh and the sneakers without? Why would that gap be so significant that it would send kids into a panic?

He began to wonder if he should be talking not about how to budget, but why the teenagers wanted these things in the first place. And it went deeper than that. There was something about seeing teenagers craving apparently meaningless material objects that got Nathan to think, as adults, are we so different?

Nathan had no idea how to start that conversation, so he began to wing it. And it led to a striking scientific experiment, where he teamed up with Tim Kasser.

A short time later, in a conference room in Minneapolis, Nathan met with the families who were going to be the focus of his experiment. They were a group of sixty parents and their teenage kids, sitting in front of him on chairs. He was going to have a series of long sessions with them over three months to explore these issues and the alternatives. (At the same time, the experiment followed a separate group of the same size who didn’t meet with Nathan or get any other help. They were the experiment’s control group.)

Nathan started the conversation by handing everyone worksheets with a list of open-ended questions. He explained there was no right answer: he just wanted them to start to think about these questions. One of them said: “For me, money is …” and you had to fill in the blank.

At first, people were confused. They’d never been asked a question like this before. Lots of the participants wrote that money is scarce. Or a source of stress. Or something they try not to think about. They then broke into groups of eight, and began to contemplate their answers, haltingly. Many of the kids had never heard their parents talk about money worries before.

Then the groups began to discuss the question, why do I spend? They began to list the reasons why they buy necessities (which are obvious: you’ve got to eat), and then the reasons why they buy the things that aren’t necessities. Sometimes, people would say, they bought nonessential stuff when they felt down. Often, the teenagers would say, they craved this stuff so badly because they wanted to belong, the branded clothes meant you were accepted by the group, or got a sense of status.

As they explored this in the conversation, it became clear quite quickly, without any prompting from Nathan, that spending often isn’t about the object itself. It is about getting to a psychological state that makes you feel better. These insights weren’t deeply buried. People offered them quite quickly, although when they said them out loud, they seemed a little surprised. They knew it just below the surface, but they’d never been asked to articulate that latent feeling before.

Then Nathan asked people to list what they really value, the things they think are most important in life. Many people said it was looking after your family, or telling the truth, or helping other people. One fourteen-year-old boy wrote simply “love,” and when he read it out, the room stopped for a moment, and “you could hear a pin drop,” Nathan told me. “What he was speaking to was, how important is it for me to be connected?”

Just asking these two questions, “What do you spend your money on?” and “What do you really value?”, made most people see a gap between the answers that they began to discuss. They were accumulating and spending money on things that were not, in the end, the things that they believed in their heart mattered. Why would that be?

Nathan had been reading up on the evidence about how we come to crave all this stuff. He learned that the average American is exposed to up to five thousand advertising impressions a day, from billboards to logos on T-shirts to TV advertisements. It is the sea in which we swim. And “the narrative is that if you [buy] this thing, it’ll yield more happiness, and so thousands of times a day you’re just surrounded with that message,” he told me. He began to ask: “Who’s shaping that narrative?” It’s not people who have actually figured out what will make us happy and who are charitably spreading the good news. It’s people who have one motive only, to make us buy their product.

In our culture, Nathan was starting to believe, we end up on a materialistic autopilot. We are constantly bombarded with messages that we will feel better (and less stinky, and less disgustingly shaped, and less all-around worthless) only if we buy some specific product; and then buy something more; and buy again, and on and on, until finally your family buys your coffin. What he wondered is, if people stopped to think about this and discussed alternatives, as his group was doing, could we turn off the autopilot, and take back control for ourselves?

At the next session, he asked the people in the experiment to do a short exercise in which everyone had to list a consumer item they felt they had to have right away. They had to describe what it was, how they first heard about it, why they craved it, how they felt when they got it, and how they felt after they’d had it for a while. For many people, as they talked this through, something became obvious. The pleasure was often in the craving and anticipation. We’ve all had the experience of finally getting the thing we want, getting it home, and feeling oddly deflated, only to find that before long, the craving cycle starts again.

People began to talk about how they had been spending, and they were slowly seeing what it was really all about. Often, not always, it was about “filling a hole. It fills some sort of loneliness gap.” But by pushing them toward that quick, rapidly evaporating high, it was also nudging them away from the things they really valued and that would make them feel satisfied in the long run. They felt they were becoming hollow.

There were some people, both teens and adults, who rejected this fiercely. They said that the stuff made them happy, and they wanted to stick with it. But most people in the group were eager to think differently.

They began to talk about advertising. At first, almost everyone declared that ads might affect other people but didn’t hold much sway over them. “Everyone wants to be smarter than the ad,” Nathan said to me later. But he guided them back to the consumer objects they had longed for. Before long, members of the group were explaining to each other: “There’s no way they’re spending billions of dollars if it’s not having an impact. They’re just not doing that. No company is going to do that.”

So far, it had been about getting people to question the junk values we have been fed for so long.

But then came the most important part of this experiment.

Nathan explained the difference that I talked about before between extrinsic and intrinsic values. He asked people to draw up a list of their intrinsic values, the things they thought were important, as an end in themselves and not because of what you get out of it. Then he asked: How would you live differently if you acted on these other values? Members of the groups discussed it.

They were surprised. We are constantly encouraged to talk about extrinsic values, but the moments when we are asked to speak our intrinsic values out loud are rare. Some said, for example, they would work less and spend more time with the people they loved. Nathan wasn’t making the case for any of this. Just asking a few open questions took most of the group there spontaneously.

Our intrinsic motivations are always there, Nathan realized, lying “dormant. It was brought out into the light,” he said. Conversations like this, Nathan was realizing, don’t just happen “in our culture today. We don’t allow space or create space for these really critical conversations to take place, so it just creates more and more isolation.”

Now that they had identified how they had been duped by junk values, and identified their intrinsic values, Nathan wanted to know: could the group choose, together, to start to follow their intrinsic goals? Instead of being accountable to advertising, could they make themselves accountable to their own most important values, and to a group that was trying to do the same thing? Could they consciously nurture meaningful values?

Now that each person had figured out his or her own intrinsic goals, they would report back at the next series of meetings about what they’d done to start moving toward them. They held each other accountable. They now had a space in which they could think about what they really wanted in life, and how to achieve it. They would talk about how they had found a way to work less and see their kids more, for example, or how they had taken up a musical instrument, or how they had started to write.

Nobody knew whether all this would have any real effect, though. Could these conversations really reduce people’s materialism and increase their intrinsic values?

Independent social scientists measured the levels of materialism of the participants at the start of the experiment, and they measured them again at the end. As he waited for the results, Nathan was nervous. This was a small intervention, in the middle of a lifetime of constant consumerist bombardment. Would it make any difference at all?

When the results came through, both Nathan and Tim were thrilled. Tim had shown before that materialism correlates strongly with increased depression and anxiety. This experiment showed, for the first time, that it was possible to intervene in people’s lives in a way that would significantly reduce their levels of materialism. The people who had gone through this experiment had significantly lower materialism and significantly higher selfesteem. It was a big and measurable effect.

It was an early shot of proof that a determined effort to reverse the values that are making us so unhappy works.

The people who took part in the study could never have made these changes alone, Nathan believes. “There was a lot of power in that connection and that community for people, removing the isolation and the fear. There’s a lot of fear around this topic.” It was only together, as a group, that they there were able to “peel those layers away, so you could actually get to the meaning, to the heart: their sense of purpose.”

I asked Nathan if we could integrate this into our ordinary lives, if we all need to form and take part in a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for junk values, a space where we can all meet to challenge the depression-generating ideas we’ve been taught and learn to listen instead to our intrinsic values. “I would say, without question,” he said. Most of us sense we have been valuing the wrong things for too long. We need to create, he told me, a “counter-rhythm” to the junk values that have been making us mentally sick.

From his bare conference room in Minneapolis, Nathan has proven something, that we are not imprisoned in the values that have been making us feel so lousy for so long. By coming together with other people, and thinking deeply, and reconnecting with what really matters, we can begin to dig a tunnel back to meaningful values.



Johann Hari

Just as we have shifted en masse from eating food to eating junk food, we have also shifted from having meaningful values to having junk values.

All this mass-produced fried chicken looks like food, and it appeals to the part of us that evolved to need food; yet it doesn’t give us what we need from food, nutrition. Instead, it fills us with toxins.

In the same way, all these materialistic values, telling us to spend our way to happiness, look like real values; they appeal to the part of us that has evolved to need some basic principles to guide us through life; yet they don’t give us what we need from values, a path to a satisfying life.

Studies show that materialistic people are having a worse time, day by day, on all sorts of fronts. They feel sicker, and they are angrier. Something about a strong desire for materialistic pursuits actually affects their day-to-day lives, and decreases the quality of their daily experience. They experienced less joy, and more despair.

For thousands of years, philosophers have been suggesting that if you overvalue money and possessions, or if you think about life mainly in terms of how you look to other people, you will be unhappy.

Modern research indicates that materialistic people, who think happiness comes from accumulating stuff and a superior status, have much higher levels of depression and anxiety. The more our kids value getting things and being seen to have things, the more likely they are to be suffering from depression and anxiety.

The pressure, in our culture, runs overwhelmingly one way, spend more; work more. We live under a system that constantly distracts us from what’s really good about life. We are being propagandized to live in a way that doesn’t meet our basic psychological needs, so we are left with a permanent, puzzling sense of dissatisfaction.

The more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more depressed you will be.


. . .


Lost Connections. Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions

by Johann Hari

get it at Amazon.com