Buy something. You'll feel better

You won't find "retail therapy" recommended in a psychiatry manual. It's not actually a treatment. But it is widely used, usually self-administered, and frequently expensive. Retail therapy is the impulse to buy to make ourselves feel better.

Naomi Mandel knows why it works. She's the Yellow Corporation Professor of Marketing and an expert in consumer behavior. Her articles in industry-leading journals earned her associate editorships and seats on the editorial boards of several of those same journals, and a 2015 recognition from the Journal of Consumer Research as one of their top authors over the last decade.

Mandel recalls, "I was reading Spin magazine — this was the '90s — and there was an article that had a quote something like, 'The only purpose for a tennis magazine is to make consumers feel so inferior about their tennis game that they have no choice but to go out and buy all of the items that are advertised on the pages of the magazine.' That was a lightbulb moment for me. Here I was, reading all these magazines (especially women's magazines) that made me feel bad about myself, then offered up 'solutions' to my problems via the advertised products — skin creams, makeup, diet products, fashion.

"There's a saying in my field," Mandel says. "You are what you research.' It seemed like a good idea to try and figure out why this was happening to me."

The why was retail therapy; what Mandel calls compensatory consumption. In an article for the JCR, she and her co-authors Selin Atalay of Frankfurt School of Finance & Management and Margaret G. Meloy of Pennsylvania State University. wrote that one source of a product's value to a consumer is its capacity "... to serve as a psychological salve that reduces various forms of distress ...."

And where to apply that salve? On what Mandel and her co-authors call self-discrepancies — "incongruities between how one perceives oneself and how one desires to view oneself." Seeing thin models in fashion ads can lower the self-esteem of a naturally sized viewer. Watching friends get more or better job offers may make a perfectly competent person feel less competent. Knowing their social group is denigrated by other social groups can create a clash between a person's actual and desired social identity. Advertisers eagerly exploit these self-discrepancies to sell us goods we don't need.

Consumers have resources of their own, Mandel says, particularly if they don't like having their self-discrepancies toyed with. "A growing number of Americans are increasingly cynical about marketing tactics," she says, "and they have an increasing number of tools available to avoid ads completely: internet ad blockers, premium streaming services without ads, and so on."

But strap on a thicker shield and someone will invent a sharper spear. "Marketers customize the ads customers see or capture them at the point when they are ready to purchase," Mandel says, "for example, when they are Googling for a certain type of product. The marketing has become a lot more powerful."

Mandel says the generation growing up in this era of powerful marketing is developing better defenses.

Younger people are more cynical about marketing than their parents. And they are not passively sitting in front of the TV and watching whatever ads come on. They are interacting with media, so it's more of a two-way street. 

That means the industry is being forced to adapt to reach the younger demographic they crave. "There's a blurring of the lines between the content and the marketing," Mandel says. "My teenage daughter loves watching YouTube videos like makeup application videos, gaming videos, 'unboxing' videos (where people open up the loot they just purchased). Are these videos really entertainment, or marketing, or something in between?"

The field of marketing continuously evolves because of its importance to business success. And some successful businesses choose to share that success with the public that made it possible; the Yellow corporation, for example, which underwrites Mandel's professorship in W. P. Carey. Their support comes with no strings, Mandel says. "The only requirement is that I remain a productive researcher. So their support allows me the freedom to pursue the research ideas I want to know the answers to."

Ideas such as the evolution of marketing — important to researchers like Mandel, as advertisers become increasingly sophisticated in their approach and the technology they wield.

"When I was around five or six," Mandel says, "a Cheerios commercial came on our TV, and I asked, 'Why are they advertising that? We already have it.' My parents always teased me about that because they thought it was so funny, but 40 years later we are almost there."

By Eric Ketcherside