How to be happy

happy dancersAdvertising makes people unhappy.

This news comes from Professor Oswald of the University of Warwick who asserts that the higher ad spend is the more miserable people become.

He says this is because ads make us want what we don’t or can’t have and comments: “The idea is a very old one: Before I can decide how happy I am, I have to look over my shoulder, consciously or subconsciously, and see how other people are doing”.  So status anxiety is to blame, status anxiety which we know is an innate human drive.

Oswald and his team compared life satisfaction data of over 900k European citizens in 27 countries with ad spend  from 1980 to  2011 and found an inverse connection ie as ad spend grew, satisfaction declined.

Is this another condemnation of our industry?

Does this make the ad industry the enemy?

Or is there something more profound to read into this survey’s results?

Ad spend follows consumption.  Arguably as citizens of a country have an increase in disposable income their problem list changes – it moves from worrying about whether they are safe on the street, and violence, to worrying about who has the best phone, car, shoes, watch.

The problems ascend Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

On the one hand then, maybe if you’re unhappy about whether you have all the things you see advertised, it’s a lot better than being unhappy about your physical safety or whether you have enough to eat or a whether what you say will get you arrested.

Happiness is an elusive emotion.  You’ll be happy if you do not want what you do not have, as Sinead O’Connor once sang, but ensuring psychological calm is not the role of advertising, however angsty agency people might get around purpose.  (Seekers instead must refer to art, music, literature, religion, self help and spirituality.)

This survey then, which features in the thought leading HBR, should not be a trigger of more outrage about our profession.  It’s a description what happens when human nature gets to develop in comfort, rather than in conditions of stress.  Just as any contented sibling soon learns to want exactly the toy that their sibling is playing with, or only to want to sit in the buggy if it is already occupied by another child, the yearning that can be stimulated by advertising is simply unavoidable.

We cannot take responsibility for the happiness of nations, but we can take responsibility to ensure that our advertising appeals to the better side of human nature.  We can combine purpose with commerce as many best practice case studies have revealed.  When Skittles removed the rainbow from their packaging, they sold more product and raised awareness of Pride.  When Lloyds created a programme about better communications in the family unit about money they solved a painful dilemma as well as improving saliency.

Media strategy is our responsibility too, we must ensure that chasing audience numbers is not done through bombardment or from appealing to the worst of human instincts.

And if we want to be happy in 2020, then we need to focus on what is most important.


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