Death and Consumption, or Shop Before You Drop

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After 9/11, Americans went on a shopping spree, according to an article in Knowledge@Wharton:

In the days and weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, millions of Americans came to grips with one undeniable fact: They were going to die. Having finally admitted to that, they did what one might expect. They started living.

As documented in various media reports, Americans in the wake of those attacks began doing all of the things they had always wanted to do. That included, apparently, a whole lot of shopping. They bought pricy luxury items — Rolex watches, Mercedes Benz automobiles, high-end clothing — and stocked up on food and supplies like never before.

Intrigued by this mass behavior, two researchers, Naomi Mandel at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University Wharton Business School and Dirk Smeesters at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, decided to see if they could induce this behavior in experimental subjects. The researchers divided their test subjects into two groups. The first wrote an essay imagining their own deaths, and the second wrote about undergoing a medical procedure. Afterwards, each subject was given a grocery list and asked what they intended to buy that week. What did the researchers find?

The students in the MS [mortality salience] group said they would purchase "significantly more" items than the control group, including more fresh vegetables, fresh meats, canned meats and frozen foods, according to the paper. In a follow-up study, they actually measured the amount of cookies that participants ate in a "taste test," and found that people who were thinking about death ate more cookies than those who were thinking about going to the doctor's office.

The results not only provided "preliminary support for the idea that MS individuals want to consume a larger quantity of products than do others," according to the paper, but also, because the MS subjects included staples such as meats and vegetables on their lists, seemed to indicate that "participants [were] stocking up for reasons other than pure hedonic pleasure."

But if not for hedonistic pleasure, then why? Why were the subjects in the MS group so interested in buying all that stuff?

Mandel and Smeesters eventually rejected the idea that people were stocking up as a survivalist reflex or were trying to die broke ("you can't take it with you"). Instead, shopping in the face of death is escapism, especially for those with relatively low self-esteem.

Since death provokes shopping, the researchers have some advice for marketers:

"It would be tempting to market products to an audience during shows with death content — something like "CSI" or the nightly news, which is, these days, full of reports of death," Mandel says. "You are more likely to get a favorable consumer response for products advertised during those shows."

Whole morbid article here.

Note to self: Stop watching so many CSI shows and maybe my credit card balances will improve. Also, I've got to remember to eat and not think about death just before going to the grocery store.