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.

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  1. This is remarkably un-shocking (but still fascinating!) Everybody always forgets that Freud identified *two* primal motivational drives in humans. We dwell on eros, but he also spent a great deal of time talking about thanatos, or being-unto-death.

  2. note to self: When I plan my next false flag terror attack I can feel confident that it will not only help my military industrial complex companies, but also my my ad rates ont he TV channels I control.

    PS note to self: the police glorification programming of CSI is still hitting it’s target audience of idiots.

  3. This is research goes along with Terror Management Theory, which was pioneered at KU. If you make someone aware of their own mortality you find a number of startling effects. For example, they tend to form stronger bonds with their in-group (ethnic or national or religious). At the same time they become hostile towards members of the out-group (again, these groups can be ethnic, national or religious).

  4. Instead, shopping in the face of death is escapism, especially for those with relatively low self-esteem.

    I find it extremely odd that self-esteem would have anything to do with how you face death (the Great Equalizer).

  5. oops, “time” is the Great Equalizer..

  6. Just ignore me: Life in the Clearings versus the Bush (1853): “death, the great equalizer, always restores to its possessors the rights of mind”

  7. “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.”

    Were Mercedes Benz sales higher immediately following 9/11 than prior? Did Americans really stock up on food and supplies “like never before”? I’d bet my complete “Neurotic’s Delight” set of CSI DVDs that the answer is “no.”

  8. Canned meat?? After a near-death experience, people go out and buy canned meat?? I’m thinking that dope and hookers would be higher on most peoples’ list.

  9. Everybody always forgets that Freud identified *two* primal motivational drives in humans. We dwell on eros, but he also spent a great deal of time talking about thanatos, or being-unto-death.

    Freud was an egotistical fraud, who was not worthy to clean out the cages of BF Skinner’s pigeons. If I’m interested in fairy tales about invisible battles I’ll go to a church, thank you.

  10. Am I the only one who remembers that President Bush suggested in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that the best response of Americans to the attack was to carry on as before, and get out there shopping? Looks like we did.

  11. IIRC, we were also asked by W to spend money, as a way to channel the natural let’s “do something” reflex in a positive manner, and minimize the economic impact of the attack. I know we pushed up remodeling our kitchen as a result. Reynolds and others had a regular feature back then urging on the Blogosphere:

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=%22RETAIL+SUPPORT+BRIGADE%22&btnG=Google+Search

    Dunno what the impact was, but I’d guess not zero, which is where the linked article puts it.

  12. Everybody always forgets that Freud identified *two* primal motivational drives in humans. We dwell on eros, but he also spent a great deal of time talking about thanatos, or being-unto-death.

    Greta, Sterling Cooper’s “man in research,” didn’t forget. But Don shot down the idea of using the death instinct to sell Lucky Strikes as “perverse.”

    (Mad Med has name-checked Ayn Rand at least twice since the series started, and Rand acolyte Bertram Cooper even told Don he would introduce him to his “friend.” Hopefully she’ll make an appearance this season.)

  13. There was a sense early on of the economic impact of the attacks. Many people encouraged folks to go out and spend some money, myself included. It’s also a way to go out and be social. I ended up at a bar in Virginia on 9/11 after walking out of DC.

    Many people also bought guns after 9/11 since they saw how utterly incompetent the US government is at peforming its most basic function: keeping foreigners from killing US citizens.

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