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Consuming to be Good

November 16, 2018

How do we know we’re succeeding in life? How do we know we’re fulfilling our social roles, or not? In a recent article published in Journal of Consumer Affairs, my colleagues and I investigate these questions in the context of transracial adoptive parents. The context was selected due to the experience of the second author, but the findings are generalizable to a variety of markets.

Drawing on historical and sociological research into the social forces shaping markets, we find that the rise of “therapy culture” has provided a fertile ground for answers to the questions posed above to be provided in the marketplace. Therapy culture arose in the US in the early 20th century to fill a void left behind by the erosion of influence for traditional institutions.

For most of human history, the idea of personal success in life may not have even been a question and if it were, the answer would be provided by state or religious institutions. But in therapy culture, the idea of self-development and personal growth is paramount. Consider the influence of self-help books, personal development narratives, self-care, wellness, self-control, and so on. All of these are of course offered by experts, typically with some connection to psychology and/or medicine. The fact that such concerns are ubiquitous now belies their relatively nascent existence.

A culture in which working on oneself is of utmost importance is immensely fertile ground for marketing work. Where at one time marketers focused on their products using what are called “-er words” like whiter teeth from a toothpaste brand or cleaner kitchens thanks to a household goods brand, therapy culture primes consumers for appeals to themselves. Toothpaste now lets you present your best smile; household goods allow you to be a good homemaker; cars show the world your political values; and beverages allow you to live a life well rewarded for your hard work.

Moreover, because humans are always growing and changing, the “self” is never finished. Thus, while an effective ad may convince you that it is critical that you take physical care of yourself, say by using a calorie and step tracker to monitor your daily intake and activity, the next may implore you to reward yourself, thereby convincing you to relax and indulge in a pizza and dessert. It’s no accident that indulgent sweets are often presented in ads with words like “sinful.” Thus, the Hedonic treadmill continues, and consumers must always strive to buy whatever product du jour may help them in their journey.

In our context, this meant that the act of parenting required certain purchases. Therapy culture in general makes the identity of “parent” a problem to be solved. Marketers, in turn, offer a host of services to solve that problem. But as we saw above, this process has no terminal point. For instance, therapy culture may raise the question of the “proper” way to move around with a child. Childcare experts will write books about carrying a baby, wearing a baby, or using a stroller. Marketers, in turn, offer a variety of products like wraps, slings, strollers, and so on to help consumers alleviate the problem. In other words, the question of “being a good parent” is posed by therapeutic experts and the answers are listed for sale. But tomorrow the little baby will be walking and there will be a new question of how best to parent, complete with new products to answer it.

 

Soster, R. L., Tian, K. L., Rose, A. S., & Rose, R. L. Consuming to be Good: Therapeutic Ideology and Transracial Adoptive Mothers. Journal of Consumer Affairs.