When our self-esteem is threatened (in terms of intelligence, power, social standing, etc.), we often compensate by buying products that symbolize success, proficiency, or competence, and which are associated with the area where we feel undermined (…). Our study aims to understand whether this compensatory consumption is effective in restoring self-esteem. Through a series of seven experiments, we show that the effectiveness of this compensatory consumption varies according to whether or not there is an explicit link between the products purchased and the part of the self that has been undermined. When this link is expressed explicitly (through product titles or marketing slogans), it hinders the process of restoring self-esteem. Conversely, when the link is implicit, this type of consumption can have the intended effect. Journal of Consumer Research, June 2019.

3 questions L. J. Shrum, Professor of Marketing at HEC.

L. J. Shrum is a professor of marketing at HEC Paris. A specialist in consumer psychology, he studies how consumers base their purchasing decisions. His work has been published in numerous reference journals in marketing, psychology, and consumer affairs.

What should we take away from your study?

Generally speaking, materialism is considered a bad thing. We tend to think it makes people unhappy. But this study shows that, in some cases, a purchase can help us feel better. In our day-to-day lives, we are confronted with events that undermine our self-esteem: failing an exam, being passed over for a promotion, not being accepted as a member of a select club, and so on. The first example I cited casts doubt on our intelligence. The second undermines our power. And the third shakes our sense of belonging. After such an event, we will seek ways to give our ego a boost. If you fail an exam, you have several options: you can work harder to pass it the next time, or you can get a product that symbolizes intelligence—a copy of The Economist magazine, for example. Individuals often adopt the latter behavior unconsciously. And we wanted to know if that reflex is effective. It turns out that it is, with one exception. If the brand has an advertising slogan that explicitly links the product to the part of the self that has been undermined (which is the case with The Economist, whose slogan proclaims it to be for “intelligent readers”), this reactivates the hurtful memory and negates the compensatory effect of the purchase.

In practical terms, how did you conduct your experiments?

They took place in the lab. In the first phase, we asked a group of people to think back to a failure that called their intelligence into question, and to write down how they felt about it. In the next session, we asked the participants to remember the last time they went shopping at the grocery store. The result was that the people who wrote about the time they had failed then wanted to buy a copy of The Economist more often than the others. All they had to do was write about it to reactivate the feeling of vulnerability that leads to compensatory consumption.

What are the implications of this study in terms of marketing?

The focus of the study was the well-being of consumers. It was not aimed at enlightening marketers. When the consumer buys products that are explicitly linked to the part of their identity that has been undermined, it becomes problematic. Unconscious of their desire to restore self-esteem through their purchases, the consumer falls into a spiral of ineffective compensatory consumption. Will brands position their products differently based on this information? It’s not for us to say!

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