For the past few weeks I have been saving up for a new set of celebrity endorsed headphones and when that (ever delayed) pay check came in I finally bought them. I had told myself that I would stop spending money on “luxuries” as soon as I bought them. I would be truly satisfied if I got them and I was quite silly to believe myself. Now I am fighting the desire to invest in an overpriced chrome laptop and assuring myself that once I get that I’ll be satisfied. I can’t be the only one right!? Why do we keep spending? Maxing out credit cards and overdrafts in the process when we know all too well that we’ll just want something else shiny in a matter of days?
The demand for luxury goods defies the golden rule of economics: the law of supply and demand, (Economist, 2007). The demand for luxury goods in Ireland is on the rise as the economy makes a steady recovery, (Ó Fátharta, 2015), which means big business for many industries. The reasons behind our drive to consume luxury goods are poorly understood which is surprising given that it is the desire to consume that has kept many industries afloat. Understanding of this desire is vital to any organisation which dabbles in the luxuries field. I decided to turn to the controversial field of psychoanalysis to shed some light on this phenomenon.
The Origins of Demand:
Our never ending demands for something new and shiny may have been there since the year dot according to psychoanalysis. Growing up is a stressful time. Becoming an adult human takes a lot of work and this process starts from the moment we enter the world according to the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. When we are born, we are made of demands. We want to be fed, to be played with or just to keep our parents on their feet to keep us happy; waiting for satisfaction is simply not an option. As we transverse the minefield of development the demands we make sometimes have to be set aside to ensure we become well rounded humans, (Daniel, 2009). We have to face the harsh reality of the world: “you can’t always get what you want”. This isn’t an easy thing to hear and can smart a bit. Freud (1915) suggested that humans push painful feelings experienced during development out of conscious awareness through a process known as repression. Repressing having our every whim unmet may help us develop but like anything we sweep under the rug: it comes back with a vengeance. Freud suggested that these repressed feelings of having demands unmet will come back in a distorted form, (Felluga, 2011). This distortion occurs to protect us from remembering exactly how painful it was to learn the lesson you can’t always get what you want, (Freud, 1900).
Our mind adds to this distortion process by using defence mechanisms whose primary function is to prevent anxiety, (McLeod, 2009) (a feeling we can all agree on is horrible). My theory is that one mechanism: sublimation may help us understand consumerism. Sublimation simply involves addressing an unconscious lack with something constructive, (McLeod, 2009). It is possible that our frustration at not being able to get what we wanted could be converted (sublimated) to a desire to consume. When we go out and buy those insanely priced headphones the purchase gives us a sense of satisfaction (which we had to set aside to become members of society) and calms our unconscious anxiety. As many of us know by now this feeling is short-lived and we will soon demand something else new and shiny. Why is this?
Never Ending Demand:
French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan did a lot of work to understand our never ending demands. Lacan as cited in Fink (2002) suggested that these demands are deeply rooted in our unconscious and thus cannot be readily accessed; he suggested that unconscious demands act as a massive driving force for our behaviours. Humans will strive to meet demands in many areas of life but as we cannot tap into exactly what we really want we can never truly be satisfied, (Lacan as cited in Fink, 2002). Our minds will continue to rationalise this sense of lack and sublimate it into various wants such as a drive to consume but it will be forever impossible to fully satisfy our sense of demand. Once we buy one thing we will want another and another and so on. I like to use the analogy of hunger to represent this never ending stream of demands: we could have the best meal of our lives which gives us total satisfaction in the moment but soon we will be hungry again, this sense of total satisfaction is temporary and will dissipate eventually.
This constant hunger is good news for marketers as it means that consumers are hardwired at an unconscious level to keep on consuming. One difficulty they face is convincing consumers that what they sell can satisfy consumer’s never ending desire. Another difficulty is that the demand for satisfaction is a very diverse concept which is distorted into many wants. The desire to be famous may see us running around buying the latest products celebrities endorse. The desire to be the best at something such as a sport may see us spending endless sums of money on equipment or the desire to be cultured and well-travelled can move thousands from our pockets right into the accounts of airlines and hotels. Consumers will be thrilled with their extended 5 star trip to some exotic island but very soon we will be hungry again (ever hear of the 21st century term “wanderlust”?) and will inevitably break out the credit cards once more. Marketers need to tap into what our minds have turned our unconscious desires into, once they do that, the sky is the limit.
Daniel, T. (2009). Sigmund Freud on Development. The Great Ideas in Psychology Podcast. Retrieved 8 June 2016, from https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/great-ideas-in-psychology/id419204493?mt=10
The Economist,. (2007). As price goes up, so does demand. The Economist. Retrieved 8 June 2016, from http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2007/07/as_price_goes_up_so_does_deman
Ó Fátharta, C. (2015, July 15). Luxury goods spend rises among Irish people. The Irish Examiner. Retrieved 13 June, from: http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/luxury-goods-spend-rises-among-irish-people-342531.html
Felluga, D. (2011). Introduction to Sigmund Freud. Modules on Freud. Retrieved 8 June 2016, from https://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/psychoanalysis/freud2.html
Freud, S. (1915). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis.
Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fink, B. (2002). Ecrits. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
McLeod, S. (2009). Defense Mechanisms. Simply Psychology. Retrieved 8 June 2016, from http://www.simplypsychology.org/defense-mechanisms.html