Manufacturing neuroticism

by Rob Horning

16 May 2008


I am on the record as being against customer service. It seems to me a trick to get us overinvested in shopping as a place where we can exercise our will to power. So when Yves Smith asks, in this post about a few ideas for new consumer-service businesses, “Do we want to foster customer neurosis?” I believe the answer is yes. Of course we do. Retailing is essentially the art of making insignificant choices seem paramount, and getting people hooked on the “thrill” of making such discriminations. Total neuroticism is the art practiced at its highest form and is a state of mind marketing in general is always preparing us for, stoking our fantasies of omnipotence and our insecurities about not belonging to group of preferred customers or whatever. (That is part of the logic behind retailers’ loyalty programs—those stupid cards you have to flash to get the sale price on items, like you are part of some elite cadre of special shoppers. Though the main reason for them, I always thought, was to track what you purchased and use that to compile demographic data to sell to manufacturers and advertisers.)

Perplexed by services for helping customers get the best rooms or seats within a hotel or particular flight, Smith asks “Is this much information really empowering, or does having such fine grading merely make some people unhappy when they don’t get what their little website says is the best?” It certainly supplies the illusion of power and an opportunity to discriminate. I think it allows for the pleasure of making petty judgments, becoming ersatz insiders, and scoring insignificant victories over peer shoppers on a scoreboard that the insecurity mongers conjure out of thin air. Basically, when we as customers become fussy children, the retailers become our parental authority figures, granting or withholding the love we crave, even as we foolishly believe we are in control because we are being fussed over.

In a consumer society, shopping isn’t about satisfying some set of wants extrinsic to the market arena—it is about entering the arena and having our wants stoked and then satisfied, with our competitive juices stoked and our fantasizing mind fully engaged. Shopping is itself an experiential good; anything we take happen to take home from us is often just a souvenir.

Like Vaughn at Mind Hacks, I’m generally skeptical of neuroscientific research of the brain-lights-up-therefore-it’s-true variety, but for what it’s worth, this WSJ piece today explains that shopping is like crack smoking:

Research shows that people often do get a high from shopping—the brain releases chemicals such as dopamine or serotonin when a person is stimulated by discovering something new, such as a handbag. Sometimes, aspects of the shopping experience such as friendly sales clerks, eye-catching displays or aisles that are easy to navigate can trigger brain activity that brings about these “euphoric moments,” says Dr. David Lewis, director of neuroscience at Mindlab International, a United Kingdom-based consultancy whose clients include athletes, retailers and advertising companies. “The brain is turned on by novelty.”

The writer sums up that “For the consumer, such studies serve as an important reminder that these euphoric moments do exist but they aren’t necessarily triggered by the desire to own a particular item.” I’m starting to believe that we convince ourselves we want some specific thing as an alibi so that we can enjoy the shopping experience as a whole. Like when I would sit down for some “writing” because I knew that would lead to cigarette breaks.

To a larger and larger degree, the wants occur after we have already decided to go shopping; they are not the impetus. So we don’t start by wishing we could be “getting a better room” but we enter the sphere of services and discover that we can and then want to. The key for marketers is to keep us in that sphere—a mental space more than a physical space—where we are searching for things to buy, with buying becoming how we remind ourselves of our being.

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