Shame and consumption
Ashamed of shame
Shame is a concept that is currently underexplored in business research. What we do know about the emotion comes largely from the fields of psychoanalysis and sociology. Helen Lynd wrote about shame in a 1958 study called On Shame and the Search for Identity. According to Lynd, shame is pervasive in social life, like water for fish.
It is a social emotion because it signals a threat to the social bond. When we feel shame, we are imagining ourselves through the eyes of others and finding ourselves lacking in some way. However, shame may be discussed less than other emotions because we are ashamed of talking about it. We are ashamed of being ashamed!
Shame as a marketing tool
Shame is different from guilt, which relates to things we do. Shame relates to our feelings about who and what we are; how we look and how we present ourselves. It is, therefore, closely related to ideas about identity and selfhood. It is also closely related to other emotions, like pride and self-esteem. For this reason, shame may be of interest to marketers.
Shame and self-esteem could be seen as two tools in the marketer’s toolbox. The carrot and the stick. Every advertisement that promises we will look more beautiful, be more attractive, smell better, or run faster, also implicitly warns us that if we do not buy we will look uglier, be less attractive, smell worse, or run slower. We will be uglier, less attractive, smellier and slower than everyone else who is buying the product in question; we imagine how we will appear to others and we imagine the shame we will feel. To avoid this imaginary shame, we buy!
Symbolic consumption is not a new concept in consumer research. The idea that individuals define themselves and others using products or brands has been discussed for decades. However, most studies neglect the idea of shame as a driving factor in symbolic consumption and focus instead on more positive emotions like self-esteem.
Perhaps one reason for this is that shame is so hard to study. We can’t see it or measure it and, as already mentioned, most people are ashamed to even talk about shame. So interviewing consumers about shame may be unproductive. Instead, shame could be studied less directly; for example, studying how people seek to avoid it may tell us a lot about how shame works to encourage consumption.
Lynd, H.M. 1958. On Shame and the Search for Identity. New York: Harcourt Brace
This blog post was originally featured on the Lund Business Review on 12 June 2013