Picture this: You’re laying in bed scrolling through social media for several minutes, taking a much-needed mental break from a long day filled with decisions, small and large. You like a few silly animal videos, share a meme or two, and comment on a friend’s latest post. Suddenly, you see it— the thing that will make you feel better, brighter, happier, and more like the version of you you want to be. You click through to the store page and complete your purchase in a few short minutes. A swell of excitement rises and you revel in your shiny new must-have that will be in your hands by the time you wake up— thank you, next-day delivery!
Does this scenario sound familiar? It’s the experience many of us have on a monthly if not weekly or even daily basis. Online shopping has become more convenient than ever, and keenly targeted to our specific interests—a far cry from the days of catalog-based mail orders or shopping channel purchases. Research shows that three-quarters of all Americans shop on their smartphones (Faverio & Anderson 2022), with a large part of that commerce happening via Instagram influencers. Social media influencers of varying followings play an important part in this growing shopping trend, as close to 40% of Americans report that content creators influence their purchases at least somewhat (Faverio & Anderson 2022).
As targeted ads and influencer marketing become more commonplace, our spending habits can become more mindless, emotionally driven, and compulsive–in short, we end up making decisions that aren’t in our best interests, but instead in the best interests of savvy marketing teams. I invite you to reflect on your shopping habits in the past months and to sit with how your habits make you feel. If your answer is uncomfortable, guilty, shameful, or frustrated, know that you are not alone and there are ways to get back on track. I’ll provide several signs and solutions to help you break free from impulse shopping and the allure of influencer marketing. These concepts will get you started on your journey and can be enhanced with the support and expertise of a skilled therapist at Humantold.
Influencer Marketing and Why It Works
So, what is influencer marketing? An influencer is someone who uses their power (the ability to do something) and influence (the ability to get someone else to do something) in their niche to affect the decisions or attitudes of their followers. Influencer marketing uses that power and influence specifically to affect the purchasing decisions of the influencers following (Geyser 2023).
As social creatures, we are all susceptible to the influence of our peers, which makes a mindful approach to influencer marketing relevant to all of us. In fact, there is an entire study of psychology dedicated to researching effective marketing and how to leverage human emotions to increase awareness and influence human behavior around a particular subject or product. The psychology of advertising offers important explanations for common scenarios, such as why we may feel so compelled to buy the latest Stanley tumbler when there’s a collection of Hydro Flasks from last month's online shopping haul collecting dust in the cupboard.
The Psychology of Advertising
We are exposed to anywhere between 4,000 and 10,000 ads a day– yes, you read that right Carr 2021. Marshall, 2015). No wonder our behaviors are influenced by at least a handful of these ads per month. We are regularly being persuaded to think more positively about the brands we encounter on social media. This is achieved through repeated exposure, creating relatability, and commodifying products and services.
Marketing often compels us to make purchases by crafting a story or visual that stops us from scrolling or clicking away. The use of psychologically salient colors or imagery is a common way to draw people in and capture their attention (Montijo 2022). If I ask you to imagine a brand that uses the colors black and white and features a swoosh symbol your mind will probably immediately jump to the athletic apparel giant, Nike. If I feature the color blue prominently in an ad, it can inspire a calming effect. If I feature the color red, it can inspire assertiveness or even anger. These are some of the subtle ways that even on the personal brand level, marketing choices can be persuasive and promote emotion-based shopping instead of thoughtful decision-making.
3 Signs You’re Being Influenced to Shop Emotionally
- Exaggerated Language - “Must Have!”, “Don’t miss out!” “Best Price Ever!”
Now that we know influencer marketing relies heavily on appealing to our emotions, we can create more effective defenses against these strategies. Phrases like “Must Have!” create a sense of urgency and FOMO (fear of missing out) that leads to uneasiness within us. This uneasiness needs resolution, but that resolution doesn’t have to be purchasing something new on a whim. The resolution might look like waiting out the urge. Ask yourself, “Does anyone really need to have that particular item, or is it simply wanted? Was it a concern of yours before seeing the advertisement, or did the advertisement initiate the desire? Advertisements that create pressure to act quickly using exaggerated language are likely trying to bypass your logical reasoning and influence you to purchase based on fleeting emotions, instant gratification, and short-term whims.
- Redirecting to Links - “Link in Bio!”, “Type ‘shop’ for a DM with the link!”
We are all familiar with link hubs that redirect to a laundry list of affiliate shops, affiliate courses, and Amazon must-have lists. These links often provide clear clues that the influencer is part of an affiliate marketing program whose primary goal is to entice you to part with your hard-earned cash. Although the marketing may come off as relatable, friendly, and casual, it is ultimately still marketing and has the goal of getting you to complete a purchase. To increase transparency, most influencer marketing ads must state if they are sponsored content. Look for the word affiliate before clicking on links. This can be a helpful tool to ground you in the reality that you are not being recommended a product by a friend or unbiased third-party, but being sold a product by someone who will gain financially from your spending.
- Intense Moods - “I’m stressed; I deserve a reward.”, “It’s on sale, I have to!”
The previous signs have to do with external influences to spend money unnecessarily while browsing the internet. This sign is all about internal influences, the biggest of which can be intense moods and stress! We’ve all experienced a difficult day where we are looking for a win or pick-me-up. Sometimes that win comes in the form of a small purchase, or a treat, which is perfectly fine in moderation. But moderation is key. Be mindful of the impact of mood fluctuations and stress on your spending habits. Low moods can be equally as harmful to our financial budget as an excitable and happy mood. Ask yourself, when am I most likely to spend more money than desired? This can provide insight into instances when you can apply more vigilance to your spending decisions.
3 Ways to Mindfully Break Bad Online Shopping Habits
- Don’t Store Your Card Information
While convenience can be a benefit in many ways, it is often not beneficial when it comes to online shopping. The more convenient you make it to spend your money online by storing your card information, the less time you allow yourself to think about the purchase and weigh the pros and cons. Although getting up and getting your debit card can be annoying, the time it takes to do so can be the difference between acting on impulse and acting on an informed and mindful decision.
- Decrease Screen Time with App Timers
The more time you spend on apps like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and X (FKA Twitter) the more exposed you are to advertising. Many cell phones, tablets, and smartwatches allow you to set app timers to reduce your overall time spent on apps you find addictive or problematic. By reducing your exposure to advertisements– \especially repeated exposure to the same products–you are less likely to make unnecessary purchases based on overidentification with the item or brand. Psychology tells us that repeated exposure tends to create a bias towards something because it is familiar to us, and therefore more desirable (American Psychological Association, n.d.).
- Look Inward and Reframe Your Thinking
While advertising and product placement from mega, macro, and micro influences can be extremely compelling, we have the most power over our choices. It is important to affirm the power we have to make choices that benefit us. Look inward; check on how you are feeling and what you are thinking before you complete your purchase. Ask yourself why the purchase is important, where the purchase will go once you receive it, and how you will feel about the item if you wait for a few hours, days, or weeks before committing to buying. A checklist is provided at the end of this article to assist you with asking these important questions.
How to Address This Concern in Therapy
If you find that you may be struggling with impulsive shopping habits, therapy is an amazing place to discuss your concerns and how you’d like to see your habits and emotional reactions change over time. Impulsive spending is not just a financial problem, it can also have roots in our emotional well-being and coping skills from our formative years. A skilled and compassionate therapist can assist you in identifying these factors, help you measure your steps toward decreasing compulsive behaviors, and aid you in developing new coping skills.
Therapy modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Mindfulness can help you become rooted in the present moment, adopt an attitude of non-judgment towards yourself, and increase your understanding of the connection between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors–thus making you less susceptible to frivolous spending and other unintentional habits.
It is important to know, that it is okay to buy the things you want, even if it seems silly to others, however, if you feel uncomfortable with your spending habits, are accumulating too many things in your home, or are running into financial crises often due to poor management of your resources, the tools provided here may help you begin the process of breaking free from compulsive behaviors that no longer serve you.
Try This: Mindful Shopping Checklist
Use this checklist to Reflect on Your thoughts and emotions before making a decision on a purchase:
- Have I thought this purchase over for at least 24 hours?
- Do I own something similar to the item I wish to buy?
- Does the item solve a problem that I’ve been truly concerned about before seeing advertisements?
- Is the item worth financial sacrifice or deterring my financial goals?
- How many hours of work equate to the price of this item?
- _______ hours
- Can I do my work/ reach my goal/ feel good without it?
- Does the utility and quality of the item match the price tag?
- Am I in a calm and regulated emotional state at the time of this purchase?
- Am I buying this with intentionality and mindfulness guiding me?
- Did I check my bank account before deciding on making this purchase?
American Psychological Association, n.d. “APA Dictionary of Psychology: Mere-exposure effect” Accessed on January 2nd, 2024. Last modified April 19th, 2018.
Carr, Sam. 2021. “How Many Ads Do We See A Day In 2023?” Lunio. https://lunio.ai/blog/strategy/how-many-ads-do-we-see-a-day/
Faverio, Michelle, Anderson, Monica. 2022. “For shopping, phones are common and influencers have become a factor – especially for young adults” Pew Research, November 21, 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/11/21/for-shopping-phones-are-common-and-influencers-have-become-a-factor-especially-for-young-adults/
Geyser, Werner. 2023. “What is an Influencer? – Social Media Influencers Defined [Updated 2024]”. Influencer Marketing Hub. Last modified November 15th, 2023. https://influencermarketinghub.com/what-is-an-influencer/#toc-0.
Marshall, Ron. 2015. “How Many Ads Do You See in One Day?” Red Crow Marketing Inc. https://www.redcrowmarketing.com/blog/many-ads-see-one-day/
Montijo, Saundra. 2022. “What Is The Psychology of Advertising?” PsychCentral. Last modified on July 12th, 2022. https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-psychology-of-advertising