Retail Therapy?


New research shows consuming can boost feelings of self-worth,
though the effect is undermined by overly explicit marketing

  • Research from Dr. Nimish Rustagi (PhD, HEC Paris) and HEC Paris Prof. L. J. Shrum shows that consumption of certain products can restore feelings of self-worth that have been damaged for whatever reason
  • Ironically, this boost or restoration effect is diminished by overt marketing tactics like slogans or taglines that make products’ link to the hurt self-identity aspect overly explicit
  • Research has important implications for marketers and consumers alike
  • Paper published on July 20th in the Journal of Consumer Research

New research by Dr. Nimish Rustagi (former HEC Paris doctoral student) and HEC Paris marketing professor L. J. Shrum finds that consumers feel better about themselves when they purchase products or services that they subconsciously link to aspects of their self-identity about which they feel insecure.

People’s self-worth can be diminished for many for reasons—a redundancy, rejection for a membership in an exclusive club, or some other kind of professional or personal setback—creating a feeling of “self-deficiency” that people are motivated to restore.

One way they can do this is by consuming or exhibiting products that symbolize success in the context of that part of their self-identity that has been damaged. Purchasing a luxury car signaling high status, for instance, can boost feelings of power.  Similarly, buying an “intellectual” magazine can have the effect of making the individual feel more intelligent.

However, this “compensatory” effect can be undermined by heavy-handed marketing slogans or advertising taglines that spell out the products’ connection with the damaged aspects of self-identity too explicitly.

“Compensatory consumption may explain why Kristine, a manager who had her project funding abruptly curtailed by her boss is suddenly very enamored of the Aston Martin ad on a billboard she passes every day, or why Jacques, a student who received a bad grade on his physics exam, picks up The Economist at the convenience store rather than his usual GQ. The luxury car is inherently symbolic of status and power, and the magazine is inherently symbolic of intelligence,” say Nimish Rustagi and L. J. Shrum.

“We wanted to establish if such consumption was effective in boosting the damaged aspects of self-identity and what effect marketing tactics had on this”, explain the authors.

The research, published on July 20th in the Journal of Consumer Research, shows that compensatory consumption can restore damaged aspects of self-identity – but only under certain conditions.

“If the car or the magazine is marketed with taglines or slogans that are overly explicit about things like status or intelligence, the connection only serves to reactivate feelings of low self-worth and so the compensatory effect is undermined. Nevertheless, such consumers may still want to buy the luxury car or the magazine.”

This, argue Nimish Rustagi and L. J. Shrum, is because we are not consciously aware of the motivations behind compensatory purchasing behavior. We don’t fully understand our choices at a conscious level so we don’t consciously connect, say, our willingness to pay more for a status product to any underlying threat to our feelings of power. Nor are we consciously aware of the explicit connections or references that ads or slogans make to our damaged self-identity.

“So whether the thought of an Aston Martin successfully restores Kristine’s sense of power may depend on whether the billboard for Aston Martin that she notices includes their tag line “Power, Beauty, and Soul,” and whether purchasing The Economist restores Jacques’s sense of intelligence may depend on whether he notices or remembers its promotion as “A Gymnasium for the Mind.” Such explicit connections are generally viewed as good marketing: Brands want to convey their positioning on particular attributes or provide clear information about what a product offers, say Dr. Nimsh Rustagi and Prof. L. J. Shrum.

Understanding What Motivates Us

The authors designed a set of seven experiments with volunteers to look at how diminished feelings on certain key aspects of self-identity impacted preferences for products having association with those aspects.

“Because individuals faced with self-concept deficits are generally not aware of the true motivations for their product preferences, we could not explicitly ask them about these motivations. Therefore, we used experimental designs that allowed us to implicitly infer the underlying motivations and whether compensatory consumption resulted in self-repair.”

In one experiment, 50% of participants were asked to recall and write about a time in which someone had power over them. The other half of the participants—the control group—recalled and wrote about the last time they went to the grocery store. All participants were then shown an ad for a luxury pen (symbolic of power) and asked how much they would be willing to pay it.

In each group, the researchers had shown half of the participants an ad with just the luxury pen (implicitly or inherently associated to power) while the other half were shown the same ad for the same pen, but with a tagline “Power, Prestige, Influence” (explicitly associated to power).

As we expected, the people who had been induced to feel low on power were willing to pay significantly more for the status symbolizing luxury pen than the control group regardless of whether they had seen the ad with the explicit tagline or without it. Importantly, we also tested with non-status products, such as a plastic chair, and found that the effect did not carry over – neither group was willing to pay more.”

Next, the researchers assessed whether this compensatory behavior-–the willingness to pay more-–restored feelings of power in participants.

“We found that it did result in self-repair, but only for the people who saw the ad with no tagline. For those who viewed the ad with the tagline, the compensatory experience did not boost feelings of power.”

Broader Implications

The research sheds empirical light on the complex psychological mechanisms and processes at play in purchasing decisions, offering marketers valuable insights in terms of segmentation and messaging strategies.

There are also important implications for consumer well-being too say Dr. Nimish Rustagi and Professor L. J. Shrum.

“If compensatory consumption is not effective in restoring the self-concept, potentially scarce resources are wasted and may lead to financial problems (e.g., if the consumer feeling low on power indulges in compensatory consumption of a luxury product but without a resulting boost to feelings of power). This possibility is compounded by the fact that consumers are typically unaware that their consumption is related to self-threats and self-repair. Consequently, they may engage in frequent, recurring compensatory consumption behaviors because the feeling of “self-deficiency” has not been diminished.”

About the authors

Nimish Rustagi (
is the Deputy Press Secretary to the President of India, New Delhi, India.

L. J. Shrum ( is a Professor of Marketing,
HEC Paris, Jouy-en-Josas, France.

This research published in the Journal of Consumer Research is based on a portion of the doctoral dissertation of the first author under the supervision of the second author.

About HEC Paris

Specializing in management education and research, HEC Paris offers a complete and unique range of educational programs for the leaders of tomorrow: Masters programs, Summer School, MBA, PhD, Executive MBA, TRIUM Global Executive MBA, open-enrolment and custom executive education programs.

Founded in 1881 by the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry, HEC Paris is a founding member of the University Paris-Saclay.  It boasts a faculty of 108 research professors, more than 4,500 students and over 8,000 managers and executives in training each year.

HEC Paris was ranked second business school in Europe by the Financial Times’ overall business school ranking in December 2017.