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You're Going to Die! So Buy Now!

New research finds inserting reminders of our mortality into advertisements is a surprisingly effective strategy to sell products.
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(Photo: tonyz20/Shutterstock)

(Photo: tonyz20/Shutterstock)

Don't thank me just yet, but I may have stumbled upon a way to save the newspaper industry. As well as a method to persuade people to purchase all sorts of products they may not particularly want.

A new study offers compelling evidence that advertisements for nearly anything—even subscriptions to the ever-thinner Daily Chronicle—are more effective if they prominently feature reminders of the reader's mortality.

Yes, that sounds absurd. Pointing out the fact one is going to die tends to put people in a sour mood, which presumably decreases their receptivity to marketing pitches.

But new research from the Netherlands suggests the aforementioned assumption is absolutely wrong. It reports that, at least in consumer-oriented Western societies, reminders of our finite existence prompt us to open our wallets.

Such an unconventional approach speaks directly to our "unconscious fears, shortcutting conscious routes to persuasion," a team led by psychologist Enny Das of Radboud University writes in the journal Psychology and Marketing. "This strategy may be an extremely effective (although perhaps not highly ethical) marketing tool."

After being reminded of their mortality, people tend to cling more tightly to the ideas and associations that give their lives symbolic meaning. This can prompt an aversion to nuance and ambiguity in favor of unthinking allegiance to their religion or country.

This counter-intuitive dynamic is best explained by Terror Management Theory, an extension of the seminal ideas of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. According to this school of thought, humans buffer their fear of mortality by attempting to transcend death, either literally (via belief in an afterlife) or symbolically (by devoting your life to a larger cause that will live on).

One often-problematic result is that, after being reminded of their mortality, people tend to cling more tightly to the ideas and associations that give their lives symbolic meaning. This can prompt an aversion to nuance and ambiguity in favor of unthinking allegiance to their religion or country.

But as Das and her colleagues note, "materialism and consumption" can similarly soothe existential anxiety, "at least in Western countries." Hence the shopping spree Americans went on following the 9/11 attacks.

But would inserting mortality reminders directly into ads really prompt purchases? To find out, the researchers conducted three experiments.

In the first, 95 participants viewed one of two mock advertisements for either an actual Dutch newspaper, or for an art library (an establishment that rents and sells artworks).

One ad for the newspaper "showed a picture of a coffin carried by soldiers underneath the headline 'Fallen Dutch Soldier Buried.' The advertising slogan read 'Subscribe to the Volkskrant this summer for only 9.95!'" The alternative ad emphasized another issue entirely—road construction—and made no mention of death.

Similarly, one ad for the art library "Showed a painting of a skull and the slogan 'Bring art to your home with the art library and save money.' The other used an image that did not contain any death references."

In each case, "Participants who saw advertisements with a mortality reminder had more negative attitudes toward the advertisements ... but were more willing to purchase the advertised product," the researchers report. This suggest that "fear of death produces a tendency to act that is not linked to conscious thought," especially given the fact there was no obvious link between existential anxiety and the products being sold.

In the second experiment, 95 university students engaged in an interactive advertisement, which required them to supply personal information. Once they had done so, half of them saw an ad with a tombstone that featured their name and birthday.

Underneath was the slogan: "How long do you want to wait? Take a trial subscription to X now for only 9.95 per month." For the others, the tombstone image was replaced by that of "a little boy on a stone, waiting in front of a mailbox."

Those who had seen their name on the tombstone reported feeling more positive about the ad than those who saw the image of the boy. They also expressed a greater likelihood of purchasing the periodical in question.

Importantly, these results held true whether the publication being sold was a well-known national newspaper or a fictional one. This "suggests it may be buying per se, rather than the soothing quality of cherished brands, that increased purchase intentions," the researchers write.

The final experiment, which compared a tombstone-dominated ad with one featuring a bus stop, was designed to determine if this effect would be any greater for a healthy (and thus longevity-promoting) beverage or an unhealthy one. The researchers found no difference, which again suggests it's the act of buying something—anything—that assuages the implanted existential fears.

However surprising, these results "are in line with previous findings that mortality salience increased impulsive behavior, the tendency to spend, and greed," Das and her colleagues note. We've long known that reminders of our death can alter people's behavior. This research suggests that tendency can be manipulated by marketers.

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