5 Minutes To: The Psychology of Why We Buy Christmas Gifts

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With the much longed-for Christmas season approaching, one’s attention naturally turns to the minefield that is Christmas shopping. Christmas presents and festive food seems to appear in shops earlier and earlier each year, and you know that game is on once the dulcet tones of George Michael belting out ‘Last Christmas I gave you my heart‘ boom out across shopping centres in October!

From a young age, we are presented with the fairytale version of Christmas. A picture-perfect family dressed to the nines sit around a faultlessly decorated table, tucking into delicious Turkey, roast vegetables and all the trimmings, and later enjoying a mountain of expensive presents they had greedily opened under an imposingly decorative and glittering Christmas tree that morning. As adults, we are bombarded by multiple channels of clever advertising and social pressure from family and friends to recreate the perfect Christmas Day with lots of gifts, food, alcohol and decorations.

It led me to think about the reasons consumers buy products and services, particularly during the run-up to Christmas and how marketing psychology is used to tremendous effect to influence consumer behaviour. The key to unlocking why we made any purchasing decisions lies in understanding how the human brain works. The limbic system of the brain acts as an emotional nerve centre. It deals with purchasing decisions, and thus all these decisions tend to be reached as part of an emotional process. Once a purchase has been made, the rational part of our brain jumps in to justify it with logical reasoning. So, with that in mind, when it comes to Christmas marketing messages, to be successful, they must be both captivating and emotionally compelling. 

This year, in particular, adverts are tying into what matters in the population’s zeitgeist – against a backdrop of emerging out of lockdown and celebrating with family once again. Many adverts focus on recreating positive messaging, such as being generous and overcoming obstacles together to save Christmas, all with the aim to pull at the emotional heartstrings. The clever combination of eliciting positive memories and pushing a potential consumer’s emotional triggers reinforces at a subconscious level that you would be letting the side down if you don’t go all out and make every effort to make this the biggest and best Christmas ever. 

Consumers are constantly bombarded with marketing messages from multiple media channels. These include social media, films and television programmes, magazines, newspapers, billboards, television adverts, and to a certain extent, children and teenagers letting their parents know about this year’s must-have toys, to heap social pressure on adults into carrying out certain buying decisions. In turn, this has the snowball effect of people panic buying certain hyped products not to miss out and disappoint their loved ones on Christmas Day. 

Many leading brands and retailers have developed sophisticated yearly Christmas campaigns. They have drilled down their target customer in terms of demographics, technological knowledge and buying power. For example, since 2007, John Lewis has created a yearly advertising campaign that has utilised the psychological technique of overwhelming stimuli in order to both captivate and compel consumers to press the buy it now button. 

This is coupled with the Halo effect, which defines a situation where a consumer favours a product due to existing brand loyalty. Each advert contains an evocative and memorable song, bright Christmas colours, and a storyboard filled with products. This year’s John Lewis advert, is linked to a webpage showing you where to purchase any products included in the advert from the comfort of your smartphone. By cleverly including bright lights, Christmas themed colours, sounds and music to any marketing message, it has the effect of circumventing our more profound cognitive processing abilities. Thus, we are less inclined to process any buying decisions rationally. 

When presented with an overwhelming number of joyfully presented things that you want (but don’t necessarily need) on an impulsive level, it can lead to Ego depletion. This is the point where any willpower is weakened when energy from mental activity is low. When consumers are in this mental state, they are much more likely to buy lots of products on impulse rather than what is on their shopping list.  

Christmas is undeniably a magical time of the year, especially for children.  It is a chance to spend time with cherished loved ones, overindulge on chocolate selection boxes, binge-watch classic Christmas films and unwind after an extraordinary year. It has been illuminating to discover the sophisticated techniques advertisers use to sell consumers that perfect vision of the festive season.