The Christmas of me

Behavioural science expert Dan Monheit, co-founder of creative agency Hardhat writes that thanks to a hell of a year, Christmas has come early, as Aussies look to treat themselves before Boxing Day.

Typically, Christmas has been the season of getting your give on. By the time 25 December rolls around, we’ve all spent days, weeks or months, ploughing time, energy and emotion into finding the perfect gift for everyone else. This year, however, after months of deprivation and drudgery, we’ve seen a subtle psychological shift known as the Licensing Effect, come into play earlier than usual.

Psychologically, we work on an internalised virtues based bargaining system. In Behavioural Science, the heuristic is known as the Licensing Effect, and it captures our innate desire to want to balance out our virtuous and indulgent selves.

It’s why we tell ourselves it’s okay to slather mayo on our lunchtime sandwich if we sweated buckets at the gym in the morning, why sinking a bottle of shiraz feels justified after a stressful day at work or why ‘just one more pair’ of sneakers seems like a reasonable reward for months of diligent saving for a house deposit. The Licensing Effect is best captured by the ‘Treat Yo Self!’ catch cry, and easiest to spot in its ‘because I did X, I deserve Y’ format.

In terms of consumer purchasing behaviour, one study published in the Journal of Marketing found participants were twice as likely to purchase a luxury item when asked to commit a charitable act prior to shopping.

Because I did X, I deserve Y. It’s a psychological balancing act.

In any normal year, we celebrate the Unofficial Festival of Licensing Effect on 26 December. More commonly known as Boxing Day, this has become the 24 hour period where we turn our attention and generosity squarely inwards. After all of that effort shopping for friends, family, colleagues and coaches, it’s time to treat ourselves with all the goodies that Santa didn’t quite get around to bringing us this year. After all, we deserve it.

But 2020 has been anything but a normal year. The extended lockdown and shuttering of the hospitality, retail and entertainment sectors have given us a far greater dose of self-deprivation, conservatism, and abstinence from all that is good and fun in the world than any of us ever could have imagined. Our ledgers are well and truly stacked towards virtue. Now it’s treat time, and after all we’ve been just through, nobody’s interested in waiting until the other side of Christmas.

According to an online survey by accounting software giant Xero, one third of Australians are planning on treating themselves before Christmas. That certainly sounds like opportunity knocking to me.

Savvy marketers have seen this coming and are leaning right in, creating the small but mighty chorus of ‘treat yourself’ messaging we’re seeing in the marketplace. British supermarket-giant Tesco used it to stunning effect in their witty Christmas advertising campaign, assuring viewers that all 2020 related transgressions had been forgiven, and that treats were in order for all.

During the campaign spot, the protagonists ponder as to whether they’ll end up on the naughty list. We hear each character’s inner monologue as they confess to micro-infractions that people the world over can relate to this year: buying too much toilet paper, forgetting to sing happy birthday as they wash their hands, not teaching the kids maths and physics or dishing out a terrible lockdown haircut.

But Tesco gave them a reprieve, declaring that we’ve all suffered enough this year. In 2020, there will be no naughty list! Have all the treats you want this Christmas! Hooray! Let’s indulge!

Because we did X, we deserve Y.

But it’s not just on the big (and medium) screens – small screens are compelling us to treat ourselves too. The usual barrage of pre-Christmas emails I receive from every online store I’ve ever interacted with had a distinct sprinkling of Licensing Effect this year. From the slightly more subtle ‘gifts we think you’ll love’ to the full strength ‘ultimate gift guide for you’, retailers the world over are emailing me to say I deserve it this Christmas, and who am I to argue?

After the year we’ve had, we can expect the Licensing Effect to run rampant, straight through  Christmas, into the New Year and beyond. In Australia, our big-ticket treats such as concerts, sporting events, and especially overseas travel have all been taken off the agenda, leaving a massive opportunity for domestic businesses to tap into the value of offering up treats big and small.

While major marketing activities have no doubt been ‘in the can’ for months already, more tactical channels including email, social and digital mean it’s never too late for most businesses to tap into the Licensing Effect.

For industries like retail, automotive and home renovations, where face to face selling is still a big part of the process, listen out for clues that a purchase may be landing in the ‘treat myself camp’, rather than the pragmatic, rational one. If it sounds like you’re talking to a treater, then don’t miss the opportunities for cherry-on0top upgrades. After all, if we’re going to treat ourselves early this year, we might as well do it properly. Why? Because we deserve it, of course.

Dan Monheit is a behavioural science expert and co-founder of Hardhat.


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