Why I painted my fingernails black to learn about consumption

Consumerism is now a hobby - consumers buy because they can; sometimes without any thought. The end result is that brand advertising can lack meaningful emotional engagement, says Adam Ferrier in this guest post.

So a week ago today I painted my fingernails. As well as enjoying a throwback to men’s fashion circa 1996 I did this for a particular reason.

Adam Ferrier, Cummins & Partners (Australia) global chief strategy officer

I wanted to create a device that would remind me of every purchase and consumption choice I made for a week.  Every time I went online to buy something, every time I put something into my mouth, and every time I went to buy a chocolate bar my gothic black nail polish would encourage me to consider that consumption choice.

So why do this? Because I’m interested in what would happen if we moved from mindless to mindful consumption. Mindful consumption?

In the late ’90s as well as having black fingernails I studied psychology. The dominant paradigm at the time was ‘cognitive behavioural psychology (CBT)’, applied within a ‘scientist-practitioner model’.

At this time, the fringes of psychology emerged an unproven eastern concept called ‘mindfulness’.  At first it was seen as very alternative; however, 20 years on mindfulness is now a well established proven therapeutic device used in psychology (Keng, 2011).

I’m wondering if mindfulness, as it applies to consumerism, will follow a similar adoption curve.  So for those who cherish data and ‘science’ to back up an argument – it’s not here, yet.  So read on if you can tolerate an opinion without a pie-chart.

The situation right now is that over-consumption is rife. Consumerism is now a hobby – we’re eating more food, buying more clothes, filling our houses with more stuff, buying more storage, and inundating our kids with more toys than they can play with.adam-ferrier-black-fingernails

There are omni-present forces in culture encouraging us to consume, and advertising obviously plays a contributing role in this.  Now, I love advertising and believe advertising to be a cornerstone of capitalism, which normally goes hand in hand with strong democracies.

Further, according to the World Bank, around 60% of our GDP is made up of household consumer driven demand – nothing wrong with consumerism.

The issue is that so much consumption today is done mindlessly, or in auto-pilot, or system 1, and an increasing number of advertisers seem to be playing into this. Let me explain, some people who take a scientist practitioner approach to marketing (e.g. Sharpe, 2012) believe that:

  1. People make category decisions first
  2. Then they choose the brand that has mental and physical availability, that is the brand that’s easiest for them to recall and reach.
  3. Therefore it’s important to do wide reaching always on, distinctive advertising to stay top of mind (maintaining mental availability).
  4. However, as consumers don’t really mind what brand they buy they are not loyal to the brand
  5. Therefore the marketer must continually advertise for new users with a mass marketing blanket approach.

There is excellent evidence this approach works – and I’m a massive advocate for such evidence based marketing (‘How Brands Grow’ is the best book I have ever read).

However, the end result of such marketing is that the brands advertised may lack meaningful emotional engagement (kind of like the opposite of a Lovemark).

A point readily admitted to by many advocates of this approach. Hence we have people buying what’s easiest (mental availability), they are not overly processing the brands they buy relying instead on distinctive assets, and they have little connection with them. It’s largely mindless consumption.

Another issue with this approach is that it’s expensive for the marketer. You are relying on an advertising budget large enough to blanket the category, and be omni-present in market.

A, MR & PR | date created: 2006:08:30

For those who can’t afford, or don’t want to take such an approach, I’d suggest considering moving from a mindless consumption model to a mindful consumption model.

That is, ask yourself what would happen if people truly considered whether they wanted to consume your brand before they purchased it (unweighting system 2 thinking to use BE language).

What if you encouraged people to genuinely consider the purchase they were about to make, it’s positives and negatives, its immediate and longer-term benefits and drawbacks?

Here’s what I think may happen to those brands brave enough to take such an approach:

  1. They’ll potentially receive less sales
  2. The people who do consume will value it more
  3. They’ll be prepared to pay more for the brand
  4. They’ll stay more loyal to the brand.

Further for brands to withstand that kind of scrutiny the companies who make them will have to be more innovative and clever, relying less on mindless consumption and more on creating truly remarkable things that people consciously decide to seek out.

In short creating businesses that focus on creating value (mindful), more than volume (mindless).

So how did my little experiment with the nail polish go? Apart from the corporate gothic remarks, and the considerable force of confirmation bias (finding exactly what I set out to find) I found the process interesting and self-reflective.

It’s been a constant reminder of both the consumption decisions I’m making, but also some of the subtler forces at play. Including upon reflection how much of my consumption (social media, and food) was to fill in time. I doubt the effect will last much longer than the nail polish, but it’s a start.

If brands are interested in creating a business that takes a more mindful approach to consumption, I’d encourage the following:

  1. Attention: Ensure consumers attend to your brand – not just the category. The strongest way to do this is innovate to the extent you create your own category, a category of one.
  2. Acceptance: Encourage consumers to understand your brand as holistically as possible. Ensure consumers are aware of shorter and longer-term benefits (and costs) of consumption.  They understand and accept the entire offer
  3. Action: Encourage interactivity, and co-creation of your brand. Get consumer input wherever possible. Have people invested into your brand (from market research to product design).

Both mindful and mindless consumption potentially offer avenues to growth. Thoughts?


Keng, S.L.,  Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C.J. (2011). Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6) 1041-1056

Sharp, B. (2012). How Brands Grow. Oxford.

Adam Ferrier is global chief strategy officer at Cummins & Partners, curator and founder of Marketing Science Ideas Xchange (MSIX) and author of The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour


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