My intern is the only one following me on Twitter.
My 5-day cleanse is only on day 2.
My boyfriend dumped me via text.
They were some of the over-the-top slogans in a much debated advertising campaign for Lucky Magazine, which earlier this month pushed heels and handbags alongside a blunt tagline goading women to “Fill the Void” and overcome the “problems” in their lives.
Critics accused Lucky of exploiting consumers’ vulnerability and perpetuating a cycle of despair and credit card debt: no handbag can solve a life crisis, silly. Others pointed out that shopping therapy is a long-standing private ritual for both female and male shoppers, one Lucky, which was promoting its new e-commerce website, was clever to capitalize on with its cheeky spots.
“The rush of acquisition is incredibly pleasurable for many people,” says June Cotte, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business, who looks at consumption and gambling.
Prof. Cotte said that with shopping therapy, what people are quietly seeking in the aisles is mood repair: “Retail therapy is a temporary mood lifter.”
The process is often unconscious, and when the subtext is blatantly revealed, as it was with the Lucky spots, “it doesn’t work as well,” said Claire Tsai, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who studies happiness and consumption experiences.
Prof. Tsai said that the high is transient. She describes something psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill:” External stimuli can drive our happiness up or down, yet we often promptly return to our original emotional state.
“When we first get a raise, or a new pair of shoes, we feel good at first but very quickly this boost in happiness goes away and we return to a baseline.”
What’s new about the campaign, says Prof. Tsai, is how explicitly Lucky connects bad mood with shopping.
“Marketers used to believe that if they make the connection between shopping and the mood-repair goal transparent, then people may be suspicious. ... What Lucky’s campaign shows is that it is okay to help people connect shopping with their ‘woes.’”
Lauren Marotta makes a conscious effort to avoid retail therapy. The Toronto-based fashion blogger behind Crazy With It, Crazier Without tries to shop more deliberately, finding and then saving up for pieces: “I’m not prone to the Zaras of the world where you go in and buy whatever’s there.”
Still, Ms. Marotta will occasionally therapy-shop for lipstick “because it’s a safe place and you can’t spend a lot of money.”
“I’ve treated myself but I know what I’m doing, that it won’t fill any void.” That said, she understands why many people do it: “It’s distracting and it’s immediate gratification.”
Ms. Marotta says that while women are pigeonholed as the only victims of shopping therapy, men are also prone to it “in their stereotypical ways,” whether it’s toolbox accoutrements, electronics or outdoorsy gear – consumer realms that appear more pragmatic.
“There is a stigma when it comes to apparel and beauty. People do this with other things as well,” said Ms. Marotta.
Prof. Tsai agrees that retail therapy has been gendered over time: “This is internalized in our thinking as women: When a woman feels bad, what does she do? She shops. It’s a script and it’s encouraged.”
Another wrinkle for those medicating with consumerism involves online shopping.
“Online is very pernicious; you can look up those Jimmy Choo shoes on your phone,” says Prof. Cotte, noting that shoppers have more physical outs in malls than when they troll privately.
The dopamine reward is also different: Since the product can take days to arrive, the rush here is entirely in the process. “It’s not really the item. For many people, it’s the search, the hunt, the acquisition,” says Prof. Cotte.
For Ms. Marotta, online shopping does not offer quite the same rewards: “You don’t satiate that visceral craving by shopping online. You don’t get the items automatically. That delays the gratification that you’re looking for by ‘shame shopping’ in the first place.” When your American Apparel tube top finally arrives, “That moment has passed,” and the endorphins may have ebbed away.
So how harmful is “filling the void” with some mall rat action, or squirrelling possessions away online?
If moderated, retail therapy isn’t entirely harmful, argues Prof. Cotte. Since shoppers can often return their goods, she argues that this type of self-remedying is less hazardous than sidling up to the bar or gambling: “It can be a little bit more frivolous than some of these other potentially problematic behaviours because you can undo it.”
Still, there is some overlap between shopping therapy and compulsivity, cautions Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass.
“With people who have buying and hoarding problems we frequently see these objects becoming a source of emotional support. The difference is in the ability to control the urge,” said Prof. Frost, co-author of STUFF: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.
He adds: “I tend not to call it therapy because it’s not really therapy.”
Ultimately, Ms. Marotta doesn’t shame those who find themselves fresh off a splurge at H&M after their business meeting goes south – as long as they’re mindful of what they’re actually doing.
“Everybody has the right to buy things for themselves. If it makes you feel good, great, but it’s important to understand the psychology behind how we shop and why we buy. It gives us more customer power.”
Ms. Marotta suggests another component to retail therapy: image. “Is this making us feel better because we look better to the outside world? There is allure to enhancing your image, especially when you feel negative inside.”
She points out that Lucky simply did explicitly what fashion and beauty purveyors have done insidiously for years: “It’s slightly refreshing because it’s honest with the message that nearly every shopping ad in existence has tried to subtly suggest.”