Why do we give gifts on Valentine’s Day?
Is Valentine's Day a celebration of love or just a way to get us to buy more? Dr Paul Harrison takes a look at the psychological factors at play.
Valentine’s Day is coming, and for many, it seems that the marketing of this particular day and of many occasions throughout the year – such as Halloween, Easter and Christmas – has stepped up a gear over the past couple of years. Many believe that these events are simply feeding our consumerist culture, and to some degree they are right.
In its own way, Valentine’s Day is a prime example of segmentation and targeting, where marketers develop a marketing mix to suit the key target markets. Segments work best when the consumer opts in and actually buys the product, rather than when it is a constructed demographic that is targeted by marketers.
In my MBA (Masters of Business Administration) classes, I regularly remind students that marketers don’t choose segments; the people choose to be in a segment through their behaviour. And this is all that is happening on Valentine's Day.
So, there is more to the day than simply marketing gone mad, despite marketers' abilities to tap into our very human vulnerabilities. The need to love, to be loved and to belong is central to our idea of happiness. Being in love, and loving someone, is bound up with perception, imagination and a desired reality.
So, Valentine's Day – and romance generally – is about the fantasy and the promise of a better life. Valentine’s Day is one of those days where we can put aside the complex, real nature of relationships and act out a fantastical idea of love.
That said, marketing and marketers play perfectly on the fantasy, showing us what love could be like if we buy this “product” for our loved one. Marketing and Valentine’s Day are a "perfect match" because both play on an imagined and desired reality.
From a psychological perspective, quite a bit of pressure to buy gifts is going to be primarily on new or potential couples. It is also young people, teenagers, young adults and maybe those who feel most vulnerable about their relationship that are most likely to be convinced to express their devotion through (material) gifts.
To some degree, people in the early stages of their relationships are the least likely to be creative, and they are most likely to go for the old favourites such as flowers, chocolates and teddy bears. As everything is still new and being established, most people like to avoid risk and are easily nudged by marketing and advertising that gives the impression that it knows what works.
It is also quite risky to go out on a limb and do or buy something a bit different when we are still trying to establish – in the mind of our potential partner – a person who is likeable, even loveable. So you need to find the balance between spending or doing too much (and scaring them off), and spending or doing too little (and perhaps signalling that they are not very important to you).
It’s a scary time…
It’s part of the human condition to want to respond to days like Valentine’s Day, so the marketing plays upon human psychology. People like occasions and rituals to help guide them on how to behave, so looking around and seeing what others (and advertising can serve as a proxy for “others”) are doing on Valentine's Day provides what psychologists call “social proof”.
People in more stable and long-term relationships feel more comfortable challenging boundaries and are less likely to fall for the marketing campaigns – they’re the ones who are more likely to do quirky things, like going for a row on the river, or more personal activities (if at all). This is mainly because they know each other and what boundaries they can push.
I don’t want to sound like a boring, old(ish) guy, so I’ll say that I think it’s important to mark occasions – it is a natural part of being human. But the best approach when it comes to relationships and even love is to make it personal and maybe a little bit different from the norm.
If you do want to increase your chances of some lurve, and it’s a newish relationship, don’t conform. Research has shown that you have a better chance of being liked and considered attractive if you are confident and memorable. But don’t overemphasise the day – just like New Year’s Eve, for most people, it is likely to be a bit of an anti-climax.
Some advice to newly-courting couples: if you want to improve your chances, do something that heightens arousal levels (anything that leads to an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and sensory alertness), such as something scary, stressful or risky. Research shows that our brain makes a link between the ambiguous arousal and the person that we are with, so that we link the excitement as much with the person as we do with the activity.
So, maybe head off to a rickety bridge or see a scary movie with your new love. You’ll certainly be remembered – although you should try to avoid the kind of surprise that Fleabag tried in an attempt to spice up her relationship.
If you don’t want to be part of the consumer extravaganza, why not wait until 23 April, which is St Jordi (George) Day, a special day for lovers in Catalunya in Spain (and a day recognised by UNESCO as international book day). The main event is the exchange of roses and books between sweethearts, loved ones and colleagues. Historically, men gave women roses and women gave men a book to celebrate the occasion, although nowadays the tradition isn’t as gendered. Each year on this date, La Rambla, a well-known street in central Barcelona, is set up with multiple bookstores and sellers with roses. Indeed, 5-8% of Catalunya’s total books sales are made on this day.
But don’t get too precious about this date either: one aspect of the tradition is very much a contributor to capitalist causes – while roses have been associated with St Jordi Day since medieval times, the giving of books originated as recently as 1923 when a bookseller started to promote the holiday as a way to commemorate the nearly simultaneous deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes… and sell books.
Dr Paul Harrison is the deputy director and marketing lead in the Deakin Business School MBA program, director of The Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing, and a senior lecturer at Deakin University. He researches, consults and advises government, industry and NGOs predominantly in the field of consumer behaviour and marketing.
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