Life&Style Writer Kitty Jackson addresses the long-standing idea of ‘retail therapy’ and the issues it creates for mental health
The concept of retail therapy has long been prevalent in our culture, with the belief that shopping and spending can act as a solution to our problems. It has been dramatised in TV shows such as Sex and the City and movies such as Confessions of a Shopaholic, and it is no secret that a good purchase can make us feel better. There is something to be said for the beneficial effect that retail therapy can have, especially when considering the power clothes have to make people feel more confident. Studies have shown that shopping can cause a release of serotonin, a chemical that contributes to happiness and wellbeing, meaning it can create a genuine increase in mood. However, there is a danger that comes with this belief, due largely to the transience of these positive benefits, as well as the long lasting impact it can have. Advertising has always presented a lifestyle and image of perfection and happiness, but purchasing products is now explicitly being linked to aiding mental health, when in reality they work against each other.
The sense that ‘retail therapy’ is being taken a little too literally is perhaps most notable among fast fashion brands, who frequently promote the mantra of buying more to alleviate the weight of problems and sadness. Companies capitalising on the tendency for people to shop when vulnerable or low is not new, the very concept of ‘Blue Monday’, the third Monday in January being dubbed the saddest day of the year, was created as a PR stunt by Sky Travel in 2005. More recently, this can be seen in fashion brands sharing memes which encourage customers to use shopping as a coping mechanism, seemingly as a part of their desire for relatability in campaigns.
In promoting meaningless shopping due to boredom or sadness, companies are reaping profit whilst capitalising on the issue of declining mental health. If anything, excessive shopping has been proven to increase sadness, with Greenpeace research showing that it often leads people to feel ‘emptiness and boredom’ in between the brief highs that it provides. While advertising relies on presenting the positive outcomes of shopping, research such as this suggests that brands should do so in a way that doesn’t directly present shopping as a quick fix or solution.
Not only does this seem an insensitive way to approach marketing with regard to existing mental health problems, but it is also irresponsible in overlooking the issues that can be created by over shopping. The Greenpeace investigation states that meaningless shopping and spending often leads to feelings of guilt, described as a post binge ‘hangover’. Furthermore, approximately 60% said that the shopping ‘buzz’ wore off within a day. There is a close link between mental health issues and financial insecurity, and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute found that 93% of people they surveyed spent more than usual when feeling unwell, demonstrating how dangerous marketing which targets those who are already vulnerable can be.
Considering the fact that we are in the midst of what has been described as a mental health ‘epidemic’ – charity Mind predicts that one in four people will experience mental illness in any given year – it is incredibly unhealthy to risk worsening habits that contribute so heavily to this. Advertising should be focusing more on the goods being sold as opposed to heavily intertwining shopping with emotional improvement, spreading the myth that happiness is something that can be bought.