Feeling Your Presence…

Can brands achieve a lasting seasonal glow?

Christmas, according to Campaign’s round up of John Lewis, Sainsbury’s, Burberry and Havery Nicks, is for neuroscience. Isn’t it?

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the behavioural deconstruction of this batch of Christmas ads, but what, I wondered, would a philosopher make of them? Making my way to the local pub, the mild winds haunted by the bells of a distant ice-cream van, I decided to find out.

Sam, with his greying beard and pint of 49er is the resident philosopher at the Three Tuns. He looks suitably miserable when I ask him for a view on the ad-land dingle.

What do you reckon? I ask after I’ve pulled out the laptop and assaulted him with the fare. He looks blank… I ask again when I’ve refilled his glass.

Christmas… he starts… Christmas is all about the desire for happiness, isn’t it. These adverts, they’re all peddling a take on happiness.

Hardly a revelation, Sam. All adverts do that — I say — all the time.

That’s right, he says, but what’s interesting is the differences in the type of happiness they’re peddling. Aristotle might have something to say on that.

I was hoping he might. Sam continues…

Yep, John Lewis and Sainsbury’s, with stories that work around purpose (charity associations for Age UK and Save the Children respectively) are appealing to what Aristotle called ‘eudaimonic well-being’. A slow burn, if you like, something outside of self, but something that makes us feel good, right to our core. Both ads invite you to forego your desires in favour of another. By showing someone they’re loved, or by sharing — as these ads encourage — you get happiness but, according to the stoics, in a delayed and more fulfilling way.

Whereas Burberry and Harvey Nichols — he continues — they’re focused on self, on ‘hedonic well-being’, on instant self-gratification. Like jumping on a sparkly trampoline, or presumably, not getting granny’s latest knitting effort. They’re both about getting exactly what you want — and how good that will make you feel, right now.

But! Sam warns, and I’m sure the fire flickers and darkens.

It does. Gavin the barman has switched it off. Bonkers mild innit! He chirps, fanning himself with a beermat.

But? Sam? He leans in. Outside, the pub sign creaks. A shifty looking couple across the way divert their gaze back to their phones.

They’re being very clever here aren’t they… he whispers — our eudaimonic friends. I mean… I’m all for a kinder type of capitalism, but I wonder… I wonder if they also get a hedonic hit wrapped up in that higher purpose.

Oh bollocks. I thought we were on to something here. Advertising really doing good. But Sam! Age UK have seen volunteers surge, Sainsbury’s can’t keep up with demand for all-profits-to-charity of fluffy books and toys.

No, no — he goes on — that’s fair enough. But the stories work on both levels. It’s fun, or it’s heart-warming. You feel good. They invite eudaimonic investment, but you get a hedonic hit anyway. So you could get to feel like you’re involved without actually doing anything. And maybe… maybe that sandwich you’re gonna get for your lunch, you’ll get it in Sainsbury’s even though that purchase won’t help charity. But in your mind… well, it’s a strong association.

Also, by telling a story in the way they are — he continues — it’s a bit of Christmas theatre. So the organisation, the business, the employees — they get a eudaimonic glow of being part of something outside of the usual, and if it works to get people buying, then management and the shareholders (or partners in John Lewis’ case), get a hedonic rush if seasonal returns come in.

Although maybe some punters, like Burberry’s are more turned on by purely hedonic happiness and brands know this, I offer.

Hmmn, could be — he says — but… you mentioned neuroscience. Well science suggests that eudaimonic well-being isn’t just a state of mind — it seems to be indicated at the cellular level too. Whereas hedonic happiness isn’t.

Wow. I say. So being connected and purposeful makes — it makes your cells happy? That’s certainly good news for brands who…

Exactly! He says. Hedonic for today, eudaimonic for tomorrow. The smart money covers all the bases. It’s brilliant, or shocking, depending on your ethics. He drains the last of his pint and strokes that silvering beard. Anyway, gotta go. Early start tomorrow, the missus put me up for being Santa at the primary school.

I watch him march off through the puddles. A breezy clang of Greensleeves announces the approaching ice-cream van. Gavin dashes out to flag it down.

Yep. It’s beginning to look at lot like Christmas. Enjoy yours.

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