Need to rush out and buy the latest Mac? Louise Dolphin tells you just how you’ve been convinced you need it so badly

Navigating my way down a bustling Grafton Street last weekend, I noticed how many people were laden down with shopping. We take a trip into town for a warm winter coat, but often end up purchasing other things we could get by without. I suddenly felt baffled by this question, “Why do we buy things we do not need?”

Adam Curtis’ gripping documentary, The Century of the Self, addresses this question. After the First World War, American industry was worried about overproduction, worried that a time would come when people had enough goods and would no longer feel the need to buy.

The rich had always been used to luxury goods, but most products were advertised as a necessity and promoted in functional, practical terms to the average American. They were advertised to appeal to your rational side.

So, how did industry transform from appealing to our intellect, to appealing to our desires? It applied the psychological theory of the age. It promoted the idea that you could buy things to express your “inner sense of self” to others by your clothes to express your character, your car to express your power etc. Products could represent who you are and how you want to be perceived. Quite suddenly, consumerism was born.

A key figure, heavily involved in transforming America to a culture of desire was Edward Bernays. It’s surprising that so few people have heard of Bernays. However, we have all heard of his uncle: Sigmund Freud. Bernays wondered if he could use Freud’s ideas about hidden irrational forces to make money by manipulating the unconscious desires of the masses.

Bernays originated the notion of an emotional connection with products and services. He mastered the art of appealing to emotion rather than rational intellect. You do not need a new car or a new handbag, but think of how you will feel once you have it. He revolutionised the American economy by showing American corporations how they could make people want things that they did not need by linking mass produced goods to our unconscious desires.

Arguably, his most dramatic campaign was to get women to smoke in public; one of the biggest social taboos in the early 1900s. He did so by connecting cigarettes with the idea of challenging male power by branding cigarettes “torches of freedom.” Bernays connected female smoking to the notion of being more powerful and independent; manipulating people to behave irrationally by linking a product to a desire.

This concept was echoed by Mad Men protagonist Don Draper. “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”

We irrationally believe that buying products will make us happier, more powerful, more attractive, more expressive, safer, more like the person we want to be.

However, wealth and material possessions are not necessarily linked to self-reported happiness. For example, psychological studies show that the overall happiness levels of lottery winners spike when they win, but return to pre-winning levels after just a few months.

Yet, it is shocking and almost frightening how some advertising campaigns have infiltrated our psyche so subtly yet so successfully. Take, for example, the diamond industry. How is it that tiny crystals of carbon are ubiquitously recognised as symbols of wealth, power and romance?

How can it be that after almost 20 years of bad press about blood diamonds and working conditions in diamond mines, almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring?

Before the 1930s, diamonds were rarely given as engagement rings; rubies, sapphires, and opals were deemed much more exotic gems. De Beers transformed the world diamond market in the 1940s with a powerful message, “A Diamond is Forever”. It would seem that we are now hardwired to attach irrational feeling and sentimental value to these sparkly pieces of carbon.

It would be remiss of me to argue that all products are pitched to our emotional, sentimental, and even subconscious selves. Some appeal to our rational selves. Interestingly, age and product type play a role in our responses to advertising.

A 2007 study in Marketing Letters found that elderly adults (65+) respond quite differently to advertising than undergraduate students. While college students show preference for rational, fact-based adverts for utilitarian products, investment services or pain relievers, and emotional ads for hedonic products (greeting cards or cologne), elderly people show preference for emotional adverts for both types of product (e.g. for investment banking “We’ll work to protect your future” as opposed to “Choose us to earn a high return on your investments”)

Alternatively, some companies strive to appeal to both intellect and desire. Arguably, Apple’s advertising strikes this balance. On a rational level, Apple products appeal to us as the only computer manufacturer that make hardware and software, their products are made from high grade materials, have good battery life. They sell us reassurance in a quality, durable product. But they sell more than the product, because they also sell us a lifestyle.

The new Apple iPad Air is “an extremely simple tool, but extremely powerful… it has been to classrooms, boardrooms, expeditions, even to space… and we can’t wait to see where you’ll take it next.” Aided by extremely clever marketing, the Apple brand has come to embody a lifestyle.

In terms of selling a lifestyle, advertisers are well aware that most members of the public see themselves as virtuous, intelligent, creative humans. Therefore, if they can point out the difference between your self-image, and the reality of your situation they can arouse a feeling of dissonance or “mismatch” in you.

We have an innate drive for consistency and when this is shaken, we feel uncomfortable and feel a need to correct it. There is a desperate struggle in the world of advertising to capture our minds, our imaginations, and our desires. I’m not sure about you, but I’m going to try and ask myself a bit more often ‘Why do I actually want this?’