Monday, December 12, 2011

Meet Santa, master Behavioural Economist

Just think, a jolly fat man in a red suit gets billions of people to spend billions of dollars on people they may only see once a year to commemorate someone else’s birthday. This guy’s a genius!

If you are looking for an example of behavioural economics, look no further than Santa.  The man himself may be a fiction, but our irrationality is all too real.

Santa, and by Santa I really mean the rituals of consumerism associated with Christmas, influences us to do things that make no rational economic sense such as;

  • Buy more food than we can possibly consume
We find ourselves gorging at tables laden with very type of meat and vegetable as hosts delight in showcasing their generosity.  Such is the social construct that serving a normal sized meal just isn’t Christmas.

  • Buy Christmas Trees
We drive to a Christmas tree supplier, buy a $30-$60 tree that at any other time of the year we would not even look at and will survive only a few weeks, strap it to the roof of the car, drag it into the house, throw specially bought plastic bits all over, gather around the tree and distribute gifts. The next week, we watch the tree slowly turn brown before cutting it up to fit in the green waste bin.

  • Buy Snow
In Australia, in Summer, we (not me of course) buy snow in a can to spray on windows. Brrr!  Meanwhile we listen to special compilation CDs that trill about snowmen, sleigh bells, and white Christmases. Rational on a thirty degree day?

  • Buy Wrapping
We buy fancy paper to wrap gifts that are already packaged so that we can watch the wrapping get torn off on Christmas morning.

  • Avoid vouchers…unless we really have to
We worry about the stigma of giving cash or a voucher rather than a ‘gift’ even though the voucher may actually be worth more.  Retailers are working hard to de-stigmatize vouchers and experiential gifts like Red Balloon are helping reshape perceptions of these gifts.

  • Go to the supermarket…repeatedly
We tend to freak out that the shops close for one day and so pop down to the shops to get extra supplies just in case, forgetting the jammed car park and queues at the check out.

  • Boxing Day sales
The news footage should speak for itself but just to remind yourself not to let the thrill of a discount overwhelm your sense of dignity, check out scenes from the Thanksgiving sales in the US where a $2 Waffle Maker provoked a gob smacking, pant splitting frenzy.

Why do we find ourselves behaving this way at Christmas time?

Well, marketing probably has a lot to do with how we behave at Christmas.  "Special" Christmas deals, scenes of harmonious family gatherings and directive suggestions like “buy this TV for your Dad” use reciprocity (give to receive), loss aversion (make sure it’s a fair value exchange by buying expensive gifts), and social norms (everyone is doing it) to incite us to purchase. That our understanding of red-suited and jolly modern Santa is a marketing construct confirms how persuasive marketing can be, but it is more than that.

We are more influenced by how others act; the values and behaviours displayed by our fellow human beings.  That’s why shoppers went into a contagious frenzy for a $2 Waffle Maker, and why the rest of us, from the comfortable distance of our computer screens, feel we can mock them for their irrationality.  But that’s also the great thing about Christmas; a tacit agreement across much of the globe to devote one day to sharing time and tokens with loved ones.  Irrationality at it’s rational best.  Have a good one, and thank you Santa.

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