It’s a strategy that’s as old as advertising itself: Make consumers crave something that others have. In some ads, people watch enviously as a luxury car speeds past, its driver exuding power and success; in others, a couple looks covetingly over their fence toward their neighbor’s greener lawn, their nicer house, their happier kids.
Envy was even the title of a 2016 Super Bowl ad for an AstraZeneca medication to treat opioid-induced constipation, showing a dejected man watching a happy stranger leaving a cafe washroom. “It feels like everyone can go,” says the voiceover. “Except you.”
Almost everyone experiences envy, and social media has only fanned the flames, with people constantly comparing their friends’ seemingly happier, more successful or more adventurous lives against their own far drabber realities. It’s no wonder that advertisers strive to capitalize on our increasingly powerful urge to “keep up with the Joneses.”
The question is if this strategy actually works. According to recent research, it can be a winning approach. But in some instances it not only fails—it completely backfires.
Envy is the result of an upward social comparison. That is, we compare ourselves against others whom we see as more successful on any number of levels, from wealth to weight loss. That envy, in turn, triggers an ego threat. When others are doing better than us, we feel worse about ourselves.
To make that envy disappear, we try to close that perceived gap in a few possible ways: by improving our own condition (known as leveling up), by bringing down the competition (leveling down) or by reducing the desirability of the source of the envy (“I didn’t want that BMW, anyway.”).
Recent research found was that people with higher self-esteem upheld their positive perceptions of the brands and were undeterred by the fact that they couldn’t have it. For those with lower self-esteem, however, the story was decidedly different: Not only were the participants more likely to abandon their desire for the brand, but many would reject it outright.
In other words, the use of envy didn’t only fail to draw low self-esteem customers; it left them with a bad taste because the only way for them to ease the pain of envy was to make the product seem less desirable.
There was one interesting exception: If low self-esteem participants were given an ego boost prior to evaluating the desired brand, they were more likely to see it favorably.
Although envy has been widely studied in social science, this study was the first of its kind to examine the effects of envy in the marketing realm. The results could have significant implications for advertisers because companies that are looking to expand their businesses but don’t fully understand the diversity of those they’re reaching could risk turning prospective customers away.
Of course, advertisers are well aware that consumers are not made up of homogenous groups and that different segments behave in different ways. But when employing discrete emotions such as envy, advertisers would be wise to not only understand their customers but to also carefully explore how those customers feel about themselves. Especially in the age social media where people can so easily compare how they measure up, envy can be a powerful emotional lever. But advertisers using the well-worn tool will want to tread carefully.
For higher self-esteem customers who feel they have the potential to attain the things they don’t have—especially luxury brands—making them green with envy could be the perfect approach. But for lower self-esteem consumers who don’t always feel they can reach those loftier echelons, using envy could leave marketers selling little more than sour grapes.