Big Companies Are Making You Buy By Promising You Happiness: Here’s How to Break Free

by Ali on September 10, 2009


I went to see District 9 yesterday: a great, thought-provoking and gripping film (movie to my US readers). One of the ads before the film was this BMW one, which equates “owning a BMW” with “joy”.

This bothered me, and in many ways, it seemed a sadder statement about our world than District 9 itself. How can you buy joy? I learnt the word “joy” in a religious context, and it has strong spiritual or religious connotations for me. Joy isn’t something that I get from buying a new car – it’s an expression of my relationship with God.

BMW has turned joy into a commodity – and this is just one tiny example of how big companies are taking our emotions hostage and insisting that we need to buy to be happy. It’s an example of a process called commodification:

Commodification “is used to describe the process by which something which does not have an economic value is assigned a value and hence how market values can replace other social values.”

(Wikipedia, Commodification)

Who’s Holding Your Happiness Hostage?

Companies make money by selling us an emotion. We buy for emotional reasons – we might rationalise the decision using logic, but we often set our hearts on something then come up with the reasons why it’s a good idea to buy it.

This is a well-known axiom in every marketing department:

People rationalize buying decisions based on facts,


People make buying decisions based on feelings.

(The Power of Emotion, Future Now)

These are just some of the emotions and concepts we’re being sold:

  • Security (insurance, survival gear/plans, home security systems…)
  • Health (vitamin pills, diet pills, special foods, gym memberships…)
  • Desire to learn (college, online courses, even essays and degrees are sold…)
  • Entertainment (games, DVDs, CDs, toys…)

This sort of selling is analogous to a hostage situation, with the marketers seizing your happiness and selling it back to you for a price.

If that sounds overly dramatic, think about the times when you’ve convinced yourself that you’ll feel happier if you purchase something. I know I’ve done all of the below:

  • Going shopping for entertainment purposes
  • Buying something online when feeling a bit down
  • Spending money on diet foods and programs
  • Buying information products that you hope will “cure” a problem like procrastination

I’m going to look at three big areas where marketers and advertisements are taking something which we need, on an emotional level, and turning it into something to sell us.

Education = School?

Education is a mass market. In the UK and the US, most children are educated for free until the age of eighteen by the taxpayer. Some parents choose to pay substantial sums to put their children into fee-paying schools.

MSN Money suggests that a typical four-year US college degree will cost around $35,000. (That’s just tuition and required fees – not room and board.) Here in the UK, tuition fees for a three-year university degree typically run to £9,000 – £10,000.

But what exactly are we paying for, at school and at university? Many people would say “education” – but is that really true?

“[Schools teach us to] confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.”

(Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society – /, p1)

I’ve been lucky: my goals have never required a degree. When I took English as an undergraduate, it was because I loved the subject. As a postgraduate, I’m studying an MA in creative writing not for the sake of the MA, or even just for the teaching, but for the chance to work alongside other passionate and accomplished writers.

During the past year and a bit as a freelancer, I’ve learnt a lot – and it’s all been highly relevant to what I’m doing. I’ve learnt about web design and CSS. I’ve learnt about internet marketing and copywriting. I could have spent a lot of money taking a degree in “new media” … but the actual learning would still have had to come from me giving the material sufficient time and attention. Don’t confuse learning with having a teacher: learning is an active process on your part.

If you’re thinking about college, if you’re at college or studying for a paid qualification … be willing to ask yourself why. Is it because the experience of being on the course itself is valuable to you? Is it because you (sadly) simply need the degree in order to progress into the career you want? Or is it because “it’s what everyone does”?

Entertainment = Toys, DVDs and Computer Games?

I’m sure you’ve come across the words “entertainment industry”. But what exactly is entertainment? Is it something that happens to us, or something that, like joy, comes from within?

What about the use of the word “entertainment” as in “entertaining friends?” That means something quite different: having guests to stay, or friends round for a meal. This is often a deeper sort of entertainment, the kind which refreshes and renews us … and which doesn’t need to cost us anything.

One of the worst examples of the commodification of entertainment is the number of advertisements and campaigns aimed at children. Children are “entertained” today by hundreds of plastic toys, games, gismos, and television shows. I’m not saying that these are bad in themselves, but children (and adults!) had perfectly happy lives before any of them existed. You don’t need to spend money in order to be entertained.

Multibillion-dollar corporations, with the commanding role of commodity markets as well as the support of the highest reaches of government, now become the primary educational and cultural force in shaping, if not hijacking, how young people define their interests, values and relations to others.

(Commodifying Kids: The Forgotten Crisis, Henry A Giroux, truthout)

If you’re stuck for ways to entertain yourself without involving other people, Trent has some great ones in The Frugal Introvert: 50 Ways to Have Fun By Yourself on the Cheap

Health and Beauty = Pills and Potions?

The dieting and beauty industries are huge: Americans spend $40 billion a year on weight-loss programs and products. (See The Diet Industry: A Big Fat Lie) If you’re female, you’ll probably be acutely aware of this: conscious and subconscious messages fill the pages of every magazine, cover every billboard and scream out from the television.

I write for a couple of diet-and-health related blogs, and so I keep an eye on relevant news – and I often get sent press releases. Every day, there’s a new diet pill, a new health product, a “shocking” new success story, an exercise DVD, a new book or audio program, a new superfood…

Frankly, it horrifies me. I know that most of these things won’t work, but they prey on people who are desperate. I’ve lost weight myself (and kept it off – rare in the dieting world!) and no book, scheme or special food can come close to the power of self-discipline and determination. It saddens me that so many people are trying to buy better health, when they’d succeed far faster by simply making progressive improvements to their eating and exercising habits.

Beauty is another big area, where we’re being sold perfection that doesn’t exist. Photos in magazines are airbrushed – often to a shocking degree. Why? Because this means advertisers can keep pushing their products at us, turning our desire to look healthy and attractive into something very warped. Our culture celebrates women who are often dangerously underweight, and men who have “perfect” six packs. These aren’t looks that most of us should be aspiring to.

Your health is entirely in your hands. Eat well, avoid the things you know are bad for you – like excessive stress and excessive alcohol – and get some exercise each day. It might be a bit boring, and it might sound like much harder work than just popping a few pills, but it’s free and it works.

When it comes to beauty, I’m not the best person to offer advice. I struggle with my own body image, and I’m susceptible to looking at other women – friends and family as well as glossy models – and thinking “I should look like that.” My best tip is to consider whether it even matters what you look like: none of my goals depend on my physical looks, so I know that I’m only wasting my time on an (irrational) concern about them.

Break Free: Decide What You Really Want

So how can you reclaim your emotions and your need for learning, for entertainment and for good health? How can you walk straight out of the hostage situation that the conglomerates have created?

The first step is to work out what you’re being sold. What emotional buttons are being pushed? Remember that emotion can be more like motivation than a strong “feeling”. What is it you really want, deep down?

Then figure out a way to get that without buying that product or service. Perhaps what you reall want is quality time with your partner. Do you need to go out for an expensive meal for this? I used to think that my boyfriend and I had our most meaningful conversations and our happiest times when we went out to eat together … probably because it was a reminder of our early days dating. But a meaningful conversation and a sense of fun and togetherness are not things that come from spending money. Going on long walks together is free, considerably healthier, and gives us plenty of time to talk, to laugh and to simply be with one another.

What do you really want? Freedom? Security? Love? Joy? You can’t buy these, whatever the marketers say. They all come from within, and you can have them for free.

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Are All Your Goals Materialistic Ones? - PickTheBrain | Motivation and Self Improvement
September 18, 2009 at 6:01 pm

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Valerie M September 10, 2009 at 3:53 pm

This is an excellent post, Ali. I really enjoyed reading this. One of the biggest lessons I learned this year is to constantly ask myself “why” whether I want to buy something, do something, if I’m thinking something or behaving a certain way. It all boils down to awareness, really.

As you’ve said, nothing is inherently wrong with most of these things. Also, for the most part I don’t see it as “companies and industries ‘preying on’ consumers.” We have literally signed over responsibility to other people, whether we do it consciously or unconsciously. If we don’t take personal responsibility to ask why and be aware, then that’s still a choice we make and we still must face the consequenses.


Ray Paterson September 10, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Ali very good post,
I had that same sinking nauseous feeling the same time I saw that advertisement on TV. The other ones I absolutely hate are those that use children…”I’m a P.C. and I’m only X years old” sickening. I make my other half jump because I shout at the screen “You are NOT a P.C. You’re a human being” Clever advertising they may be but its blatant exploitation in my (blinkered?) view. I agree with Valerie,we need to take ownership and make more concious decisions to buy or not, life is still a pressure cooker of:

“If you buy this, you’ll need that widget and this gadget to go with it”
Being male, one who actually enjoys shopping I might add, I can fortunately see both sides of the shopping trolley and, sorry Valerie, cynical guy that I am, I conclude that we AND our children are being “preyed” upon in the most ruthless of campaigns since cigarette advertising was banned.

Ali-Commodification: Love that word, I’m going to use that in my latest piece of science-faction. Oddly enough it is part set in what is left of the Rolls Royce factory of the future.


Ali September 10, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Thanks, Valerie – both for the comment and the excellent tip: I know I sometimes need to ask “why” a bit more. I’ve often caught myself literally at the Amazon checkout thinking, “Actually … why am I buying this again..?”

You’re right, I did come down heavy on companies, and I was intentionally being very one-sided in the post. We choose how to respond (though I’d argue that our media and culture can exert a very strong influence on us).

Ray, I think it’s sickening when children are exploited for the sake of commercial gain. What truly horrifies me is the sexualisation of kids – some of the clothing, songs etc aimed at pre-teens is really disturbing.

I love the word commodification. It’s not mine, it’s Marx. (I was given a copy of the Communist Manifesto as a Politics prize at school when I was 17, and I think some of it stuck ;-))


Endy Daniyanto September 11, 2009 at 2:43 am

Hey Ali,

This is the best post I’ve read so far this morning in my RSS dashboard. I just want to comment on two things that you mention above:

1. “If you’re thinking about college, if you’re at college or studying for a paid qualification … be willing to ask yourself why … Is it because you (sadly) simply need the degree in order to progress into the career you want? …”

There’s a case study from where I come from (Indonesia) that might be worth mentioning. Recently the government issued an Act that said that all people who work in the film industry have to have an official certificate of expertise. Unfortunately, the creative industry isn’t a highly regarded or highly valued career choice in Indonesia (at least, not yet. We’re working on it). Most of the people who work in film or music do not have film or music related degrees. Most of us (yes I’m in the creative industry too) are here because we choose to pursue our passions and learn the ropes ourselves. So, many of us don’t have an official certification. That, and the fact that there is no leading art institute (at least not as prestigious as the technical/social universities) that provides quality and recognized education on film and music. So, I worry that the effect of this Act is that there will be a certain number of people who will take advantage of the situation and sell the degrees without actually providing education (kind of like paying taxes for being creative, you know?).

My question is: what is your opinion on this particular situation? The people who are in the industry have learned to appreciate skill and competence above paper certificates. Some of the good directors only graduated high school, and learned the industry from the bottom up. Clearly they have proven their worth. Must they be obliged to get a certificate, and spend money on something that doesn’t necessarily provide them the opportunity of better offers?

2. “Beauty is another big area, where we’re being sold perfection that doesn’t exist … Our culture celebrates women who are often dangerously underweight, and men who have “perfect” six packs. These aren’t looks that most of us should be aspiring to.”

On the basics, I agree with you. There is too much focus on what I call artificial character. Artificial character can be good, but only after we have built a solid identity (or true character as I like to call it) as the foundation. After we can identify who we truly are, then I think it’s okay to work on our secondary identities.

This is where I think Beauty has it’s place. I’m currently working on becoming a “handsome gentleman” :-) Not because I’m vain (well, not ONLY because), but because I find that looking pleasant is pleasant for my friends and for the people around me (or work with). I think that when I go out with my guy friends and girl friends on a Friday night, they want to see some good faces right? So, why not let that good face be me? At least I won’t hit on my girl friends :) And I think looking pleasant helps to better communicate, with friends and with new people too.

In songwriting, this is called a hook – usually the first parts of a song that catches the listeners attention and lures them to listen to the rest of the song where the real message is. So I think that beauty is good when used as a hook – to catch the attention of the people we want so that we can promote ourselves (assuming we have real value to offer), and also to invite that person into a more in-depth conversation that’s beneficial for them and for us (like helping a friend in need). That’s my theory at least, what’s your view about it?

Sorry, if this is a long comment post. I’m an extremely opinionated person :-)


P.S: I’ve just started a personal blog too, where I write about all my opinions. I’d be delighted if you’d drop by and have a quick look :-)


Kaizan September 11, 2009 at 9:39 am

Very thought provoking post!

I agree with you about our misplaced views on happiness (as a society). That new BMW might make you happy for a few days or months, but then when the next model comes out, you suddenly don’t feel so happy with the one you own. Same with phones, clothes and any other consumer item. It’s a never ending cycle…


Ali September 11, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Thanks Kaizan, and you’re right about that cycle. It happens to me with computers – I remember when I got my first laptop in 2005, I loved it (especially as I’d worked overtime as a student to afford it); now I’ve got a tiny quiet cute notebook, the laptop seems big, clunky and loud.

Endy, thanks for such a thoughtful and informative comment, and no worries about being opinionated!

When I did a week’s work experience (aged 16) in a publishing company, I remember someone their explaining that entrants into publishing were expected to have a degree. At least one of the women there didn’t (and she was very bright, capable etc), and apparently she might find it difficult to move companies because of that. I found that bizarre then – she was much more knowledgeable about publishing than any new graduate would have been.

I certainly don’t think existing film directions should have to pay for a qualification which they won’t learn anything from. I believe that experience or ability to demonstrate skills (especially in areas like computer programming) should be a perfectly valid alternative to an academic qualification. In many cases, it should be regarded more highly.

Regarding beauty – I think it’s natural to want to look attractive to others. To an extent, I think this is a healthy impulse: we take good care of our bodies, and many people enjoy taking time to “prettify” themselves: I know I enjoy getting dressed up to go out. I think it tips into unhealthiness when people have an inaccurate body image or are unnecessarily critical, due to the skewed idea of “beautiful” that the media gives us.

I like the look of your blog – very clean and easy to read. And it’s good to see someone else who’s doing long, in-depth posts rather than the Digg-targeted-list-post-with-lots-of-bold-text thing!


Bill September 11, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Hey Ali, I really liked this post. I am definitely a slave to commodification. Just like Kaizan said about cycles I find myself wanting the latest and greatest whether it’s a phone, car, computer, tv, etc. I pretty much have everything I could want yet I still find myself wanting more. Yet I am still not deeply happy like you describe here. I’m always worried about money and I feel like I’m missing love and meaning in my life. I’ve recognized this lately and I am working to break the habits and it’s much tougher than it seems. It’s like instinctive now to go buy more than what I really need to be happy.

As far as education, I’m pretty saddened by that as well. I graduated with a degree in mathematics a few years ago and I don’t use it one bit for my job and I forgot a lot of it. So I sorta feel like “what was the point?” I don’t even like my job so the degree didn’t push me towards anything more than being able to pay my bills. I’m now looking into a new field that I hope I will enjoy.

But anyway, this was a great post. Thanks!


Ali September 11, 2009 at 6:56 pm

Thanks Bill – I agree that breaking habits is really tough. Give yourself time and give yourself permission to go backwards a bit!

Sorry to hear your degree isn’t helping you towards your job. Was it at least a fun experience? (I don’t use most of what I learnt studying English now – though it’s definitely helped me to be a better writer!)

Good luck finding a new field that you enjoy. Life’s too short to spend eight hours a day in a job that you’re indifferent about. I make less now as a writer than I did when I worked in tech support – but I take a lot more pleasure from my work, and I have a huge amount of flexibility over my time, which means I can get involved in church activities and other things that are important to me.


John September 12, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Am I the only one to notice that the very title of this blogpost is doing exactly what its demonizing the “big companies” for? Ali, the biggest hook of your title is “here’s how to break free”– you’re selling us freedom, (even if we’re not directly paying for it, it’s still a transaction) aren’t you?

Essentially, you’re doing precisely what you’re telling us not to do– you’re using your readers weaknesses for “wanting to be free”. Let’s face it, the demographic you’re targeting are those who are looking to break away from blind consumerism, so while you are offering value, you’re feeding into exactly what you’re promising to cure.


Ali September 12, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Interesting observation, John – thanks! I actually dithered a fair bit over the title of this post (I can’t remember now what it was originally going to be – something quite different – and the draft document itself was just named “commodification”…) I was trying to go for something a little catchier than the usual titles I use on Aliventures.

I was perhaps trying to provoke people a little, to get them to think twice – by taking quite a strong angle here. I’d maintain that as my blog posts are free for you to read, I’m not exactly “selling”… ;-)


ray September 13, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Endy, Very good post. I’m perhaps one of the older readers of Ali’s blogs and I can be a little outspoken on occasion, does that make me opinionated? I have not looked at your blogsite yet, but I will do soon. There’s nothing at all wrong with being opinionated as long as you can accept “constructive” alternative ideas, especially concerning (for me) the “hot potato” of the fashion and beauty industries. I read with a little sadness that you feel that you have to become a “face” to please your friends on nights out.As you say it is good to make yourself feel great by looking great, but I would always do it just for myself, to make me feel more confident With experience (and years) you may come to realise just how much time you spend beautifying yourself-but for someone else-sorry, I find a smile does a far better job of showing off your sincerity and inner beauty than any amount of so called “beauty” products.


Ali September 13, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Thanks for chiming in there, Ray! I think too many of us (myself definitely included!) worry so much about coming across as “outspoken” that we stay quiet, even in the face of things that we know aren’t right.

Great tip about smiling; a genuine, bright smile really says “gorgeous” to me! Plus, smiling people make me want to smile too. :-)


Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome September 15, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Wonderful post! As a big anti-consumerist (who yes has his weaknesses) I struggled for a long time with my coaching business because really I’m selling happiness but was able to continue because after learning to rid oneself of “Someday” all the other happiness and joy purchases tend to fall off because clients have found true happiness within. (Or so I tell myself ;) )


Ali September 16, 2009 at 8:22 pm

Thanks Alex! I think your kind of “selling” of happiness is legit — you actually ARE helping people to find happiness. It’s all the people selling some sort of empty happiness-replacement that I find distasteful…


Katherine SOLO dot MOM September 17, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Well said and excellent post!!!

I totally agree with your take on the marketing strategy we are all under (and I also enjoyed the movie District 9).

Thanks for reminding us we are in control of our money and we are in control of our “joy” if we choose to be. Take back the power, i say!

I just posted a blog today, titled – Be Bold – It’s Your Money, where I share that we are in control – or at least should be in control of how we spend our money, if we take the bull by the horns – and take the incentive to be good stewards with what we have. And you just took it to the next level.

Thanks again.


Ali September 18, 2009 at 8:13 am

Thanks Katherine! It always surprises me when people say they “can’t control” their spending – no-one’s *making* them buy stuff.


isabella mori (@moritherapy) September 18, 2009 at 11:51 pm

interesting post and discussion. i think john’s comment re the title shows how deeply ingrained the whole process is although i wouldn’t say that you’re overly commodifying freedom. in the end, perhaps, it’s all about persuasion. I HAVE A GREAT IDEA / PRODUCT AND YOU MUST USE IT! when there’s three gazillion others screaming, how will we be heard if we don’t scream ourselves? and if they all scream about joy, sex and weight loss, how will anyone pay attention if we talk about philosophy and buttercups? i don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions.


Ali September 21, 2009 at 8:22 am

Thanks Isabella! I guess for me, it’s about tuning out some of the screaming (by avoiding excessive TV, not spending hours reading/listening to the news, etc). I think people are getting better and better about avoiding the low-quality content and the advertisments in modern media and finding places where they can hold conversations with like-minded folk. But I agree, there are never easy answers!


Hadi September 25, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Hi Ali

I’ve really enjoyed reading through all of the posts on this blog but just wanted to pick up on the “BMW joy” thing.

I wonder whether that ad was just poorly targeted at you.

I can totally equate ownership of a car designed for driving pleasure with joy.

I feel at my most alive when sliding a car through a corner on a deserted country road in the soft light of a summer evening.

For me it’s spiritual and vital.

Keep up the great work.


Ali September 28, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Interesting point, Hadi, and it does give me some pause for thought. I don’t own a car (I can’t drive – I had a few lessons but then I moved to London where it’s very easy to get around using public transport). I can relate to that “alive” feeling when walking and cycling, though! I think what bugged me about the BMJ ad was the idea that you “buy” or “own” joy … it’s something that you experience.

Glad you’re enjoying the blog!


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