Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

When You're Smiling (the Whole World Buys Your Toothpaste).

A Duchenne smile makes people feel good, which leaks over to products.

Which is the Duchenne smile?

Yesterday I wrote about how Volkswagen’s promotional billboards for the latest version of their popular Beetle proclaimed, “It’s a boy!” in reference to the new styling for their 2012 Beetle. The sex of the Beetle was due in part to “smile” sported by the car. So, are you more likely to buy the car based on its smile? Well, it might depend on if the smile is a Duchenne smile.    

Imagine you are watching your favorite sporting event when they break for commercials. Curiously, you notice that the same toothpaste ad is shown two times in a row—however, there is a very small difference. In the first ad, the actress selling the toothpaste smirks just a bit at the end of the ad; whereas, during the second ad the actress flashes a big toothy grin. Which TV ad is likely to change your buying habits? A research team from Central Washington University asked that exact question.

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Scanlon and Polage created a few picture ads and asked students for their opinions. Participants saw both a genuinely smiling model (i.e., a Duchenne smile which is “the true smile” because people cannot fake it) and a model without a Duchenne smile.

So does the type of smile matter in an ad? Yes! When the model displayed a Duchenne smile, the participants were more willing to buy, and pay higher prices for, that product. Moreover, these results were consistent for both expensive (e.g. a laptop) and inexpensive (e.g. a sandwich) products. The researchers concluded that seeing an ad where the model had a Duchenne smile primed people with a positive emotional response, which leaked over to the product.

Why do these results matter? Well, this type of subtle “priming” happens all the time. This study demonstrates that small changes in how a person smiles may have an impact on how you spend your money. While there is nothing wrong with spending more money on toothpaste because of the model in the ad, it might not be a bad idea to pause and consider what is influencing your buying behavior. After all, marketers know what will make you spend more money—you should too.

How can you find out where you stand in the consumerism game? At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people’s spending habits, happiness, and values. To find out more about how your personality and the extent to which the values of your family and friends influences your spending, we encourage you to first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase and then take the Materialistic Values Scale as well as the Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale. We think you may learn a lot about how you relate to money, spending and your social circle. The results might be surprising.

Natalia Kominiarczuk, MA, a volunteer research assistant in the Personality and Well-being Lab at San Francisco State University, contributed to this entry.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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