Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Does Capitalism Love Single People?

Are marketers encouraging people to divorce?

Across the pond, an essay in the Guardian makes the claim that “capitalism wants us to stay single.” What we are witnessing, author Ewan Morrison believes, is not just the rise of single people— demographers have been documenting that for decades—but “the rise of ‘the single person’ as a model consumer.” The market, he claims, “is cashing in on the buying power of single people.”

To encourage spending by singles, Morrison says, corporations are not just selling singles as sexy, they are actually encouraging divorce. Do the radical thing, he urges us all, and get married and stay that way!

The article is filled with myths and lots of nasty singlism. I’ll get to those. First, though, I want to mull over the claim that capitalism hearts single people and that marketing is all over them.

When I was writing Singled Out, what really amazed me at the time were all of the ways in which marketers and business people ignored or even insulted single consumers. When I was looking to buy a house back when I was in Virginia, for example, one realtor or open-house host after another tried to steer me to a place that was smaller than what I wanted and less than I was willing to pay. What odd behavior! Another single friend told me that the only way she could get her real estate agent to show her the kinds of homes she wanted was to insist that he show her the most expensive home in his listings. (She didn’t want the most expensive one, but she wanted him to get the message.)

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A few years later, it seemed that nothing had changed. I put together a list of six myths about single people perpetrated by marketers in the post Singles in ads: Yearning, pathetic, or not even there. For instance, some ads seem to be based on the premise that singles want nothing more than to become unsingle, so they advertise their product as a royal road to coupledom.

My own motivation was not to get advertisers to try to suck singles into excessive consumerism. Instead, I was objecting to the perpetuation of stereotypes in the ads and in the behaviors of salespersons in their interactions with single people.

So have things now changed? I know of no systematic research of trends over time in the themes of ads or how single people are depicted in pitches. There are some indications, though, of a growing awareness of the issues. For example, in 2010, Adweek published a big story about the importance of the singles demographic and how the group is too often ignored. There is also a television ad that has been running recently touting the greater appeal of the kind of rock that people climb relative to the kind you put on your finger. Still, I think it is a bridge too far to claim that marketers are actually encouraging divorce.

As for the singlism in the Guardian article, maybe it is way too obvious but I’ll say a few words anyway. Morrison contrasts long-term romantic relationships, having children, and planning for the future with “the forces that will reduce us to isolated, alienated nomads…” He thinks we are forsaking long-term relationships for “short-term temporary arrangements with no promise of commitment.” He confuses being single with living alone. (More single people live with others than alone.)

He seems to think that the only relationships that count are the ones that involve sex, and that other long-term relationships, such as lifelong friendships, just don’t involve any commitment. He seems oblivious to all the research showing that single people are in some ways more connected to siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors than married people are.

[Note: Thanks to Steve Hitchcock and the journalist Diana Rico for the heads-up about the Guardian essay.]

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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