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Did Coke Hijack Positive Psychology?

Major brands draw on positive psychology for ad campaigns

I hope I got your attention with this title. Of course, "hijack" is too strong a term and also too pejorative. My real point is that it is clear to me advertising executives at Coca Cola and a number of other major brands have been paying close attention to the research generated by the positive psychology movement.

I tend to notice such things because I'm not only a psychologist but also a marketing research consultant.

Because of my involvement in both fields, I've been particularly interested in a trend that has been revolutionizing psychology in recent years. I'm referring here to the birth of Positive Psychology, which has spawned a large body of both research and practice devoted to understanding and enhancing human happiness.

Positive Psychology was officially "born" at the annual American Psychological Association conference in 1998 during Dr. Martin Seligman's inaugural address as association president. Dr. Seligman, already well-known for his pioneering work on the subject of learned helplessness, and later, on optimism, declared that psychology had too long focused on pathology, and that the time had come for an empirical study of human strengths and human happiness.

There was a similar rallying cry at least 40 years earlier by humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Viktor Frankl and others to refocus psychology on healthy human functioning. Their ideas, rooted in existential philosophy, led to what became known as "the human potential movement," and in many ways, these ideas have been absorbed into the larger culture.

Interestingly, Seligman made no mention of these important forerunners. Presumably, he wanted to distance Positive Psychology from the human potential movement, which had been criticized for its excesses and tarred with the brush of narcissism. More importantly, Seligman wanted to establish Positive Psychology on a firm scientific foundation. In this regard, he has certainly succeeded.

In just 12 years, the Positive Psychology movement has generated 64,000 research studies, 2 academic journals, and an international professional association. Additional resonance comes from the current zeitgeist in which we've seen an explosion of popular interest in activities such as yoga and meditation, as well as a proliferation of books about happiness.

Marketers and market researchers frequently turn to the field of psychology for both inspiration and conceptual models. For example, psychoanalytic insights led to the widespread use of projective testing by the market research profession. Similarly, Carl Rogers' "active listening" and "unconditional positive regard" have certainly had an impact on the way market researchers conduct focus groups and in-depth interviews. Some in market research have also drawn upon Jungian thought to incorporate "archetypes" into their work. And, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs has been fairly influential over the years, especially in terms of the realization that consumers have higher needs that can be addressed through products, advertising, and market communications.

I believe the findings of positive psychology offer fertile ground for fresh approaches to marketing and advertising. Research in positive psychology reveals that, in general, lasting happiness does not come from more money or more "stuff" or the pursuit of hedonistic pleasures. Rather, lasting happiness is the result of an engaged life, one with close social ties and one that is motivated by values and goals larger than oneself. Traits such as mindfulness, generosity, forgiveness, and compassion, among others, are associated with happiness.

Moreover, researchers find that happiness confers many benefits, such as: better health, longer life, more satisfying marriages, higher income, and higher job satisfaction, among others.

What are the implications of these findings for marketing and advertising? I maintain that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. This shift is reflected both in the explosion of happiness-related research and also in the flood of books, magazine articles, and television specials that this research has spawned. Furthermore, this paradigm shift seems to be driven by threats to the environment and global economies. Increasingly, consumers are hunkering down and are looking for deeper sources of fulfillment that can sustain them during trying times.

A number of major brands already appear to have sensed this paradigm shift, and their advertising seems to reflect the findings of positive psychology.

Consider the following ad campaigns (click the links):

You can find video spots on YouTube for each of the campaigns above. If you take time to view these television commercials, you will have an opportunity to see why I feel that account planners and others in advertising/marketing communications have been studying the literature on positive psychology and are interested in the benefits it can provide.

These campaigns reflect an awareness that consumers have become tired of and jaded toward advertising based on a "deficit model," beating the drum of everything they lack in order to find true happiness.

Unbridled capitalism is undoubtedly destructive in the long run, from the destruction of the environment to the near-collapse of the world economy to a widespread sense of alienation. Yet people will continue to need goods and services, and other people will continue to provide them. What might positive psychology have to tell us about making the basics of supply and demand chain fit better with our higher-level needs and our long-term survival?

Positive psychology can expand the scope of our models to include the higher dimensions of human experience and aspirations, such as the quest for happiness, the search for satisfaction and inner fulfillment, and the desire to do good.

Will major brands continue speak to these higher motivations or is the current trend only skin deep? Time will tell.

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