When Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things premiered in 2015, its protagonists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, could never have imagined the outcome. Suddenly, millions of people from all over the world were questioning whether they actually needed what they were buying. It may seem like an obvious thought, but when it comes to consumption under capitalism, necessity is not always the priority — and advertisers know it.
Take the case of Black Friday, the shopping holiday of the year. Brands should now be preparing their enticing campaigns with not-to-be-missed discounts that take rationality out of the shopping equation. ‘It is so cheap that you lose money by not buying it’ is the message conveyed. A message so powerful that even brands wishing to go against the tide are subject to its current. Remember the revolutionary Don’t buy this jacket ad from Patagonia? The 2011 version, published in The New York Times, reportedly led to a 30% increase in sales.
Marketing shapes consumption as the promised pathway to well-being
Feeling depressed? Purchase a new outfit. Feeling tired? There is nothing an £8 latte won’t solve. And although money can, to an extent, buy happiness, even consumption is harmful when done in excess. There are not enough Marie Kondos in the world to sort through our chaotic drawers, filled with objects that should not have been acquired in the first place. And no amount of shopping will ever quiet the restlessness of constantly waiting for the next big thing.
Millburn and Nicodemus’s minimalist philosophy aims to counter this tendency. They belong to a movement that reduces consumption to the bare minimum and, most importantly, finds contentment in doing so. The main misconception behind minimalism is that it does not fulfil one’s true needs. Rather, the opposite is true: minimalism only fulfils one’s true needs and leaves not a lot of room for much else.
But what happens when the need to consume surpasses the need for the object itself?
Fighting against this condition, innate to modern society, has sometimes taken minimalism to the extreme. One thing is to live ‘clutter-free’; the other is to count how many garments you wear in a week to arrive at the exact number to have in your wardrobe. Some critics argue that minimalism is devoid of personality, with its beige colour palette and strict ‘do not buy this’ rules. However, it’s a natural response to a culture of excess, where one extreme feeds the other.
So, it is possible to find balance in consumption? Yes, and advertisers have an important role to play
The tools that were once used to promote excess can be a source of equilibrium, as rationality wins over desire, and needs are fulfilled rather than created. The Patagonia ad previously mentioned is the perfect example of how not to promote necessity-based consumption. Its negative wording (‘Don’t buy’) reinforces an eagerness to consume at a time when the world was most prone to shop. It was, nonetheless, revolutionary as its flaws turn into three important lessons for today.
Advertisers shouldn’t rely on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to promote balanced consumption. Making the right choice takes time. Therefore, when pressured to decide, consumers tend to buy too much or nothing at all.
Necessity-based advertisement should appeal to consumers’ rationality. Instead of promoting discounts or low stock, highlight the product’s characteristics that fulfil a specific need. It’s up to consumers to decide if it’s a problem they wish to see solved.
Prioritise quality and not quantity of advertisements. Consumers are already bombarded with new information every minute. So rather than feeding this trivial loop, create something that is worth stopping scrolling for.
Because if advertisement has driven a culture of consumption that is out balance, it can also put us back into equilibrium. Necessity-based consumption can be the pathway to well-being, not only for consumers but also for brands.
Featured image: Hutomo Abrianto / Unsplash