This time of year, one can’t help but be amazed by the sheer psychological muscle the private sector flexes to shape our holiday purchasing. Take the new Walmart ad, which starts with kids holding up their favorite items from the store aisles, talking with boundless glee about the joy the gift will afford. The ad then shifts to asking children whether they’d rather have the toy for themselves or give it to someone whose family can’t afford gifts during the holidays. The kids’ smiles fall, their faces wrinkle up with deep thought, and then, in the adorable, heartfelt articulation unique to children, every child says they’d rather give the toy to someone in need. We are given a concrete, touching experience—and Walmart is cast in the role of a broker of goodness and generosity.
Of course, commercials are only the beginning. From Amazon emails recommending electronics based on our past decade’s worth of digital purchases, to offers of live chat support on every website, companies pull one behavioral lever after another to nudge us toward more holiday purchasing.
It’s also worth reflecting on what the private sector doesn’t do to get us to buy stuff. Apple, for instance, doesn’t try to persuade us that their processors are the best on the market by drowning us in the technical specifications of their products. Rather, they visually tell stories of people taking pictures both of their loved ones and of magical, potentially life-changing places. Jeep doesn’t try to convince us that we’ll save money each month by buying their more fuel-efficient SUV; they just associate their product with Star Wars, both a source of deep nostalgia and the hottest movie of the current decade.