The envious consumer

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“All you need is envy.” This is how Young and Rubicam, a global marketing agency, opens their 2006 report on how brands can position themselves to sell more products. The advertising agency argues that envious desire can motivate consumers to buy, and provides advice on how brands can harness the power of envy to increase sales. A thought-provoking claim, as the typical view of envy throughout history has been far more negative (see Smith and Kim 2007 for an overview). Young and Rubicam knew that many people hold a negative view on envy, as they also added a section on whether their envy-building strategy is evil. So, why would a brand want to trigger envy, if envy has long been condemned as something evil?
In this chapter, I provide an answer to this question, by focusing on the emerging research in psychology and marketing on how envy drives consumers. I describe the functional view of envy that argues that it, like any emotion, serves an important function to people: envy helps protect our relative position (status) in a group (see Van de Ven 2015; Lange, Weidman, and Crusius 2018). The functional approach makes a distinction in a benign and malicious subtype of envy. The malicious type of envy is the one people traditionally think of: a destructive, begrudging feeling that the other should lose the advantage that triggered the envy. For consumers, it leads to negative perceptions and communication about the person and the brand owned by the envied person. Benign envy is still a negative and frustrating feeling to experience, but the goals and motivations are aimed at acquiring whatever the envied person has. In this sense, the envious desire motivates people to achieve more themselves.
After providing the overview on the empirical research on envy in consumption from the psychology and marketing literature, I reflect on whether people also consume to be envied themselves. Finally, I describe how the empirical findings based on the functional account of envy might further the thinking on the role envy plays in response to inequality in society. For example, the different antecedents for benign and malicious envy might help gain a better understanding of not only consumer envy but also help to shed light on how people deal with inequality.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Moral Psychology of Envy
EditorsSara Protasi
PublisherRowman & Littlefield
ISBN (Print)9781538160060
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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