This rise in onscreen self-gifting is no surprise: given the increased spend on product placement and native advertising to promote brands within content directly, writers have adopted characters brazenly treating themselves as a way to circumvent the shillier and cringey-er early days of earnest attempts at embedded marketing that fall flat in our more savvy and cynical times.
By combining humour and hubris into these meta moments of self-referential product mentions, with a nod and a wink we can collectively let them off the hook for the inevitable sneak of ad dollars into their scripts. When done well, it’s seamless, clever and satirical: making the best of brand-content marriages that are no longer simply a side effect of the flailing efficacy of traditional advertising.
Today we’ll be taking a look at self-gifting and treat yo’self culture with some consumer insights, as well how brands and marketers are shaping this behaviour with incentives, features and messaging in their campaigns…
The self-gifting phenomenon
Of course, self-gifting isn’t all that new – brands have been trying to move purchasing behaviour in this direction since the fifties, a natural extension of morphing consumer wants into needs to drive sales. However, there was a time when elaborate purchases for oneself were rare, so this shift has been facilitated both by changing societal expectations for individuals and the messaging of brands seeking to cut out the middle man in the act of giving by speaking directly to us as self-gifters.
As researched in Self-gift giving: Understanding consumers and exploring brand messages, the movement towards our current Treat Yo’Self landscape has taken decades to cultivate as part of greater narratives of liberation, self-expression, and purchasing power as overall empowerment.
Today, according to MasterCard, 1 in 4 purchases during the holidays will be made as self-gifts. Self-gifting has become so prevalent that consumers now use occasions for giving to others as opportunities to also treat themselves à la Tom and Donna.
So if self-gifting is relatively new historically (at least to this scale), why do we do it at all? Niamh Barden produced a 2015 study to examine that question by identifying the three key motivators for self-gifting behaviour as a reflection of gender, personality, and control.
1. Exchange or goal-oriented
Here you reward your success by giving yourself something you feel you deserve as a personal quid pro quo. Be that chocolates or a new purse, you believe that the reward is warranted because of something you’ve done or continue to do.
The exchange is part of a contract we enter into with ourselves, sometimes to help motivate us to do things we find difficult (“if I stick to my workout schedule this month, I’ll go to the spa!”) or to celebrate an achievement (“I got the promotion I wanted so it’s finally time to go on that golf retreat I’ve saved up for!”) These tend to be planned, even if only loosely, as there’s a causal relationship between the behaviour that “triggers” a reward.
2. Communication or expression-related
This is where we purchase for ourselves to define ourselves and communicate our identity. This is tied with self-esteem and self-empowerment, and is often similar to interpersonal gift-giving where we connect our attributes, qualities and hobbies to who we are and gift ourselves ways to engage in those features.
In other words, you buy something because it resonates with you and the way you represent yourself (think high quality black liner for your goth phase or a new set of suits to angle for that promotion by dressing for the job you want…)
3. Mood-based or emotional regulation
This is a kind of reactionary self-gifting we do to feel better when we’re down or feel EVEN better when we’re happy as a way to process both positive and negative emotions. By picking up a new gadget after a really rough day, grabbing a massage to relieve stress, or a new pair of shoes after getting some great news: buying goods and services for yourself has become one of the ways we help ourselves cope with challenges and enjoy our good days.
According to Barden’s study, “females are more likely to engage in self-gifting behaviour for therapeutic and “nice-to-self” reasons,” however men do also participate. “Whether someone is depressed, frustrated or bored, impulse buying appears to be an effective tactic for breaking out of an undesirable mood state.” (Source) In these cases, emotional compensation is occurring between events and purchasing behaviour as what we’ve come to term “retail therapy.”
Of course, there can be overlap between the three motivators, and sometimes mood regulation can seem like exchange or goal-oriented self-gifting. However mood-regulation is more of a reaction to events and circumstances (often beyond our control), while the former is generally more planned and related to actions we’ve taken ourselves. That being said, sometimes we can self-gift in a way that ticks all these boxes.
Reasons for self-gifting
Beyond motivators, Barden’s study also included multiple reasons for self-gifting that are typically more practical or timely. Having extra money on hand is the biggest reason for both men and women (which could be more impulse purchases), followed by celebrating their birthdays (which may be more planned).
According to a study by TheeranuchPusaksrikit and JikyeongKang, people who identify with Western and Bicultural backgrounds tend to self-gift more often than those who have more Traditional or “Alienated” backgrounds (their term for describing those who live outside consumerist culture either through remote areas or socio-economic realities like poverty, homelessness, the unbanked population).
They explain that because Westerners are exposed to more of their own culture and likeness in this kind of purchasing context (e.g. in North America, consumerism is considered normative behaviour), they are more likely to self-gift as there are no perceived limitations (and few imposed limitations outside of controlled substances and weapons) to what we can and cannot buy. In more traditional backgrounds, it may be frowned upon, and it is often mostly or completely inaccessible to those who are alienated from consumerist cultures.
Based on Niamh Barden’s findings women are more likely to self-gift than men, or at least declare that they are self-gifting. There are many possible explanations for this (not limited to: women only relatively recently earning their own incomes, the fact that women still wield much of the domestic buying power in a household, gendered views of shopping as a “female” hobby or of women’s roles as “gatherers”) however this is changing as our lifestyles and societal expectations evolve, and as singledom is becoming more and more prevalent making both men and women more independent.
When men self-gift they are more likely to do so for positive or practical reasons (reward/goal incentive, extra money impulse buy). While women and more likely to self-gift in general across the board, they are particularly more likely than men to list mood-based reasons like stress, being nice to oneself, or cheering oneself up.
Popsugar Insight conducted a survey of women that found that during the 2013 holiday season 39% of women ages 18 – 34 plan on spending between $100 – 499 on gifts for themselves, while women over the age of 35 are more likely to spend over $1,000 on gifts for themselves. In general, 80% of women overall say they will be spending some money on themselves during the holiday.
The National Retail Federation of America states that in 2014, 60% of consumers engaged in self-gifting during the holidays, and that it is likely to increase over the years. Self-gifting, although more prevalent and accepted in North America, is practiced globally in markets with more developed economies.
When to self-gift?
Black Friday & Cyber Monday
These events are perfect for self-gifting as retailers roll out deals to encourage spending. To kick off holiday shopping, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are times when in-store and online shopping reaches maximum capacity. With deals like “Buy-one-get-one” (BOGO) and “Buy one and get the second half off,” it makes it easier for shoppers to spend on themselves and buy a gift for someone else. Plus with frenzied shopping emerging as an in-store norm and expectation, impulse buying is generally at an all-time high, making it easier to justify additional spending on items for oneself…
Holidays, Christmas & Boxing Day
Most self-gifting occurs on or around the holidays because the shopper is already shopping for others and chooses to treat themselves while doing so. According to Slate.com, “consumers have been conditioned to believe that the original price is for show, and that retailers offer the best high-discount markdowns and promotions around the holiday season. That, in turn, encouraged more self-spending during the Christmas season, because that’s when the blowout bargains occur.”
They may notice items they want to purchase for themselves after boxing day, perhaps because they didn’t receive them as gifts from others, or for other reasons like Boxing Week sales or discounts. For this reason, Boxing Day messaging often encourages consumers to buy what they missed out on or “really wanted,” with a compounded incentive of a deal to appeal to multiple motivators.
Self-gifting has become common among single people around Valentine’s as a self-affirming gesture of self-love or as part of a growing gesture around the humoristic Single’s Awareness Day. And with Singles now outnumbering coupled people in the US for the first time in history, they’re having an impact on spending around V-Day. Stats show that 27% of singles and 33% of separated people plan to treat themselves at this time, as opposed to 7% of those who are married or in domestic relationships who are more likely to be giving gifts to each other.
Of those in couples who do self-gift many do so as part of their couples’ celebrations. For example, buying new clothes, lingerie, jewelry, makeup or other accessories for themselves before a special dinner or evening together.
Emerging consumer-centric “holidays”
Whether it’s the growing community that actually celebrates the Parks and Rec Treat Yo’Self Day on October 13 or Singles’ Day in China on November 11, there are plenty of societal occasions and manufactured initiatives where brands are connecting an activation or discount aimed at encouraging consumers’ growing comfort with self-gifting.
One such example is mega-etailer Alibaba: they created an annual shopping festival to encourage spending on Singles’ Day in China. This has since become the largest online sales initiative in the world, eclipsing both Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined to earn an estimated $20 billion during only a single day!