You Aren’t Imagining It: Study Finds That Seeing Happy Couples In Ads Makes You Depressed

New research from the University of Southern California found that, shocker, looking at images of happy couples when you’re single makes you feel crappy. Advertisers love to rely on the “lovey dovey” trope to sell things, assuming that people who aren’t in a happy relationship will see the product as the key to attaining kind of life they want (“aspirational”).

Instead, just the opposite happens: consumers think they aren’t worthy of the brand. What researchers refer to as single consumers’ perceived deservingness drops with each ad they see of a relationship they don’t have. The popular stereotype is that when people feel bad about themselves, they turn to retail therapy. Instead, they actually stay away from nice stuff. If they do indulge while in their funk, the things they buy usually are lower-end or, in the case of food, low-calorie.

Consumer psychologist Lisa Cavanaugh conducted the study by implementing seven experiments. In one undertaken the week before Valentine’s Day, each participant was shown electronic greeting cards that either emphasized platonic or romantic relationships. The next day, the subjects were given a shopping task in which they chose between lower-end, middle, or high-end brands of lip balm, shampoo and other personal products. At the end of the experiment, they disclosed their relationship status to the research team. The single participants who saw the cards emphasizing romance chose fewer high-end personal products. However, when those same participants were reminded of close platonic relationships, they splurged just as much as coupled consumers, because they’d been reminded of a close relationship they have in their own lives.

According to Cavanaugh, “it is the perceptions of deservingness but not feelings or mood that most accurately predict whether indulgence occurs.” Her work’s focus is contrary to most popular marketing research, which tends to focus on the consumer’s immediate mood when viewing ads.

This is certainly interesting from a marking perspective, but how will it factor in how we shop? If marketers take Cavanaugh’s advice, this could make for a whole lot of invasiveness from companies attempting to figure out your relationship status — say, for instance, fvia social media. Maybe instead, companies will choose to place a stronger focus on close platonic relationships in their ads, which would be a nice breath of fresh air for all of us. I know those romantic Tiffany & Co ads are supposed to make me melt, but they’re mostly just annoying.