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presents under a Christmas tree
Why can’t we resist consumerism at Christmas?

From the first of December, it seems the world goes wild. Christmas trees go up, all your separate friendship circles attempt to organise a Kris Kringle, and finding a parking space at your local shopping centre is the stuff of legend.

Upon entering said shopping centre, you’re thrust into a world of Christmas consumerism and the upbeat melody of Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas is you.

Everywhere you look you see displays touting ‘Great gift ideas!’ or ‘He/she will love this for Christmas’. And we tend to unequivocally believe these bold signs, according to Deakin consumer behaviour expert, Dr Paul Harrison.

‘Marketers capitalise on key vulnerabilities – how time poor the general population feels, and the notion that the more you spend, the more you show love,’ he explains.

But by purchasing more ‘stuff’ that takes resources and energy to produce, and will eventually end up in landfill, we’re contributing to the environmental issues young people are so passionate about fighting.

‘Even though many of us accept and believe the warnings of the scientific community on the need for people to consume less in the context of a changing climate, there seems to be an exception around Christmas.’

But is it possible to put your foot down and veto the (arguably unnecessary) consumption during such a festive and widely celebrated holiday?

Dr Harrison’s short answer is yes – and there are ways to share the joy while bypassing the overconsumption.

Why do we feel the need to give on Christmas?

It’s not unusual to veto Valentine’s Day presents, or to stay indoors on Halloween with the curtains drawn. However, Dr Harrison says when it comes to Christmas, it’s the most difficult holiday to avoid.

On top of the seductive allure of ‘Buy 2 get 1 free’ stocking-fillers is the wider societal pressure to put tangible, pricey gifts under the tree.

‘The acknowledgement of Christmas and rituals of gift giving at this time are fairly consistent across our cultural messaging in the Western world, making it a very difficult social event to veto without seeming like a so-called grinch,’ Dr Harrison says.

‘For anyone challenging this norm, there can be an unpleasant backlash.

‘One norm of behaviour that has evolved over time, partly through clever conditioning of consumers by skilled marketers, is to equate the amount of money we spend on a gift to how much we value or love the recipient. That notion, inadvertently, is not great for consumption and the environment,’ Dr Harrison explains.

'Even though many of us accept and believe the warnings of the scientific community on the need for people to consume less in the context of a changing climate, there seems to be an exception around Christmas.'

Dr Paul Harrison,
Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

Do Christmas presents really equate to happiness?

‘We hear it said again and again that material things don’t make us happy when it comes to gifts. Research shows this adage to be true,’ Dr Harrison says.

‘Christmas and the purchase of products don’t have to go hand-in-hand.’

However, this sentiment isn’t something marketers sing from the rooftops – quite the opposite, in fact. They’ve played a key role in forming the belief that material gifts are the way to happiness.

‘However, that doesn’t mean that people are able to let go of the idea of a Christmas tree crowded with gifts, or stockings billowing with toys from Santa anytime soon because society has fallen prey to the illusion created by marketers who work to tap into people’s vulnerabilities and emotions.’

While Dr Harrison believes it is possible to move our gifting culture away from material items, he says such a shift will take time.

That’s not to say that in the meantime you have to join the shopping-centre-shuffle in the lead up to Christmas or risk becoming seen as a grinch. There are other ways you can give on Christmas.

The gifts that give the most

If you’re keen on doing your bit for the environment, and want to gift things that will offer longer-lasting happiness, Dr Harrison’s research shows there are a few kinds of gifts to do this:

  1. gifts that show that thought and effort went into selecting the item
  2. something personal, that directly connects to the relationship of the giver and receiver of the gift
  3. the gift of an experience, which been shown to give the recipient longer joy and satisfaction than a material item.

However, Dr Harrison says, ‘These take some effort, and skilled marketers know this. Making something, for example, can take a lot more time and energy than heading to the local huge chain store and buying a stack of presents.

‘Those in charge of selling things know this, and sell convenience too.’

But you can be sure that when it comes time to rip off that brightly coloured wrapping paper, the thing that will bring the most joy is the gift that means a lot – not the one that cost the most.

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Dr Paul Harrison
Dr Paul Harrison

Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

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