For many people, the events of 9/11 presented a vivid and
disturbing reminder of how fragile we really are. What is
our reaction to the reminder of our own mortality? And are
marketers taking advantage of it?
Rosellina Ferraro, assistant professor of
studied the effects that “mortality salience”—that reminder
that we are all mortal—has on consumer behavior. Ferraro
found that a person’s response to the reminder of mortality
depends on what is important for that person’s self-esteem.
This happens because death-related thoughts generate
existential anxiety, which people cope with, in part, by
attempting to increase or bolster their self-esteem.
If self-esteem is related to body image or feeling
virtuous, then that person is likely to eat healthy food or
donate to charity to deal with death-related anxiety. But if
a person does not derive self-esteem from their body image
or from feeling virtuous, then this person is more likely to
eat unhealthily or donate less to charity.
Ferraro found that people try to increase self-esteem by
focusing on those aspects of their lives which are important
to their sense of self worth. For some people intellect is
what really matters; for others it may be family, body
image, religion or virtue. Ferraro’s research focused on
just two of those aspects of self-worth: body image and
found that people have a limited amount of capacity for
self-regulation, which can be loosely thought of as the
ability to focus and channel one’s energies. When a person’s
capacity to self-regulate is directed towards the things
which enhance his or her self-esteem, other aspects tend to
For example, while dealing with death-related anxiety,
women who considered their body image important to their
self-esteem avoided chocolate and chose to eat fruit salad,
the healthier option. Women for whom body image was not as
important, though, were more likely to choose the chocolate
option. People for whom being virtuous was important to
self-esteem intended to engage in more socially-conscious
behaviors when faced with death-related anxiety. On the
other hand, people who did not consider virtue important to
their self-esteem gave less to charity and were less likely
to intend to engage in socially-conscious behaviors.
Ferraro conducted three experiments, bringing mortality
or death to mind for participants and then studying their
consumption responses. The results provided a new theory to
understand how consumers are likely to make choices when
dealing with death-related anxiety.
“This research indicates that people's consumption
behaviors can be affected by important external events, such
as those that affect multiple individuals, like 9/11, and
those that affect only one individual on a more personal
level, like the death of a loved one,” says Ferraro. “This
implies that consumers use consumption behavior as a coping
mechanism for dealing with some forms of anxiety.”
One of the questions that Ferraro was interested in was
whether these effects were unique to death-related anxiety.
Could an impending visit to the dentist, public speaking, or
an approaching exam cause the same results? Consistent with
prior literature, Ferraro found that the effects generated
by inducing death-related anxiety were not replicated under
other anxiety generating circumstances.
Ferraro says marketers should consider how death-related
anxiety might affect their target audience. “Marketers need
to be concerned with things such as placement of
advertisements in programs or near news stories that might
trigger mortality salience,” says Ferraro. “They also need
to be concerned with whether their own advertisements can
trigger mortality salience.” –SA