Advertising and Authentic Happiness

Can They Be Good Friends?

Authored by: José Antonio Muñiz-Velázquez , Juan F. Plaza

The Routledge Handbook of Positive Communication

Print publication date:  December  2018
Online publication date:  January  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138633278
eBook ISBN: 9781315207759
Adobe ISBN:




Many of the academic studies about advertising and marketing communication have traditionally pointed to its possible adverse or harmful effects on individuals and society. These are problematic effects, such as the promotion of an excessive and obsessive desire, a chronic dissatisfaction. In short, apart from other psychical and health problems, advertising has been accused of increasing unhappiness, transmitting the idea that happiness is only possible through the consumption of goods and services.

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Advertising and Authentic Happiness

Introduction: Advertising, Happiness, and Unhappiness

In the advertising industry, no one wants anyone to be happy since happy people do not consume. This idea is what the French publicist Beigbeder asserted (2002) in his incendiary autobiographical novel. Beyond this literary anecdote, the truth is that the relationship between advertising, happiness, and well-being has long been controversial (O’Guinn, Allen, & Semenik, 2007). From the beginning, modern advertising has based its foundations on the proposal of an implicit sale, an underlying promise that will always be the same. This is the promise of nothing other than happiness that is attainable through the consumption of the products that it advertises. Therefore, advertising is called “the happiness factory,” but it is a factory of false and superficial happiness (Eguizábal, 2007) and is always related to a product.

However, by promising such happiness based on consumption, what advertising communication truly spreads are unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and unease. By appearing to be a continuous source of desirable objects, what is actually conveyed is a feeling of something desired yet missing, which leads to a particular emptiness that, in the long-term, could be associated with a generalized discontent with life. Advertising needs to demonstrate a problem or deficiency to be able to offer a solution later, i.e., the products. Thus, advertising could lead us to a chronic state of dissatisfaction, which is antagonistic to the state of fullness, which supports happiness (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008).

Accordingly, except for a few cases in which advertising has been defended (Cohan, 2001), most approaches and analyses have related commercial advertising to unease and unhappiness rather than to well-being or happiness (André, 2004) from different perspectives: advertising and subjective social comparisons as well as creating psychological unrest (Richins, 1995); advertising and anxiety created by status (Botton, 2004); advertising, family, and social conflict (Buijzen & Valkenburg, 2003); advertising and more serious psychopathological disorders, such as eating disorders (Termini, Roberto, & Hostetter, 2011), among many others (Sarason & Sarason, 1984).

It is not easy to associate advertising with happiness, whether hedonia or eudaimonia. At a hedonic level of human happiness (see Hervás & Chaves, 2018), for example, the distance between our subjective well-being and commercial advertising can be significant in several ways. For instance, consider the mental timeframe in which individuals usually move. If we assume that thinking systematically (only) in the future implies certain damage to psychological well-being, it is easy to realize that advertising can harm us in this regard. The advertising mechanism of generating desires in consumers and maintaining a continuous state of desire may interfere with their perception of life satisfaction.

Moreover, excessive satisfaction from hedonistic desires and pleasure associated with advertised products or brands cannot be a good friend who makes one happy. It is true that hedonism is not completely antagonistic to our well-being. Veenhoven (2003, p. 437), who defines hedonism as “a way of life in which pleasure plays an important role,” says that there is an inverted U relationship between the two variables. That is, hedonism and hedonic happiness are positively correlated to some extent, but when hedonism crosses a certain threshold, it begins to become negatively correlated. Accordingly, Irvine (2008) says that we spend our lives attempting to achieve the objects of our desires, and he is convinced that if we had what we wanted, we would find this ever-present happiness. However, when we get what we want, we discover that this act only offers transient happiness.

On the other hand, from the eudaimonic point of view, the question is even more critical. From Aristotle’s time, individual happiness has not been understood without considering collective happiness, so it will be linked inexorably to ethics (Camps, 2013). Thus, it appears difficult to find a reconciliation between happiness and a discourse such as advertising, which has traditionally glorified the individual and the satisfaction of his desires above all other considerations, accordingly nurturing his narcissism. Additionally, Rifkin (2010) says that narcissism became the preferred ammunition for the advertising industry, in which it appeared to be feedback for personal insecurities and the need to be accepted. Certainly, this way of life, depending on others’ opinions, appears to be highly correlated with unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life in general (Lyubomirsky, 2008).

At this point, if commercial advertising creates, provokes, or arouses desires and pushes us into immediate fulfillment, we could only relate this to hedonism, narcissism, and individualism. Therefore, would it be possible to reconcile advertising and real well-being? Is there any further scope for consideration in which advertising could have positive effects on people’s happiness—happiness that is not spurious but authentic in current scientific terms? This does not appear easy, but it is certainly not impossible.

Reconciling Contemporary Advertising and (Authentic) Happiness

According to the previously described scenario, studies on the psychological effects of advertising, as in other areas of mass communication research, have traditionally been between positions that minimized such effects and those that maximized them from a negative and adverse point of view but never from a positive perspective. It was normal to hear that advertising has been negatively influencing behaviors and ways of being and thinking negatively (González Martín, 1991). Instead, we argue that it is also possible that certain forms of behavior, being or thinking generated by advertising can also be positive. Is it possible for commercial advertising to have psychological effects related to positive growth? Could it teach us values and therefore help us to build our happiness not just in hedonic terms but also in a eudaimonic dimension?

An association between advertising and hedonia appears simpler since some advertisements promote positive emotions, at least in the short-term. For example, when using humor or aesthetics, the message itself provides hedonic or subjective well-being, enjoyment, etc. However, if we focus on the level of human thriving in eudaimonic terms, growing evidence of this connection also appears. This can be observed not only in consumption sectors or industries that are closer to one another, for example, but this presence of values and virtues in the clearly commercial advertising discourses has been increasing over the last several years.

We have had to waiting to observe advertising campaigns that are putting their focus on human values with notable frequency (Chang, 2006; Romero & Sánchez, 2012). Somehow, it appears that many other advertisers and agencies have picked up the gauntlet that Ogilvy & Mather threw down with its The big ideaL TM, a strategic vision that builds brand communication in association with an ideal or a social cause, in the first decade of the current century. One agency that has also taken this path is Leo Burnett. With its Humantype framework, they want to “return marketing to that nobler thing” (Bernardin & Tutssel, 2010, p. 14), for which it is essential to understand what it means really to be human—a person—beyond a consumer.

Along the same lines, the international movement for constructing a model and guidelines for positive marketing, in which positive advertising should be included, is paradigmatic. This movement is supported by different initiatives around the world, as we read in the previous chapter by Lerman and Mejia (2018). Following these authors, the ultimate goal of marketing, and therefore of commercial communication and advertising, should be to contribute to the real well-being of the consumer and society.

The same notion in different words can be found in the model of goodvertising by Kolster (2012); goodvertising is a neologism that simply means to do good through advertising that is intended as a real benefit for the individual, society, and the planet. Along these line, for example, femvertising and other growing and current advertising trends can be included. We can summarize the essence of this trend as advertising that empowers women in one sense or another. Zayer, Coleman, and Rodriguez Orjuela (2018) illustrate this in this book in greater depth.

However, to approach to all these recent positive tendencies in a more inclusive way, especially if we consider the eudaimonic dimension of human well-being, we can use the classic model of six virtues and 24 character strengths by Peterson and Seligman (2004), which we can see in Table 17.1. This table is a model used in recent positive psychological research that analyzes the underlying positive values in a commercial message or campaign.

Table 17.1   The 24 character strengths

Set of six virtues and twenty-four character strengths

Virtue 1: Wisdom and knowledge: Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge.

1. Creativity: thinking of novel and productive ways to perform tasks.

2. Curiosity: taking an interest in the entirety of an ongoing experience.

3. Judgment: thoroughly considering matters and examining them from all sides.

4. Love of learning: mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge.

5. Perspective: being able to provide wise counsel to others.

Virtue 2: Courage: Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal.

6. Honesty: speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way.

7. Bravery: not shrinking from threats, challenges, difficulty, or pain.

8. Persistence: finishing what one starts.

9. Zest: Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living

life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated.

Virtue 3: Humanity: Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others.

10. Kindness: doing favors and good deeds for others.

11. Love: valuing close relations with others.

12. Social intelligence: being aware of the motives and feelings of oneself and others.

Virtue 4: Justice: Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life.

13. Fairness: treating all people the same according to notions of fairness andjustice.

14. Leadership: organizing group activities and ensuring that they happen.

15. Teamwork: working well as a member of a group or team.

Virtue 5: Temperance: Strengths that protect against excess.

16. Forgiveness: forgiving those who have done wrong.

17. Modesty: letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves.

18. Prudence: being careful about one’s choices; not saying or doing anything that might be regretted


19. Self-regulation or self-control: regulating what one feels and does.

Virtue 6: Transcendence: Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning.

20. Appreciation of beauty and excellence: noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life.

21. Gratitude: being aware of and thankful for good things that happen; taking time to express thanks.

22. Hope and optimism: expecting the best and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be manifested.

23. Humor: liking to laugh andjoke; making others smile.

24. Spirituality, religiousness, faith, purpose: having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe; having beliefs about the meaning of life that shape conduct and provide comfort.

Advertising and Character Strengths

In line with the observation of values in advertising from a broader perspective, Pollay (1986) elaborated upon his classic “distorted mirror theory,” in which he extracted a set of quasi-universal values present in advertising. Indeed, 11 of the 42 values noted by the author would be close to some of Peterson & Seligman’s character strengths, such as morality, humility, modesty, plainness, security, nurturance, family, community, health, neatness, and succor.

Along these lines, Castelló Martínez, Ramos Soler, and del Pino Romero (2013) studied the positive values that advertising discourse started to construct in the last years. After an advertising campaign sampling in Spanish media, they conclude that, unlike the self-centeredness, utilitarianism, and materialism that prevailed in the advertising discourse from better times before the recent economic crisis, current discourses begin to focus on people and social and altruistic responsibility.

Davis and Brotherton (2013) related current advertising to human thriving in their analysis. They focus on analyzing how the appeal of human thriving is being used by advertising professionals, albeit in an incipient way. However, their study is based only on three case studies; recognizing its limitations, the authors appeal to the scientific community “to recognize the popularity and usefulness of the human thriving appeal and to begin to study it in greater depth” (Davis & Brotherton, 2013, p. 92).

It appears that commercial advertising campaigns can also convey examples and models of virtuous behavior and eudaimonic values with or without the agency or advertiser’s clear intention and apart from specific marketing goals. Furthermore, both marketing goals and eudaimonic values can be good friends, as we observed in a recent study. To understand the extent to which successful advertising campaigns had messages associated with eudaimonic values, we put the focus on winning campaigns in the EFI Prizes awarded by the Advertisers Association in Spain from 2009 to 2014 (Muñiz-Velázquez, Lozano-Delmar, & Plaza, 2014).

Four previously trained observers independently oversaw, quantified, and coded the presence or absence of Peterson & Seligman’s character strengths. The presence of some specific examples was accepted if the discourse of the campaign, according to observers, attempted to encourage behaviors conducive to the cultivation of that strength in the receiver implicitly or explicitly. They found that while 33 percent of winning campaigns had associated their brands or products with at least one character strength in 2009, in 2013, this percentage increases to 75 percent. This appears to be a lasting trend.

In the 2017 Super Bowl, most commercials had associated positive values closely to eudaimonic values. We examined the more successful commercials in this event based on the Super Bowl Ad Review prepared by the Kellogg Business School at Northwestern University (Muñiz-Velázquez, 2017).

We can even find a relationship between advertising and one of the more remote a priori character strengths with regard to commercial communication: spirituality, a key factor in a several aspects of happiness (Van Dierendock, 2012). In this sense, it is worth mentioning the research done by Marmor-Lavie and her colleagues. With their Spirituality in Advertising Framework (SAF), they analyzed a good set of advertising discourses and found that they were imbued with core spiritual ideas—research that we can see also in this book (see Marmor-Lavie, 2018).

Thus, we are gradually legitimized to speak of a “eudaimonic ROI” as a return on advertising investment in terms of psychological well-being on the public that is independent of the advertiser marketing goals. Furthermore, we propose that this alleged “eudaimonic ROI” would be good for advertising and marketing objectives; that is, eudaimonic advertising could also be effective advertising.

Conclusion and Final Questions

Divesting happiness of scientific disregard has been a lengthy battle given the scorn and pejorative aspects with which a large number of contemporary intellectuals and scientists have associated it. Denial of a possible existence of full happiness in this life has been denied to people from the Middle Ages until the end of the 20th century (Bok, 2010). Russell (1971) issued a warning about our fate of eternal unhappiness, which has been imposed on humanity in literary, philosophical, or artistic scopes. We find that Schopenhauer affirmed that even happiness is always negative, being limited only to the termination of pain. We can also examine psychoanalysis, such the “Freudian scientific myth” according to Onfray (2011, p. 165), which is one of the main agents of the limited and limiting Western conception of happiness, which, by contrast, appears to be a great ally, not only of the consumption socioeconomic system but also of hyper utilitarianism (Rifkin, 2010). If full happiness is impossible to achieve in this life, at least we have consumption.

Fortunately, over the last two decades, several modern branches of science have been rejecting these ideas without denying its complexity. Mainly due to positive psychology, human happiness is its own scientific topic. When we talk about happiness today, we know we are talking about hedonia or subjective well-being as well as eudaimonia, which is wider than a hedonic step (Huta, 2016) that is translated to psychological well-being and the fulfillment of life through virtue. Moreover, several authors add a third dimension, social well-being, in a triadic and more holistic conception of happiness (Keyes, 2002; Hervás & Vázquez, 2013) to human flourishing (Seligman, 2011).

It is reasonable to question whether this new positive outlook can be extrapolated to other scientific and professional areas, such as the field in which we are interested: advertising communication. It is time to inquire whether it is possible to have another relationship between this integral and scientifically supported notion of happiness and a new advertising paradigm.

This paper intends to show that a type of “eudaimonic advertising” is a reality today, a reality that has been arising since the last decade, even between successful campaigns. Therefore, the critical views described at the beginning of this chapter may be incorrect, outdated, or at least incomplete.

Future studies should delve into the relationship between certain types of character strengths and advertisers, specific business sectors, products, etc. Likewise, it would also be interesting to conduct a longitudinal observation to establish whether this trend signifies a profound change to “eudaimonic advertising” or if it is just a passing tendency. It would also be interesting to observe not only advertising messages but also their effects on the individual psyche. Beyond the “goodness” of the ad content, can advertising facilitate subjective and psychological well-being? Another interesting debate questions whether these possible “eudaimonic campaigns” might even have certain adverse effects. For example, could they arouse negative emotions in the audience by exposing their own lack of eudaimonia?

There are many ways to proceed. In the aforementioned positive psychology, a field that assesses what makes life worth living, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) state that reconciliation between commercial advertising and hedonic and eudaimonic happiness finally appear possible. Thus, it is not only ethically desirable but also possible to construct a marketing campaign that sells products, services, and brands while “selling” sincere, transparent, and mature well-being—happiness that obviously does not deny consumption but also does not rely on it, less so on consumerism.

Post (2005) asserted that practicing virtue and being good to oneself and others is beneficial, especially for the people who practice this behavior. At this point, we believe that this is true not only for individuals but also for brands and advertising. Positive advertising is good for marketing communication effectiveness in addition to being good for recipients, their well-being, and society as a whole.


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