The death march continues in this blog with a consideration of how our culture views death and dying. If this is a (fair & balanced) morbid post, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
How Fear Of Death Could Make You Splurge
By Anna North
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
If you’re trying to sell something, consider putting a tombstone in your ad. It might seem macabre, but a new study suggests that thinking about death makes people eager to buy.
Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard reports that the psychologist Enny Das and her co-authors showed participants several fake ads, some death-themed and some not. In a particularly grim experiment, they offered each subject the opportunity to see his or her own name and birth date on a gravestone, as part of an ad for a newspaper (tagline: “How long do you want to wait? Take a trial subscription to X now for only 9.95 per month”). The subjects were actually more positively disposed to this ad than to one that featured a boy innocuously waiting by a mailbox; they also said the tombstone ad would make them more likely to subscribe.
Mr. Jacobs notes that “this counter-intuitive dynamic is best explained by Terror Management Theory, an extension of the seminal ideas of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. According to this school of thought, humans buffer their fear of mortality by attempting to transcend death, either literally (via belief in an afterlife) or symbolically (by devoting your life to a larger cause that will live on).”
Buying a newspaper is, of course, a worthy and noble use of money (Mr. Jacobs, for his part, suggests that mourners at your funeral might speak particularly highly of you if you subscribe to Pacific Standard). But it’s not a donation to charity — does it really count as devoting yourself to a larger cause?
Turns out, it may not matter — in another experiment, Ms. Das and her team tested the effect of death-related ads for healthy or unhealthy drinks (the ad for the unhealthy one included the blunt admission that it contained “lots of caffeine and alcohol”). The morbid ads were just as effective for the unhealthy drinks as for the healthy ones, implying that a product may not need to be wholesome to capitalize on our fear of the abyss. The authors write, “These findings further suggest that it may be the act of buying per se, regardless of products’ ability to boost consumer self-esteem, that alleviates consumers’ existential fears.”
Why might buying soothe us, regardless of what we buy? The authors speculate: “In a materialistic world, where consumption, money, and possessions are important cultural values, buying into a good deal may affirm the fact that one is a valuable member of society, and this may alleviate a fear of death.”
It’s tempting to take the study as a warning: If you’re feeling particularly in touch with your own mortality, beware of sales pitches. But Ms. Das told "Op-Talk" in an email that consumers might have a hard time guarding against the death-sell, because our reactions to morbid advertising may be unconscious:
“The fact that most of these processes occur outside of conscious awareness make them harder to control. Consumers may consciously claim and seriously believe that they are totally unaffected by an ad that uses death to sell a product but still be influenced by it at the unconscious level; they don’t like the ad but still end up buying the product.”
“The best tip to guard oneself,” she added, “is then to keep close track of your expenses when confronted with terrifying images (ads) or events (e.g., terrorist attacks), even if you are convinced that these images/events have no power over you.”
Whether or not it costs us money, some argue our fear of death — and of talking about it — is holding us back in other ways. Caitlin Doughty, an undertaker and the author of the new book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory (2014), told The Atlantic that her goal was “to create an environment where people aren’t afraid to admit they’re morbid, and have questions about death — what’s going to happen to their corpse, what their funeral is going to look like, what a decomposing body looks like, how cremation works. These are all totally natural questions, 2.5 million people die in the U.S. every year after all, but we’ve built up this idea that talking about death is deviant. Death is not deviant, it’s actually the most normal and universal act there is.”
And in a much-discussed essay, also at The Atlantic, Ezekiel J. Emanuel declares he will not seek to extend his life past age 75. He writes:
“Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.
“I reject this aspiration. I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive. For many reasons, 75 is a pretty good age to aim to stop.”
Rather than trying to put death off indefinitely, he argues, he’s embraced the idea of a predetermined end to life (though, he notes, he won’t commit suicide at 75 — just stop accepting most medical treatment). And, he says, more people should at least consider doing the same:
“What I am trying to do is delineate my views for a good life and make my friends and others think about how they want to live as they grow older. I want them to think of an alternative to succumbing to that slow constriction of activities and aspirations imperceptibly imposed by aging. Are we to embrace the ‘American immortal’ or my ‘75 and no more’ view?”
Are we a nation of myopic death denialists, ignoring the inevitable to the potential detriment of our time on earth? If so, we may not be alone — Ms. Das told "Op-Talk": “Fearing death is unique to humans, and this fear is universal. All humans fear death, that’s the downside of being able to think.”
But for all our fear of dying, there may be a part of us that’s drawn to it. Ms. Doughty says she became an undertaker because “I was fascinated by mortality. Most people are, even if they don’t admit it.”
And at the end of their paper, Ms. Das and her team offer another possible reason participants might have liked the build-your-own tombstone ad so much: “People tend to enjoy others’ creative explorations of life’s more negative facets, such as lost love, danger, or death.” They explain:
“Exploration of such themes may produce a deep, so-called eudaimonic — as opposed to hedonistic — type of enjoyment that is considered more substantive, and is generally more heart felt. Eudaimonic enjoyment perceptions explain why people like sad songs, books, and movies, and possibly also why ‘sick’ jokes are often considered funnier that other jokes. Perhaps participants perceived the tombstone ad as a — mildly — sick joke, and liked it.”
Death may be terrifying, but maybe facing it, even in the form of an ad, can bring us some relief. Ω
[Anna North is a staff editor for NYT "Opinion" and "Op-Talk." Prior to joining The Times, she was Culture Editor at Salon, Senior Editor at BuzzFeed, News Editor at Jezebel. North received a BA (English) from Stanford University and an MFA (Creative Writing) from the University of Iowa.]
Copyright © 2014 The New York Times Company
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Copyright © 2014 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves