Sad but True? Shopping Promoted as a Way to ‘Fill the Void’

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Your life sucks. But it’ll suck less if you buy this thing we’re advertising. That, in a nutshell, is the message behind many advertising campaigns. It’s just that usually the message comes across in a fairly subtle way. Few ads have had the chutzpah to spread this message as directly and blatantly as the new “Fill the Void” series from the magazine–shopping brochure Lucky.

In the campaign from Lucky, ads appear in print, online and on top of taxicabs featuring lines like these:

“My Boyfriend Dumped Me via Text.”

“My Longest Relationship Is with My Doorman.”

“My Intern Is the Only One Following Me on Twitter.”

After each line, you’re encouraged to “Fill the Void” by heading over to the magazine’s website to buy some stuff. A blogger at XO Jane had the initial reaction that’s probably similar to yours right now if you’re seeing this for the first time:

Surely they don’t mean fill the empty gaping hole inside yourself where love should be? Do they?

Yes, they do.

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In as straightforward, nonjudgmental a way as possible, AdAge.com described the campaign as one “which urges consumers to handle their problems by, well, consuming.” The “humorous ads” are intended to “promote its new e-commerce platform, MyLucky, the first elements of which are scheduled to appear on the magazine’s website Aug. 17.”

But don’t people usually fill the void with things that are bad for them, like alcohol, drugs, casual sex, pornography, and perhaps fantasy football leagues? Is the idea of shopping as a coping mechanism to deal with feelings of depression, loneliness and emptiness actually funny?

Well, the concept probably is amusing to the certain breed of young consumers that Lucky‘s trying to attract. “Twentysomethings love irony,” said Kit Yarrow, a marketing and psychology professor and a co-author of Gen BuY. “Seriously, it’s like their team uniform. This campaign reminds me of the Axe campaign in that it’s a gross overstatement of a tiny bit of truth all dressed up in irony. The examples of voids are always extremes that by comparison make the reader feel fortunate and good about themselves. This rubs off onto how they feel about Lucky. The wink-wink irony also creates camaraderie between the reader and the magazine.”

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Yarrow is generally impressed with the campaign, describing it as “psychologically sophisticated.” The creators, Partners & Spade, “either ‘got’ Lucky or had a consumer psychologist helping out,” she said.

On the other hand, there is truth to the premise that some consumers do, in fact, go shopping as a desperate attempt to fill the void of their depressed, meaningless lives. To some, that’s not humorous at all.

“This is a very disturbing ad campaign,” said Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (and occasional TIME Moneyland contributor) who regularly writes about topics like compulsive shopping. Citing a recent study by German researchers, Whitbourne said via e-mail that certain consumers buy compulsively due to “feelings of low self-esteem, powerlessness and lack of control over their life.” This group, unsurprisingly, is more likely to suffer from depression.

“For advertisers, it’s a common strategy to manipulate consumers by tapping into their feelings of loneliness, worthlessness and despondency,” said Whitbourne. “But because the items that these depressed shoppers may buy can never really ‘fill the void,’ advertisers set up these shoppers for a further cycle of depression and despair should they drain those designer wallets by overspending.”

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In any event, the ads are potentially offensive enough to generate some attention, and that’s probably the point. “The campaign will work because it’ll be talked about,” said Yarrow. “Yes, it’ll offend — mostly those who don’t shop. But this is, after all, a magazine about shopping.”

Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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