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The Happiness Factor

Today’s most successful brands promise to help in our pursuit of happiness. But too often, marketers fail to understand what brings us joy.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

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That line, penned by Thomas Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence, is perhaps the most “American” sentence ever written. Sure, he snitched most of it from an Englishman, John Locke. But Jefferson tweaked it, more or less changing the last word from “Property” to “Happiness.” And it’s that last word — Happiness (with a capital “H”) — that so perfectly captures the most American of ideals.

Jefferson is remembered for many things, but marketing is not one of them. It should be. Not only was the Declaration of Independence a “killer” positioning statement, it all but hung an incredibly complicated and extraordinarily dangerous proposition (a new nation based on an experimental model) on a single word.

Okay — three words. But “Happiness” is the key word, the ultimate call to action. If they had bumper stickers back then you can be sure the “smiley face” would have been invented much earlier.

This isn’t to take anything away from Benjamin Franklin, who was arguably the greatest American marketer of all time. But it is a reminder of two things: 1) The power of “Happiness” as a marketing concept; and 2) The enduring relationship between marketing and the all-American pursuit of Happiness.

Think about the most successful brands in recent memory. It isn’t hard; it’s actually getting to be a rather predictable list. What is it that Apple, Starbucks, Target, JetBlue, BMW, eBay and Trader Joe’s promise? Damned if it isn’t the pursuit of Happiness! Why is the list so short? Because most of what passes for marketing today (and yesterday, for that matter) is sheer Misery.

It’s as if Jefferson never changed the word “Property” to “Happiness.” When most people think of marketing they think of anything but Happiness. We think of the most crass forms of materialism—or “Property.” We think of bad jingles, intrusive telemarketers, junk mail, and those little cards that fall out of magazines. Try to find a little Happiness by escaping to the movies and what do we find? More ads. Before the movie, embedded in the movie, and after the movie. You want a coupon with that? No? Can we have your zip code then?

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A grand total of one marketer — Philips Electronics — seems to understand how most of us feel about this. Philips wanted to buy up all the available ad time at movie theaters in Minneapolis and Boston and take credit for not using it to advertise its products. They thought it would be cool to give us a little break and simply run a short message letting us know that they were sponsoring the cinema silence … a moment of Happiness, if you will.

Unfortunately, Screenvision, the company that sells the screen time at the theaters, thought that Philips was making a mockery of movie theater ads and nixed the idea.

Some folks are so unhappy with marketing that they’ve formed a club, of sorts, called the Compact. It’s named after the Mayflower Compact, which was the Pilgrim’s pledge to pursue a higher purpose when they first arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1640. In the modern-day version, the pledge is simply not to buy anything new other than food, medicine, and other essentials.

The idea is to find Happiness through Simplicity, and it is a reaction to consumerism, which members of the Compact think is out of control. An overwhelming majority of Americans agree with them, apparently. As reported by Elizabeth Weise in USA Today, a survey by sociologist Juliet Schor of Boston College finds “that 81 percent of Americans say the country is too focused on shopping and spending, and 88 percent think it is too materialistic.”

James Roberts, a Baylor University marketing professor says all that consumerism is a pursuit of something other than Happiness: “The research is overwhelmingly clear,” he says. “The more materialistic you are the less happy you are. We get Happiness through the love of others and sense of community. But we’ve been told by Madison Avenue that Happiness can come through the mall.”

Thing is, most Americans — 84 percent according to one study — do think they are either “very” or “pretty” happy. Granted, exactly how one defines “Happiness” varies. But as Cynthia Crossen of The Wall Street Journal notes, the American “pursuit of Happiness” certainly is of a piece with America’s “capitalist democracy, where ever-increasing consumption” drives economic growth.

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That delivers us to our second point — the relationship between marketing and the all-American pursuit of Happiness. Rod Dreher, in his new book, Crunchy Cons, defines a new breed of economic conservatism that rejects what he calls “consumer-crazed capitalism” that “makes a fetish of individual choice.” Disdainful of everything from shopping malls to television to McMansions, Dreher basically says it’s time for “the moral and spiritual energies of the people” to save America from its obsession with mass consumerism.

Dreher is talking about religious faith, and we won’t debate him there. But we will direct him to one remarkable example of how marketing is being applied to enable the pursuit of Happiness at a most basic level.

Two hundred American cities have discovered that the best way to treat the nation’s 200,000 chronically homeless people is to treat them like consumers. The approach is premised on the idea that the chronically homeless (defined as those on the street for a year or more) are a consumer segment like any other, with a profile and preferences like any other.

As reported by Cait Murphy in Fortune magazine, The Interagency Council on Homelessness, a federal agency, used basic marketing research to arrive at a likely solution to homelessness. The agency simply went out and interviewed homeless people and asked them what they wanted. Their answer was that they wanted a room of their own. So they could pursue Happiness, presumably.

That research-driven insight led to a program, called Housing First, that puts homeless people into apartments, which as it turns out is far less expensive than keeping them on the streets. The success rate, with success defined as “not returning to the streets for five years” is pegged at 88% in New York, where some 400 homeless have been given rooms. In Phoenix, the success rate is set at 92% and San Francisco says its homeless rate has dropped 40%.

So, maybe marketing isn’t so evil after all. Maybe marketing is more compatible with Happiness than some people think.

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As that great marketer, Benjamin Franklin, once said, America “only gives you the right to pursue Happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

No reason why marketers like us can’t catch Happiness like anyone else. And pass it on, too.


Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Juliet Schor’s affiliation.

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