• Black Friday and Cyber Monday loom as some of the biggest retail holidays of the year. As with last year, most shoppers will be purchasing items online.
  • For those with online shopping addictions or who struggle to control their spending habits, the holidays can be a difficult time to resist temptations.
  • Targeted ads, which use our browsing data to market products that we may like, can make controlling an online shopping addiction even harder. 
  • These ads sometimes prey on our psychological weaknesses: We may buy a new phone as a status symbol or purchase a pair of pants because they’re marketed by an attractive celebrity.
  • The signs of an online shopping addiction might include shopping to cheer yourself up, lying about your spending habits, rationalizing expensive purchases, and engaging in shopping habits that get in the way of your daily life and ability to function.
  • Use psychology-based tips to control your spending habits,  such as keeping a journal to record your thoughts before and after shopping, resetting your reward system by getting outside, and using humor to offset the effects of ads.

Every fall, Black Friday and Cyber Monday loom as the notorious twins of November, luring shoppers out in droves amid fierce competition. But beyond the viral videos of people fighting over TVs, these two consumer holidays are a big win for companies, with Americans spending nearly $20 billion on both in 2020. This year, many Black Friday shoppers and Cyber Monday bargain hunters will be continuing the trend of shopping online, instead of going to brick-and-mortars. And their spending habits will be largely influenced by what’s known as targeted ads.

Because of the way that targeted ads can zero in on psychological insecurities, people with shopping addictions may be among the most easily influenced. And although only 6% of the U.S population has a diagnosed shopping addiction, the number of undiagnosed cases could be much higher as is the case with many mental health conditions; we may not recognize the warning signs or seek treatment. 

For those who are struggling with a shopping addiction, or who are worried that they might have a problem, the holiday season may be a difficult time to resist the temptation to spend, especially with events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. But with the right mindset, both of these holidays can be a lot of fun—and when done right, we can strike a balance between our wants and needs. 

To do that, we need to understand the psychology behind online advertising, recognize the warning signs of a shopping addiction, and become wiser to neuromarketing tactics by using smarter shopping strategies as consumers. 

How Do Targeted Ads and Online Neuromarketing Affect Us? 

Online advertisements use our browsing data to target us psychologically, convincing us there’s a need that just isn’t there, and though there are certain rules and regulations, there’s a lot that’s considered “fair game”. Most holiday ads are seemingly harmless enough, from commercials that imply our neighbors will like us better if we have a shiny new car, to airbrushed jingles that hint at how attractive and well-liked we’ll be if only we upgrade to a new phone. Many of us like to think we see through these vapid attempts to grab our attention and remain unaffected, but research indicates that’s not very accurate. 

So should we be concerned about targeted ads that exploit our worries about our existing or possible physical and mental health conditions? What if someone were to look up “how to cope with an eating disorder” or “men’s fertility issues” and was flooded with product suggestions related to their (private) condition? While suggestions can be helpful, is there a point at which consumerism starts affecting our personal choices about our health? For some, targeted ads like these can spur a mental health crisis. Black Friday and Cyber Monday indeed offer some great bargains. But when targeted ads aim to make us want something by producing feelings of insecurity, that’s not a deal at all. 

4 Warning Signs of an Online Shopping Addiction

If you’ve needed to rein in your spending habits in the past, or are just paying more attention to what you’re spending your money on over the holidays, watch out for signs of an online shopping addiction. Consider whether:  

  • You’re consistently shopping online to cheer yourself up: When they’re feeling low, anxious, or angry, it’s common for compulsive shoppers to try and lift their spirits by exaggerating how a new purchase will “improve their life” or will somehow be “just what they needed”. But instead, the temporary high wears off, and newly acquired items may lay untouched: The planning for the next spending spree is already in the works.
  • You’re lying to yourself or loved ones about your spending habits: Hiding a shopping addiction from your spouse or family can easily wreak havoc on your relationships, especially when others are dependent on you for financial support. Any activity that we feel obligated to hide from our partner, even small ones, can be considered a form of micro-cheating
  • You keep rationalizing your purchases, even amidst feeling guilty: As an unhealthy coping mechanism, those with shopping addictions might try to view items as “investments” or “necessities”, even when these purchases drain their finances and mental health. 
  • Your shopping habits get in the way of your daily life, ability to function, or self-care routine: A shopping addiction could leave you without the money or time for personal relationships, a healthy work-life balance, or necessities like being able to pay rent, afford food, and more. If our spending habits render us unable to make ends meet, it’s time to re-evaluate whether we need more financial boundaries and where to find help.

Don’t Bargain with Your Reward Pathways: Combat Neuromarketing Tactics this November 

There’s one thing that advertisers understand that the rest of us often don’t: How the brain’s reward system works. Our reward pathways carry chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin that usually make us feel good when we do things like exercise, finish important tasks, or spend time with loved ones. Addictions form when these pathways start to become derailed; whatever we’ve become addicted to becomes our new and unstable source of these chemicals. Instead of receiving pleasure from productive activities in our day-to-day life, we start to seek (and depend on) our cravings. However, this artificial high never quite delivers. 

The rationale behind advertising’s ability to prey on our reward pathway is remarkably simple: Convince the brain that there is a need for something it doesn’t have—a craving for the advertised item. Smart business, maybe, but for those with shopping addictions, or with addictive personalities, this can be an incredibly hard battle—one that will probably need the support and assistance of those around you, along with some creative strategies. This November, try to: 

  • Stay on top of your spending habits by keeping a journal: If you’re concerned that you’re impulsively shopping online, record how you feel before and after making purchases by keeping a journal of your thoughts. Compare notes over the course of a week, a month, or a year, if possible. If you’re seeing a repeated pattern of feeling unhappy before shopping, or if you’re becoming bored with your recent purchases, or feeling guilty, this may be a sign that you’re suffering from a shopping addiction.
  • Find another way to satisfy your dopamine rush: The internet is an amazing place. But ultimately, it’s not real and not what our primate brain was designed to process. As cliche as the idea of “fresh air” sounds, one of the quickest ways to reset your reward pathways is by getting active outside. Research shows that taking a nature walk can offer cognitive benefits, improve our mood, and increase our ability to fight back against depression, anxiety, and chronic stress. 
  • Use laughter to make fun of the unrealistic depictions and airbrushed qualities of holiday ads with your friends and family. According to psychology, laughter can actually help you process something difficult by turning it into something that’s hard to take seriously. Start roasting the ads that try to seize your attention—it might help you see through them more easily. 
  • Use a mindfulness-based approach when an ad targets your insecurities. If the item you’re considering is in your virtual cart because you’re trying to “fix” something about yourself, it’s an important time to re-trace what influenced your decisions in the first place. Take a moment to reflect before buying: Does it feel as though your motives are coming from a place of self-worth, or are you attempting to cope with emotional pain by shopping online? Doing so may prevent you from experiencing the guilt and shame that is often an after-effect of impulsive or compulsive shopping habits. 

And remember: You can always talk with a therapist about your experience. Like other compulsive and addictive behaviors, shopping addiction can be counteracted and treated. Getting a professional’s perspective might unlock further clarity into the repetitive nature of an online shopping addiction. 

Don’t let targeted ads hone in on your insecurities this holiday season. On Black Friday and Cyber Monday, you can make your own purchasing decisions, from a place of emotional health and honesty. And that’s a pretty great deal on its own.