Ah the old pleasure principle, it explains so much about sales, and of course it guides just about all marketing and advertising. Put simply, the pleasure principle states that people seek out pleasure, while doing their best to avoid suffering. Now I wouldn’t have thought that we needed a theory covering such a basic aspect of human and animal behaviour but there it is. 

We buy things primarily because we need them. Everyone needs food and water for example, but no one really needs Antipodes sparkling water or a great Margarita pizza made by a chef trained in Naples. We could buy only the things that we need but we want pleasure, happiness and gratification, not just the bare necessities. We like to be able to buy what we want, and believe me, I want Antipodes sparkling water and great pizza made by a chef trained in Naples! We aspire to have the good things in life and we want them now, not later. Immediate gratification is the pleasure principle at its most primal. 

The reverse of the pleasure principle is the reality principle, where people put off immediate gratification because their specific reality doesn’t allow for it at that point. Basically, we’ll deal with this type of situation if we have to because we’re theoretically adults, but we really don’t have to like it, and we’ll circumvent it when we can, which is why interest-free or deferred payment deals are so popular. 

What about grudge purchases then? Those terrible things that we know we have to have but don’t particularly want. No one wants to buy insurance but we recognize that it’s a good thing to have (although we’re actually buying peace of mind, not insurance). Only petrol heads actually want to buy tyres or shock absorbers for their beloved cars. The vast majority of drivers bitterly resent failing a warrant of fitness and having to put four new bits of black rubber that they don’t give a damn about, so imagine how they feel about having to replace four expensive metal tubes that are buried in the bowels of their car. 

Signing up at a gym is a massive grudge purchase for many people. Not for me though, I’ve been going for thirty years and love it as much now as I did when I started, so I can only vaguely grasp the notion that there are folk who don’t like working out. 

However, advertising is about understanding the mechanics of desire and reward. Ignore the muscleheads, athletes and health nuts, and you’ll find that most people grudgingly join a gym because they feel that they have to. Perhaps their doctor told them they’d better, or they just feel really unfit, or their spouse mentioned something about their weight (a truly bad idea) or maybe the bathroom mirror became way too hard to ignore. 

There’s no immediate reward to be had here. Compare going to a movie or buying a big old slab of milk chocolate to going to a gym when you don’t want to be there. The first two examples are happy happy, joy joy, the latter an exercise in abject misery. The endorphins released by a good workout are no match for the inconvenience of huffing around a hot and humid or cold and clammy gym, hefting sweaty weights around or going nowhere fast on a treadmill. 

What’s worse is that the results are often a long time in coming and they usually don’t happen at all without a commensurate effort in eating a better diet and saying no to the bad foods that we enjoy so much. So we’ve got inconvenience, discomfort, denial and suffering – it seems that only a fool would fall for this mess in direct defiance of the pleasure principle, but the reality principle tells us that weighing 200Kg or keeling over at 36 years of age isn’t ideal, so hordes of gym goers puff, pant and renounce their way towards some distant goal. Some even make it.

Many others just can’t be bothered, or they try and fail after a while. There’s an entire industry just waiting for them with The AbBuster 5,000, The Lemon Detox 1,200 or Mega MuscleMix 20,000. This is where we see advertising at its worst, preying on people’s insecurities and promising them a quick fix to prod their pleasure sensors and crush their reality engines. We know these things are complete BS but we fall for them because after all, anything is better than putting in the hard yards.

In the next few entries in this blog series covering grudge purchases, I’ll look at ways to make the grudge buy less offensive, and how this kind of thinking can be applied to the marketing of the things we actually want.