I just came home from town after getting a cute new white t-shirt in the Topshop sale (I can hear Grandad in my head – it’s not a bargain if you don’t need it!). Whilst putting it away I realised I own eleven white t-shirts in one form or another, be it plain, striped or slogan. It hit me how downright ridiculous this is and I got to thinking about why we buy so many things barely different to eachother. Why not buy one or two good quality white t-shirts? Why have I felt the need to accumulate ELEVEN? E – L – E – V – E – N!?!
Truth is, marketers are really good at convincing us we need ten gazillion versions of a white t-shirt. Literally. (Not literally, that whole sentence is my opinion. Maybe they’re only trying to convince us we need a million.)
I have a battered white t-shirt I love so much I’ve sewn it multiple times rather than throw it out. Sometimes I think it might be the best t-shirt on Earth, but the cynical side of me thinks I’ve seen it so many times that I like it because it’s familiar (this is the mere exposure effect) But a new t-shirt will always favourite for a week or so after I buying. Novel items activate reward systems in our brains, making us feel good and attribute that to buying the top. That t-shirt gives the brain a hit of dopamine which positively reinforceing the purchase and making future purchases more likely. Baaaaaasically, I want to buy another t-shirt because I last time felt good. Stimulus generalisation can then occur, meaning that good feeling is generalised to similar items (in this case white t-shirts).
Ok so this starts to explain the impulse to buy more t-shirts, but why more similar ones?
Humans prefer to stick within their comfort zone, straying from what we know can be scary. For me (you guessed it) this white t-shirts and when I’m in stores I find myself gravitating to them. This makes sense, humans are attracted to familiarity, which is reassuring for me – I thought I was just boring. Perhaps this is exactly why we buy very similar things – to feel safe in what we wear but since we don’t want to feel as though we’re boring, we choose something a teeny bit different.
People talk about wardrobe staples, items every wardrobe should include, a little black dress, well fitting jeans, a white t-shirt etc. By labelling them as essentials, purchasing them feels more is justified. You know that feeling after buying something, you feel good but also guilty? If you do, you’re not alone, purchase guilt is common among many people. This creates cognitive dissonance in our mind (conflict between thoughts/behaviours) creating a sense of discomfort. Marketing techniques like wardrobe staples, convince us we need something, not just want – preventing guilt and thus cognitive dissonance. This makes purchasing more pleasurable, reinforcing this type of purchase and increasing the likelihood of similar purchases. We’re not only encouraged to own ‘wardrobe staples’, but find the perfect piece. But perfect doesn’t exist, as consumers we’re never satisfied, so in the search for the perfect garment we continue purchasing very similar items with slight differences.
Despite all of this, I doubt I’ll stop anytime soon. Maybe now I’m aware of how many white t-shirts I’ll start collecting black ones …