Does peer pressure make people buy products they don’t need?

People often buy products not because they really need them but because other people have them. Do you agree or disagree?

The modern world is one of materialism, marketing and the branding. From high street lifestyle products (clothing, electronics, jewellery, etc.) to the service and education industries, there has never been another age in which style and reputation has been promoted to the lower and middle-classes to a similar extent. This has created a complicated yet strong relationship between consumers and sellers in which peer pressure is a key but not unique part.

The pressure to buy is not wholly down to peers. Adverts often claim a consumer’s life is incomplete or inferior without purchasing a particular product, creating a bubble that treats the brand name as quasi-religious – often using models, celebrities and myth-making ideas of ‘cool’ cities or countries in lieu of the drier, duller technicalities. This aura is often enhanced by price: companies such as Apple, Dior, Gucci et al have retail prices far above production costs in order to make purchases on the edge of the average budget, resulting in a feeling of being special (basically ‘joining the elite’s club’) by finally coughing up the cash to have their product. The ‘sell the dream’ idea has been around since at least the 1950s and will certainly remain due to its success.

For a product to become truly successful, however, it does require a degree of peer pressure to reinforce its advertising: once a campaign, service or product hits what is called ‘critical mass’ then it can run with only minor prodding (or even none at all) from marketing. The easiest field in which this is visible is social networking and search engines, in which companies such as Facebook and Google are used simply because that is the social norm. Yet it exists in other materialistic fields too. The success of Apple’s iPhone followed a similar path (with the added bonus that Apple’s ‘closed garden’ results in the purchase of further Apple products); the boom in sales of brands such as Louis Vetton and Prada in China is as much because it has become a social status displaying new wealth as the need for a bag; people who support sports teams buy the overpriced shirts because they feel it is demanded of them. This idea is not new – universities, for one, have long survived on the prestige given by the masses to names such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale – but has been amplified in the common marketplace to the extent that reaching critical mass is the true dream for many new companies.

The extent to which peer pressure helps companies sell products has even produced new words in the English language, such as fanboy (a fan of a particular brand) and sheeple (people who follow the herd). The meaning of ‘tribalism’ has grown to include supporters of one brand who happily demean another. It has also created a rising counter-culture, a complicated and contradictory area in which an entire group of people argue they are ‘real’ by rejecting consumerism yet arguably act in exactly the same manner as those buying into products and brand names. Invariably counter-cultures that become a success are quickly shot down by a new counter-culture: the hipsters of San Francisco, New York and London are ridiculed; the skateboarders who bought Vans shoes do not do so since it went onto the high street.

In conclusion there can be no denying that peer pressure has a huge effect on people, whether they opt into it or deliberately reject it. It is not the only reason people buy products (most staples such as groceries remain fairly immune) but it does exist, tapping into the human psyche’s weaknesses of responding to the view of others and love of addictions. The phrase ‘monkey see, monkey do’ is often thrown at children who copy others, but the truth is that people of all ages act in a very similar vein.