Advertising as a Major Source of Human Dissatisfaction: Cross-National Evidence on One Million Europeans



Advertising is ubiquitous in modern life. Yet might it be harmful to the happiness of nations? This paper blends longitudinal data on advertising with large-scale surveys on citizens’ well-being. The analysis uses information on approximately 1 million randomly sampled European citizens across 27 nations over 3 decades. We show that increases in national advertising expenditure are followed by significant declines in levels of life satisfaction. This finding is robust to adjustments for a range of potential confounders -- including the personal and economic characteristics of individuals, country fixed-effects, year dummies, and business-cycle influences. Further research remains desirable. Nevertheless, our empirical results are some of the first to be consistent with the hypothesis that, perhaps by fostering unending desires, high levels of advertising may depress societal well-being.



Sovinsky acknowledges support from European Research Council Grant #725081 FORENSICS and from the Collaborative Research Center Transregion 224 grant. Oswald acknowledges support from the CAGE center at the University of Warwick. Information on how to obtain the Eurobarometer data is available on the European Commission website


  1. Andreyeva, T., Kelly, I. R., & Harris, J. L. (2011). Exposure to food advertising on television: associations with children’s fast food and soft drink consumption and obesity. Economics & Human Biology, 9(3), 221–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bagwell, K. (2001). The economics of advertising. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.Google Scholar
  3. Bagwell, L. S., & Bernheim, B. D. (1996). Veblen effects in a theory of conspicuous consumption. The American Economic Review, 86, 349–373.Google Scholar
  4. Bain, J. S. (1956). Barriers to new competition (Vol. 3, p. 55). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Borzekowski, D. L., & Robinson, T. N. (2001). The 30-second effect: an experiment revealing the impact of television commercials on food preferences of preschoolers. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 101(1), 42–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Buijzen, M., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2003a). The unintended effects of television advertising: A parent-child survey. Communication Research, 30(5), 483–503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Buijzen, M., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2003b). The effects of television advertising on materialism, parent–child conflict, and unhappiness: A review of research. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 437–456.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Burroughs, J. E., & Rindfleisch, A. (2002). Materialism and well-being: A conflicting values perspective. Journal of Consumer Research, 29(3), 348–370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Clark, A. E. (2018). Four decades of the economics of happiness: Where next? Review of Income and Wealth, 64(2), 245–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cowling, K., & Poolsombat, R. (2007). Adverising and labour supply: Why do Americans work such long hours? Coventry: Department of Economics, University of Warwick.Google Scholar
  11. Di Tella, R., MacCulloch, R. J., & Oswald, A. J. (2001). Preferences over inflation and unemployment: Evidence from surveys of happiness. American Economic Review, 91(1), 335–341.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dittmar, H., Bond, R., Hurst, M., & Kasser, T. (2014). The relationship between materialism and personal well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 107(5), 879.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Easterlin, R. A. (1974). Does economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence. In Nations and households in economic growth (pp. 89–125). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  14. Easterlin, R. A. (2003). Explaining happiness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(19), 11176–11183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Easterlin, R. A., & Crimmins, E. M. (1991). Private materialism, personal self-fulfillment, family life, and public interest THE nature, effects, and causes of recent changes in the values of American youth. Public Opinion Quarterly, 55(4), 499–533.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Frey, B. S., Benesch, C., & Stutzer, A. (2007). Does watching TV make us happy? Journal of Economic Psychology, 28(3), 283–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Harris, J. L., Bargh, J. A., & Brownell, K. D. (2009). Priming effects of television food advertising on eating behavior. Health Psychology, 28(4), 404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Layard, R. (1980). Human satisfactions and public policy. The Economic Journal, 90(360), 737–750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Layard, R. (2011). Happiness: Lessons from a new science. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  20. Mujcic, R., & Oswald, A. J. (2018). Is envy harmful to a society’s psychological health and wellbeing? A longitudinal study of 18,000 adults. Social Science & Medicine, 198, 103–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Opree, S. J., Buijzen, M., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2012). Lower life satisfaction related to materialism in children frequently exposed to advertising. Pediatrics, peds-2011.Google Scholar
  22. Opree, S. J., Buijzen, M., & van Reijmersdal, E. A. (2016). The impact of advertising on children’s psychological wellbeing and life satisfaction. European Journal of Marketing, 50(11), 1975–1992.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Oswald, A. J. (1997). Happiness and economic performance. The Economic Journal, 107(445), 1815–1831.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Radcliff, B. (2013). The political economy of human happiness: How voters’ choices determine the quality of life. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Richins, M. L. (1995). Social comparison, advertising, and consumer discontent. American Behavioral Scientist, 38(4), 593–607.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Robinson, J. (1933). Economics of imperfect competition. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  27. Sirgy, M. J., Lee, D. J., Kosenko, R., Lee Meadow, H., Rahtz, D., Cicic, M., et al. (1998). Does television viewership play a role in the perception of quality of life? Journal of Advertising, 27(1), 125–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Sirgy, M. J., Gurel-Atay, E., Webb, D., Cicic, M., Husic, M., Ekici, A., et al. (2012). Linking advertising, materialism, and life satisfaction. Social Indicators Research, 107(1), 79–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Snyder, M., & DeBono, K. G. (1985). Appeals to image and claims about quality: Understanding the psychology of advertising. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 49(3), 586.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Speck, S. K. S., & Roy, A. (2008). The interrelationships between television viewing, values and perceived well-being: A global perspective. Journal of International Business Studies, 39(7), 1197–1219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Speers, S. E., Harris, J. L., & Schwartz, M. B. (2011). Child and adolescent exposure to food and beverage brand appearances during prime-time television programming. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 41(3), 291–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Tella, R. D., MacCulloch, R. J., & Oswald, A. J. (2003). The macroeconomics of happiness. Review of Economics and Statistics, 85(4), 809–827.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Veblen, T. (1899). The theory of the leisure class. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  34. Veblen, T. (1904). The theory of business enterprise. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.University of MannheimMannheimGermany
  3. 3.Centre for Economic Policy ResearchLondonUK
  4. 4.University of BristolBristolUK
  5. 5.IZA Institute for the Study of LaborBonnGermany
  6. 6.University of WarwickWarwickUK
  7. 7.IZA Institute for the Study of LaborBonnGermany

Personalised recommendations