Forbes had an interesting article Friday entitled Time Vs. Money: Which Rules Buying Decisions?. The article is based on a recent academic paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research by Cassie Mogilner, a professor of marketing at Wharton, and Jennifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. That paper, entitled The Time vs. Money Effect: Shifting Product Attitudes and Decisions through Personal Connection [pdf], examines people’s associations with both time and money and how they relate to decisions about what products to buy. It’s a fairly common element in advertising. According to the study, “a content analysis of ads in four magazines targeting a wide range of consumers (Money, New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, and Rolling Stone) revealed that, out of 300 advertisements, nearly half of the ads (48%) integrated the concepts of time and/or money into their messages.”
Irrespective of whether feelings of personal connection stem from experiences gained using the product or from the mere possession of the product, we hypothesize that increasing one’s feelings that the product is “me” will lead to more favorable product attitudes and increased choice. Indeed, decades of research in psychology have given credence to the assumption that individuals are motivated to (and do) view themselves favorably. Consequently, people tend to have positive automatic associations with respect to themselves—which can influence their feelings about almost anything that is associated with them. For example, people like the letters that appear in their own names more than those that do not, and they are nicer to strangers who share their birthday than they are to other strangers.
One example the authors use is about beer (which is how I came to notice it). From the Forbes article:
“One thing that was surprising,” [Mogilner] says, “was to see how consumers’ attitudes and behaviors toward products and brands can be shifted by something as subtle and as pervasive as mere mentions of time or money. “The concept of time, for example, evokes a personal connection with a product in terms of the experience the consumer gains while using it, she says. To illustrate her point, [she] cites a well-known phrase in beer marketing—”It’s Miller Time.” The ads are still remembered by many consumers from the 1980s because consumers associated the beer with the routine, end-of-day transition from work to leisure.
As for the different emotions that money and social status-related campaigns can conjure, Mogilner points to advertisements for Stella Artois, a premium beer from Belgium. One of the product’s ads shows a man struggling to earn money—whether by chasing pigs, hauling sticks or herding goats—so he can buy his grandmother a pair of beautiful, expensive red shoes. But, alas, just as he’s about to present her with the gift, he spies a pint of Stella and makes a shoes-for-beer trade with the waitress. The commercial is funny, but it also captures the company’s “Perfection has its price” tagline, Mogilner says.
Both Miller and Stella are trying to sell beer. But using the concept of either time or money invites consumers to connect with a product—in this case, beer—in different ways. Of the two, the researchers found that a “Miller Time” connection typically leads to more favorable consumer attitudes and purchasing decisions because people tend to identify more closely with products they have experienced. “If you can dial up one’s thinking about time spent experiencing the product relative to thinking about the money spent to own the product, then you tend to get … beneficial effects,” Mogilner says.
But the “Perfection has its price” crowd is also important, Mogilner adds, even though there are fewer examples of consumers connecting to a product primarily because of its acquisition price. “There are cases where thinking about money can actually be a good thing for particular types of consumers, and particular types of products.”
This is not the first time the psychology surrounding time and money has been studied. Not surprisingly, it adds to the chorus that time beats money in the rochambeau of life. As the article explains, “[r]esearchers have found that because time is less fungible—or less easily replaced—than money, losing time tends to be a more painful event for people, particularly when they think about how they are not able to make up for it. Another difference is that people feel less accountable for how they spend their time because it can be more difficult to measure than monetary outlays. These two characteristics—fungibility and ambiguity—are important differentiators in how consumers think about time and money.”
From prior research, they posit that it “seems highly likely that people will also like products more that are more closely connected to the self than products that are not. Evidence from consumer research offers support for this prediction, showing that consumers report more favorable attitudes toward products that reflect their personal identities.” But then they take their hypothesis in a different direction for conventional wisdom, arguing ” that when these feelings of personal connection stem from experiences gained using the product, activating time (vs. money) should lead to more favorable product attitudes and decisions. In contrast, when feelings of personal connection stem more from product possession,” this does not occur, or least not as strongly.
To me, that’s the important revelation in this new study; that a third consideration is equally important: “the extent to which each concept is linked to consumers’ personal experiences, identity and emotions.” To advertisers, they specifically “propose that activating the construct of time while consumers evaluate a product will lead them to focus on their experiences using the product, which generally will heighten their personal connection to that product—their feeling that the product reflects the self.” So between time and money, the clear winner according to the results of their work is time. “By simply directing people’s attention to time, rather than money, you can actually make people make happier decisions.” But the true insight, I think, is linking that to the experience.
Many of us who write about beer, myself included, have waxed philosophically, even poetically, about how drinking beer is a community affair, that it’s best as a shared experience. Indeed, countless ads for beer are set in social situations and in fact I can’t think of one that features solitary drinking — not counting George Thorogood. Although I often drink alone for professional reasons, in most instances it’s considered a societal taboo, carrying very negative associations. While I don’t think it’s necessarily indicative of “problem” drinking or anything so sinister, it’s certainly not desirable.
So while I think their study is applicable universally, it seems more relatable to beer than many other products, because I think drinking beer is such an experiential beverage. I imagine I’m not alone in having all my best drinking memories ones with friends. It’s probably not a stretch to say that’s universal, too. So the idea that time and the emotional experience of spending it with friends seems almost obvious, but it’s still interesting that it’s borne out by this, and other, studies. For me personally, it may not be Miller Time, but it is “beer time.” Who wants to join me?
If you have the time (yes, pun intended) and inclination, the five studies they conducted (and the whole paper) is worth reading. It’s a little dry and steeped in academic jargon, but interesting nonetheless. (It’s also only 15 pages, and three of those are references.)