Journal of Marketing Research Scholarly Insights are produced in partnership with the AMA Doctoral Students SIG – a shared interest network for Marketing PhD students across the world.
Social media has become an integral part of our daily lives. From Facebook to Twitter and from Instagram to TikTok, social media has revolutionized the way we communicate, share information, and connect with others around the world. Globally, more than 4.26 billion people used social media in 2021, and that figure is expected to reach almost six billion by 2027 (Dixon 2022). Enjoying free time, seeking inspiration, reading news stories, and the current trend of sharing daily consumption—especially indulgent consumption—are common motives for using social media. Even the most famous people in our society share daily consumption habits, such as basketball star LeBron James frequently using the hashtag “Taco Tuesday” on Instagram, going so far as to attempt to trademark the term (Zaveri 2019).
Whether it’s making an extravagant purchase or giving in to a guilty pleasure or tempting treat, indulgent consumption is often framed as a negative action caused by lack of self-control. People who act in such a way face criticism or even derision for their decisions. But what if we changed our viewpoint and looked at indulgent consumption differently? What if we told you that many people interpret indulgent spending positively? That it provides a sense of warmth and accessibility? A recent Journal of Marketing Research study shows just that.
The study focuses on the phenomenon of celebrities posting about indulgent consumption on social media, which has become a #hottrend on those platforms. The authors were curious whether indulgent consumption, despite its typically assumed negative signaling effect, might actually signal the opposite. Interestingly, they discovered that such consumption does indeed have a positive signaling effect because it indicates interpersonal warmth. For example, having a piece of cake may be a customer’s genuine preference, which signals truthful behavior.
Consumers believe that indulgent consumption is what people truly prefer, so when someone shares their indulgent treat or activity, it is seen as more authentic and genuine. Authenticity is the key to this positive perception. According to the research, people who post indulgent consumption content on social media are viewed as friendlier and more approachable than those who share their healthy eating and lifestyle choices. By honestly and authentically displaying their indulgent consumption preferences, influencers and brands can forge stronger connections with their audiences and project a sense of warmth and approachability.
People who post indulgent consumption content on social media are viewed as friendlier and more approachable than those who share their healthy eating and lifestyle choices. By honestly and authentically displaying their indulgent consumption preferences, influencers and brands can forge stronger connections with their audiences and project a sense of warmth and approachability.
In marketing and personal branding strategies, authenticity is crucial, and being open and truthful about one’s tastes and behaviors can promote greater engagement and interpersonal connections. Therefore, the next time you indulge in something you appreciate, don’t feel guilty or ashamed about it; instead, embrace it and authentically share it with others. Who knows…it might even aid in the development of closer bonds and impressions of kindness and approachability.
We had the chance to talk to the authors to learn more about this study. We discussed their motivations in greater detail, the implications of their results, and their experience going through the review and publication process. Join us as we explore the fascinating findings of this research and discover how you can use authenticity to your advantage in both your personal and professional life.
Q: Can your findings be applied to different cultures or is it limited to a specific region? If yes, to which cultures do you think your findings can be generalized and why? If not, which cultures do you think your findings may not apply to and why?
A: In our research, we found the effect for both Western and Eastern participants. Thus, we believe our findings can be applied to different cultures. Nevertheless, as indulgent consumption is perceived as more authentic because it involves less impression management effort, the strength of our proposed effect might be influenced by the strength of impression management tendency in a certain culture. For instance, in tight cultures, there are strong social norms people are supposed to follow, and people are motivated to strategically manage their image to avoid receiving negative evaluations. In such cultures, showcasing indulgent consumption on social media might be considered even more authentic as the poster deviates from a stronger norm.
Q: In Study 3, you found that the effect of indulgent consumption on perceived warmth was attenuated when the content was sponsored, and this casts doubt on authenticity. Could you please elaborate more on the interesting implications of this finding for marketers?
A: For influencers, promoting sponsored content could bring a lot of financial benefits. Our findings, however, suggest that influencers and companies should be more cautious when posting sponsored content on their social media accounts since it casts doubt on their authenticity and might hurt their brand image.
Q: How did you ensure that the effect of indulgent consumption on perceived warmth was not confounded by the potential stereotypes people might hold toward people who tend to engage in indulgent consumption? For instance: someone who is higher-weight, is known to enjoy a party, or appears more easy-going may be already perceived as having more warmth.
A: This is a great question. Although prior research on food consumption has suggested that indulgent food consumption may signal that the person is sociable or easy-going, we reviewed the literature and found mixed empirical evidence for such warmth-related inferences. It is worth noting that prior research examines stereotypes about indulgent food consumption in private contexts (e.g., evaluating a person based on his/her diet), where impression management motives are not very salient. Instead, our research investigates the effect of indulgent consumption in the public context (i.e., sharing on social media), where observers are more likely to make inferences about the blogger’s motives and authenticity. In addition to the context difference, most prior research on the stereotypes about indulgent consumption has focused on food and does not identify a clear underlying mechanism. By contrast, our research shows that the effect of indulgent consumption on perceived warmth generalizes to nonfood domains and provides support that the perceived authenticity of the behavior underlies this effect.
Q: Do you think sometimes people share “indulgent food consumption scenes” on social media to seem “real and authentic” or to match the celebrity trend such as “LeBron James’ ‘Taco Tuesday?’” Could this be people trying to fit in with trends that might not reflect their true self?
A: People could be following a trend to post indulgent consumption on social media. However, this could also cast doubt on authenticity since the blogger might just be conforming to the crowd instead of expressing their personal preferences. We should expect the effect to be attenuated if the audience finds out that the blogger posts indulgent consumption to follow a celebrity trend.
Q: Those who prefer to maintain their physical fitness may refrain from extravagant intake because it has negative long-term effects. While that person may convey interpersonal warmth in a certain way, the consumer is taking care of themselves by eating healthy foods. Can an image of healthy food have the same impact on warmth as an image of indulgent food?
A: We agree that healthy consumption might be perceived as authentic for certain groups of consumers. For example, vegans may have a genuine preference for healthy food and thus might also perceive healthy consumption to be an authentic behavior. In such cases, healthy food could potentially also boost warmth perception. However, indulgent consumption should be considered more authentic for most people according to our sample.
Q: What suggestions can authors give to young scholars who are working in the context of social media in a world where social media life might be incongruent to real life?
A: As what we see on social media is not always an accurate reflection of real life, consumers are becoming increasingly suspicious of content on social media. Thus, perceived authenticity plays a key role in determining the effectiveness of social media marketing. Researchers can further investigate factors that could enhance perceived authenticity to provide more insights. It is also an interesting topic to investigate how social media can have both positive and negative effects on mental health, self-esteem, and social relationships. For instance, many people tend to beautify their pictures and selectively post content that could establish their desired image on social media, which could cause more stress in people’s daily life through social comparison.
Read the Full Study for Complete Details
Read the full article:
Qing Tang, Kuangjie Zhang, and Xun (Irene) Huang (2022), “Indulgent Consumption Signals Interpersonal Warmth,” Journal of Marketing Research, 59 (6), 1179–96. doi:10.1177/00222437221097089
Dixon, S. (2023), “Number of global social network users 2017–2027,” Statista (February 13). Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/markets/424/topic/540/social-media-user-generated-content/#overview
Zaveri, M. (2019), “Lebron James tried to trademark ‘taco Tuesday,’ but got swatted away by The New York Times,” The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/style/lebron-taco-tuesday-trademark.html (accessed March 14, 2023).