Pictures of Happy Couples Can Kill Your Sales

Happy young joyful couple having beach fun piggybacking laughing

For Valentine’s Day, businesses often feature happy couples in their advertisements — regardless of whether it’s relevant to the product. But research shows that this practice can backfire.

In a recent study, Lisa Cavanaugh of USC found a new factor that influences the likelihood of buying: perceived deservingness.

When people are reminded of relationships they don’t have — typically of the romantic variety — they feel less deserving and are less likely to indulge. They spend less money, buy cheaper products, and don’t treat themselves to high-calorie foods.

And this doesn’t just apply to Valentine’s Day; a marketer might also trigger this during wedding season or Christmas. Or any other time they feature happy couples.


The Study

Cavanaugh used different relationship reminders, including advertisements, magazine articles, greeting cards, and other scenarios.

She then looked at buying habits among several indulgent choices, including clothing and personal care items.

One study was done a week before Valentine’s Day. People viewed greeting cards with reminders of either platonic or romantic relationships.

When reminded of romantic relationships, the single participants chose fewer high-end products than their coupled counterparts.

But when reminded of platonic relationships, the single people splurged just as much. In other words: the single people already had friendships like those depicted, so they didn’t feel any less deserving.


Key Takeaway

We like to imagine that single people console themselves by indulging — whether it’s a pint of ice cream or a new iPhone. But that simply isn’t the case, according to this research.

According to Cavanaugh:

“That misconception is what makes these findings so fascinating … It is commonly assumed that when people lack valued relationships, they will feel lonely or sad and indulge more, through shopping or eating. My theory and findings based on deservingness suggest a very different pattern of behavior: Individuals choose in ways consistent with their perceptions of deservingness.”


“Perceived deservingness carries over to affect subsequent choices across multiple product categories, everything from the foods you choose to the amount of money you’re willing to spend on clothing, accessories and even personal care products across retailers.”

So this seems to persist across all product categories. If you’re selling a romantic getaway, then by all means feature a couple in your ad.

But if these romantic reminders aren’t truly necessary, think twice. Single people who view your ads will just be reminded of the relationships they don’t have — causing them to feel bad and make them less likely to buy.



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