Shop 'Til The Music Stops

In 1697, in the play The Mourning Bride, British poet William Congreve wrote, “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast. To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” As it turns out, music also has the power to make us buy more stuff.

Alert readers will recall that we have recently discussed musicboarding (when airlines use Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Music to torture you as you board a plane) and phoneboarding (when the “on hold” music robs you of the will to live). Today we discover something we may as well call shoppingboarding. As you might guess, this involves the fine art of separating you from your hard-earned cash, and using music to do it.

The numbers don't lie: Researchers examined three supermarkets in Sweden over a three-week period, tracking more than 150,000 customers. The stores either played pop music, elevator music, or no music. When either type of music was playing, sales went up. For example, in one store, customers spent over $23 per visit with music compared to about $15 without music.

But here's the part that is most curious: that price delta was on weekdays, Monday through Thursday. On weekends, the spending delta with or without music was insignificant. Why would music motivate us on weekdays, but not weekends? The theory is that customers are stressed and depleted on weekdays and are more easily manipulated; in particular, we feel the need to relax and music successfully promotes that; we linger in the store longer, and thus buy more things. On weekends, when we are presumably more rested, it's harder for the manipulation to take hold because we don't need soothing. You can read the findings here.

And now my commentary: With all due respects to the other arts, I think music is the most spiritual, the most potentially profound of them all. Music can deliver a message straight to our souls, more efficiently, I think, than the written word, visual arts, or even the combined arts of film. Fortunately for us, that message is usually benign and entertaining. But the message can also be decidedly malignant and music can be cleverly engineered to mask it, deliver it, and plant it. The idea that music can be targeted at me for purely Machiavellian purposes, the idea that music can be weaponized while I am shopping, is deeply depressing.

When I get home and look through my purchases, I hold up an item and ask, “Why did I buy this?” Is it because the store was playing one of my favorite songs and that made me feel happy? Was I just a victim of subtle mind control using music as the means of control?

If someone has written their doctoral dissertation on the use of music as propaganda, please send me a link. I'll read it when I want to feel really depressed. Probably right after I come home from shopping.

Today's shopping tip: Are your grocery bills too high? If your store is playing music, consider shopping on weekends. Or use earplugs.

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