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An odd collision of cultures and marketing: A "green" Santa greets childen at a promotional event for an eco-freindly line of home appliances in Japan -- where Christmas, while not a traditional holiday, has become a shopping and gift-giving event.

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Kai Ryssdal: Consumer spending has mushroomed in the past few decades. You've got to wonder why -- are marketers behind it, craftily engineering false needs? And really, what's the difference between wants and needs, anyway?

To help us unscramble the chicken from the egg, I spoke to consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow to join us. She's a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University. And I asked her what came first: desire, or marketing?

Kit Yarrow: Well, I think they're pretty evenly matched. You know, no marketer or retailer is successful in the long term if they're not satisfying real consumer needs. But at the same time, people really aren't buying clothing, for example, to stay dry when it rains. They're buying clothing to express who they are to others, feel more confident in outfits. So these needs, actually, are really closer to emotional needs or a need to connect to other people, or show people who we are.

Ryssdal: All right. But why, though, are we now using products to communicate so much?

Yarrow: You know, a couple of things: One, I think because people move so much. They don't live in the same community like they did 50 years ago. And because we're so much more global. I think the idea that people need to figure out very quickly who we are in our community and who other people are, that's part of it. And then, secondly, all of the technology at our disposal allows us, I think, to process information really quickly. And we've become really well-trained and really proficient at making use of tidbits of information, and allowing them to represent something bigger.

Ryssdal: But it does sound, just to be objective about this for a minute -- it sounds a bit superficial. It sounds almost as if you're saying we're defining ourselves by the stuff we own.

Yarrow: We are becoming a more and more superficial society. And I'm not saying that just in a negative way. You know, I think people always have had the need to connect to each other and to show people who they are and to be understood by other people. It's just that today, in our fast-paced, disconnected society, we do that through the products that we have in very quick visual ways. And what marketers have to do is to truly understand their consumers' deeper, more emotional needs -- and you can be sure they're researching that.

Ryssdal: Well, so make me hip, as it were, and tell me what the marketers are doing.

Yarrow: (Laughs) Well, you are definitely already hip, but I'll throw you a few of the things that retailers and marketers are doing, You know, one thing is to try to limit the amount of supply out there -- the perception of the amount of supply -- or to limit the amount of time somebody has to make a decision. And when consumers are in that situation, there's a little bit of fear of losing out, and consumers get a little wiggy. And you know, the use of celebrities and the association with movements -- that's another hugely emotionally appealing and oftentimes irrational aspect of purchasing.

Ryssdal: Do they work? And I'm thinking now specifically of the "green" movement as what might be the archetypical marketing ploy, right? I mean, if you want to save the planet, be green.

Yarrow: They definitely work. Consumers have a great, great need to feel like there's purpose in life, that they're connected to things that are larger than them, and so when marketers and retailers make a connection with a charity or make a connection with a movement, they give consumers two things. One, they give them a bigger sense of purpose that feels great and inspires them to buy. And two, it allows people to rationalize a purchase that they might not make were it completely rational.

Ryssdal: Kit Yarrow is a professor of psychology at marketing -- which is perfect for us -- at Golden Gate University up in San Francisco. Kit, thanks so much for your time.

Yarrow: Well, thank you so much for having me.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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