What the ads don’t tell you about holiday gifts

Gift buying season is in full swing. If you pay careful attention to ads and TV commercials, you’ll notice how little focus is on the product itself. Instead you are drawn to images of people and their warm interactions with one another–all designed to appeal to your emotions.

Whether the advertiser is selling fruitcake or diamonds, the message is the same: The recipient of your gift will be delighted, and you will be the hero of the moment. On TV and online, background music is engineered to deepen your emotional involvement in the ad, further increasing your desire to buy the advertised product.

The images in the ads imply that purchasing the product will make you a better parent, a more thoughtful spouse, or a more special friend–and who doesn’t want that? It’s a very strong emotional message that appeals to one’s insecurities. People fall for this ploy every day, buying things for others in order to feel better about themselves.


Holiday gifts are overrated

One thing that advertisers don’t want you to know is that the impact of receiving material gifts is highly overrated. The happiness doesn’t last, and neither does disappointment. In fact, after a few weeks or a few months (with occasional exceptions) most people don’t even remember what they got.

Your kids will not love you less if you don’t buy them what they had hoped for. Yes, they might be disappointed, but they won’t hold a grudge for long. In my 35 years of psychological practice I have heard thousands of complaints from people about their parents. Never has anyone complained about being disappointed over the gifts they did or did not receive as a child.

As for other recipients, such as a friend or significant other, amazing them with an expensive gift may be more important to you than to them. They might be just as satisfied with a more modest present that lets them know they matter to you.

When shopping for gifts this year, ignore the ads and commercials. Think about the people you’re buying for and what they might enjoy or appreciate, not what might impress them.

For example, one summer, while visiting my mother-in-law, I noticed a magnetic knife holder mounted on the wall above her kitchen counter. I’d never seen such a gadget before, and commented that it was a handy way to store knives. The following Christmas she sent me a magnetic knife holder similar to hers–not an expensive gift, but one that I appreciated and remembered, because it reflected her thoughtful kindness.


“Gifts” to give all year round

Holiday gifts are nice to give and receive. But what really counts in the long run is the accumulation of moments all year round that communicate how much you value the people in your life.

The following “gifts” cost nothing. But they will be treasured:

  • Show your appreciation with a thank you, a smile or a hug (or all three).  It takes just a moment, but it can make a person’s day.
  • Practice a random act of kindness every day. Hold a door open for someone. Let someone in front of you in line. Smile and greet people you pass at work.  These acts take only a few seconds, yet they create a mood that can last for hours.
  • Call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, just to catch up on how they are. You’ve probably been meaning to do this for a long time. Now is a good time.
  • If you have children, give one child at a time your full attention for an afternoon: Go for a walk; go to the library; or just sit and read or draw together. The activity itself isn’t as important as sharing time together.
  • Write a note of appreciation to someone. Don’t be surprised if that person keeps the note for years to come.

Image by Taliesin via

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