Marketing in the age of addictions

Harish Bhat | Updated on November 01, 2018

Binge-watching movies, obsessive dieting and other extreme behaviours are creating both an opportunity and responsibility for marketers

Here are recent news reports from four different parts of the world:

In Bengaluru, a man was admitted to hospital for de-addiction from Netflix. This is India’s first reported medical case of Netflix addiction. The man had been watching it for over seven hours each day.

In China, the Government has announced steps to curb children’s addiction to video games, which have reportedly been leading to visual impairment issues. Tencent, a leading Chinese internet company, was ordered to pull out its hit game “Monster Hunter World” from sale.

In the UK, the British Medical Journal has encouraged healthcare professionals to recognise and understand the risks of exercise addiction. Over-exercising can lead to disorders such as insomnia, decreased appetite, and calcium under-nutrition.

In the US, two significant shareholders of the world’s wealthiest company, Apple, have demanded that the company enhance its focus on the possible harmful effects of mobile phone addiction.

In all these cases, the common word is addiction. It appears that we live in an age of extreme addictions in so many diverse areas of life — an increasing number of people are addicted to mobile phones, video games, streaming services, exercising, social media, opioids (painkillers), sugar and fat.

What has suddenly triggered this addiction crisis? Since ancient times, human beings have always had their share of addictions, for example, gambling or alcohol. However, the current crisis is of a much larger magnitude, because technology and affluence have combined to create easy access to a wide range of addictions, each of which promises similar instant gratification.

For instance, modern digital technology provides instant access to virtually infinite amounts of great content on Netflix or Amazon Prime, which you can watch pleasurably for hours together, whereas in earlier days you would have had to wait a few days to see the next instalment of your favourite serial on television. Affluence ensures that a large number of people can subscribe to these streaming services without a second thought. Similarly, video games are now available at your fingertips, you no longer have to visit a video games parlour to play your heart out. Of social media, the less said, the better. So many of us obsessively check Facebook or Twitter several times each hour.

Problems and solutions

In addition, and quite unfortunately, addiction has also become an aspirational lifestyle. It is considered cool to binge-watch Netflix, or go on an obsessive protein diet, or become a ninja expert at the new video game in town. In fact, many people love to boast about these addictions and display them as status symbols, thus giving rise to a vicious cycle from which there is no easy escape.

As with all addictions, there comes a time when the addict tries to rid himself of the problem. Alternatively, society tries to cure its addicts in the larger interests of families and community.

That moment of reckoning of the modern age has also now come upon us. Many people today want to unshackle themselves from being slaves to their mobile phones, or from being constantly distracted by their addiction to social media. Food addicts want to control themselves, and return to a normal healthier diet. The US society wants to find a solution to the opioid crisis, and China wants to eliminate addiction to video games. This need opens up a plethora of opportunities for marketers to create “de-addiction” products and services. Many such products have already begun making their appearance. Here are a few interesting examples.

Apps to limit screen time

In the time-honoured tradition of using thieves to catch thieves, digital addiction is being fought with digital apps. Apps bearing apt names such as Freedom, In Moment, Space and Off-the-Grid help you set limits on the amount of time spent on your smartphone or on social media. These apps, to which you can subscribe, help you set goals on screen usage, lock the phone when you reach the pre-set limit, and even have options that compel you to walk to earn screen time.

A car with a signal shield

Nissan, the Japanese car company, has launched an interesting concept called the Nissan signal shield. This is a compartment in the car which blocks all cellular, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals. It is built into the armrest of Nissan’s vehicle, and when a mobile phone is placed in this compartment and the lid is closed, a “silent zone” is created immediately. The addiction to using your smartphone while driving is thus dealt with in one smart stroke.


Fitness trainers help exercise addicts to design an appropriate training regimen, and differentiate between optimal versus excessive workouts.

Some of these professionals also help provide guidance on staying away from obsessive behaviour such as constant comparisons with others’ body shapes, thus taking away a key trigger for exercise addiction. Gymnasiums and health clubs could consider offering these services profitably, both online and offline.

Healthier foods

Nestle has reformulated many of its brands to help people beat their addictions to eating too much unhealthy sugar or fat.

For instance, it has reduced the size of its KitKat bars to bring down the fat and calories in each portion. And it has reformulated Nesquik powder with less sugar and more cocoa, while retaining overall flavour and texture.

I suspect this is just the start of a huge de-addiction wave which will soon be upon us. Marketers should sit up and take note of this opportunity. This is, of course, also the right thing to do.

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views.

Published on November 01, 2018

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