Do you feel free wearing a Halloween mask? If yes, you are not alone. This phenomenon is so common that the Germans have a name for it: Mask freedom. Mask freedom is the liberating feeling behind a mask.
The concept of a mask is profound. A mask can hide a person’s dark side because it can erase responsibility for their actions. Darth Vader comes to mind. A mask can also bring out a more expressive, authentic, and less self-conscious side of a person. Think Tony Stark, the capitalist who, while wearing the mask, transforms into the perceptive lifesaver Ironman. A mask can also protect others; In this case, think of Clark Kent as the mask for Superman.
Halloween is the only day of the year when you can openly swim without a mask. From parent to marketer to student, you can leave your everyday identities at home. Halloween allows you to wear a whole new mask with a whole new identity that you don’t own in your daily life.
No wonder American consumers are expected to spend $10.6 billion on Halloween this year.
To better understand Halloween’s unique effect on the brain and its relationship to everyday consumer behavior, you must first understand the psychology of identities.
Like Norman Bates, consumers have multiple personalities. Consumers have more than Norman’s two. Think about it in your own life. They behave very differently around family members than they do around friends and even co-workers. They’re in beast mode early in the gym, switching to work mode during nine through five, and jumping into party mode during the other nine through five on the weekends.
Social psychologists would go far enough to say that you are a slightly different person. This insight is invaluable for understanding consumer behavior. Consumers develop a unique identity with a slightly different personality, vocabulary, set of preferences and behavior depending on the context. Brands should strategize accordingly by marketing directly to the multiple identities of the consumer.
Jif will tell you, “Picky moms choose Jif.” Kix Cereal also targets moms by declaring that it is “Tested by kids, approved by moms.” directv calling, “If you consider yourself a sports fan, you must have DirecTV!“ Old Spice tells you “Smell like a man, man,” BMW never lets you forget that it’s the ultimate driving machine (and German). The list goes on and on.
The research provides further context behind the strategy of targeting multiple identities. Consumers respond positively to brands and products that share a common identity. For example, if you’re in beast mode at the gym, you’d prefer identity-bound brands like Gatorade over brands that don’t share identity, like Vita Coco Coconut Water. Vita might get you just as many electrolytes at a lower price, but it doesn’t sync with your athlete identity in the same way. Gatorade speaks directly to the beast mode athlete, while Vita does not.
There’s more psychology involved as you go from identity to costume. There is a costume to fit every role consumers take on in their everyday lives (vegan, parent, lawyer, or raver). Think about it, if you’re wearing your business suit to a meeting or your yoga pants to the studio, don’t just dress; you attract the related identity.
Uniforms or costumes are context. And contexts create psychological transformation. Peter Parker enters the bathroom and Spiderman comes out.
An intriguing study conducted at Northwestern University shows the impact of identity on behavior. The researchers randomly divided the participants into two groups: one group received a white doctor’s coat and the other group received simple street clothes. The result: The group in the doctor’s coat performed significantly better in accuracy and focus tests.
Why? Over time, the brain has unconsciously created an association between doctors and a sense of intelligence and accuracy. And by wearing the uniform, the brain assimilates those traits into actual behavior.
The same lesson also explains why people exercise better (or at least have the confidence to play better) when they wear their favorite athlete’s jerseys or signature shoes. All of these “costumes” are in a specific context – this context indicates one or more identities, along with them, their unique behaviors and personalities.
Consumers wear costumes and masks all the time as they switch between everyday identities. The only difference from Halloween is that the costume worn is not associated with any of the usual, everyday identities. Instead, it’s like an accountant dressing up as the clown from It, or the hiring manager dressing up as Harley Quinn. And that’s why Halloween costumes offer a particularly rare kind of deliverance.
Everyday identities are more predictable than you might think. So much so that simple aspects of your identity can predict buying behavior to a shocking extent. For example, researchers at the University of Chicago used machine learning to predict the age, gender, race, political affiliation, age, and socioeconomic level of research participants to a startling degree, just by analyzing their purchases.
In terms of gender, this is relatively straightforward – men generally don’t buy women’s makeup (yet), and women don’t usually buy men’s razors and aftershaves. Others are even more surprising. For example, research shows that the best indicator of whether someone is white is whether or not they buy English muffins. Similarly, watching The Big Bang Theory is also a key indicator of one’s Caucasian ancestry. In politics, owning a fishing rod is the strongest indicator of being conservative. And the brand most associated with conservative? arbys
One costume they all have in common is that of a consumer. Everyone buys things, and the purchases reveal their identities. All of this might spook you, but for now, enjoy the annual opportunity to shed identities and swim in your favorite mask. Happy mask freedom everyone!