Relationship as Product: Transacting in the Age of Loneliness
58 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2020 Last revised: 3 Feb 2023
Date Written: May 1, 2020
Humans have different types of relationships. Behavioral economists and social psychologists distinguish between two main types. The first type is the “exchange relationship,” based on mutual economic benefit and efficiency principles. The second is the “communal relationship,” based on caring, kindness, support, and affection.
The law has been slow to incorporate this distinction. This is particularly true in the consumer marketplace, where businesses increasingly employ communal tactics to achieve exchange outcomes. Today’s firms are in the business of selling not only products or services, but also “communal” or “social” relationships. We dub this phenomenon “relationship as product.”
Our conjecture is that the practice of selling relationship as product can generate various negative outcomes. By encouraging consumers to behave emotionally, relationship as product lowers consumers’ defenses. It encourages consumers to overlook their self-interest and invest more money, attention, and time in buying products and services and interacting with firms. At a societal level, relationship as product can damage trust and decrease well-being. It can also contribute to unhealthy perceptions and practices regarding human-to-human relationships. Furthermore, by selling relationship as product, firms may be undermining the solidarity ties that bind communities.
This Article marks a first attempt to explore the problematic aspects of relationship as product from a legal and policy perspective. Part I illustrates how firms make relationship a product through the use of “love promises” and illusions of intimacy and affection. Part II explores the forces that may account for the rise of relationship as product, particularly the deepening loneliness epidemic, which facilitates the exploitation of consumers’ trust and cognitive biases. Part III explains how relationship as product can be viewed as a defective product that harms individual consumers and society at large. Part IV recommends avenues for expanding consumer law and policy to address these challenges.
Keywords: B2C relationship, exchange relationship, communal relationship, consumer behavior, loneliness, irrationality, trust, wellbeing, emotional branding, puffery, deception, unfairness
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