Paying for pain: rewriting the rules of consumerism

By Professor Gemma Calvert

The promise of convenience is a cornerstone of consumerism – taking the pain out of life. This has appeal if our lives are punctuated by inconvenience, but as life becomes increasingly streamlined, do we crave experiences that make us feel more alive?

This craving is a growing problem for affluent knowledge workers living in modern cities like Singapore. Transport is quick and convenient; the low cost of home help, as well as smartphone apps and online services, mean that grocery shopping, house cleaning, clothes washing, preparing food or even minding children can be taken care of reliably and cheaply.

However, the time saved is usually spent working rather than enjoying life. Especially in Singapore where, according to the Ministry of Manpower, Singaporeans work more hours than employees in any other nation. Short deadlines, relentless targets, constant pressure to perform and always-on connectivity ensure that stress levels never drop. It’s no surprise that companies in Singapore rated stress and lack of exercise as the biggest health problems for their employees in a 2016 survey by advisory firm Willis Towers Watson.

This life of over-convenience and high-stress has seen the rise of an unusual consumer need: the desire to feel pain.

Paying for pain

Thousands of Singaporeans are signing up for events that place them in real danger of injury. Uninterested in the illusion of danger, they seek extraordinary experiences that are guaranteed to inflict pain.

At the forefront of this pain-based consumerism is the Tough Mudder assault course challenge, where teams work together to overcome the obstacles and make it to the finish in one piece. Inspired by military training courses, the Tough Mudder uses thick mud, fire, freezing water and electrocution to deliver its pain.

This event is the subject of a revealing consumer research study exploring the role of pain in these experiences, and why consumers are willing to pay to feel pain.  The authors believe that the mental stress that knowledge workers endure creates a “saturated self”, where they become overburdened with thought and self-analysis. Participating in a painful experience, such as the Tough Mudder, is seen as an antidote, providing an escape from the day to day grind.

But the experience is unlike other dangerous escapes, such as surfing, mountaineering or deep-sea diving, where extreme pain only happens when something goes wrong. Also, these pursuits are not pre-packaged consumer events. The Tough Mudder is the embodiment of marketed, productised pain: buy a ticket, get a dose of transformative agony, post it to social media, then return to work on Monday refreshed and renewed.

The lead author of the study, Rebecca Scott of Cardiff Business School in the UK, studied the Tough Mudder race as a spectator, a volunteer and as a participant under the supervision of Asian Consumer Insight (ACI) Fellow Julien Cayla, Assistant Professor at Nanyang Business School, Singapore. In-depth pre- and post-race interviews were conducted with 26 competitors, mapping their life stories before competing in the event and documenting the role that pain plays in their memories of the event.

The study identifies three main themes for the way that pain operates within extraordinary experiences:

Personal Pain – pain felt within the body. Here pain reunites participants with their physicality, exposing their limitations and unlocking primal survival instincts.

The obstacles inflict the full range of pain, from localised and fleeting, to enduring full body aches, cuts and bruises or serious injuries. James, a Tough Mudder competitor recounts his experience of the Arctic Enema obstacle, where race entrants slide into a dumpster filled with iced water: “I can’t breathe. My legs aren’t working. My head is going to explode! My arms are too cold to drag me out. That was horrendous.”

Meaningful Pain – how pain is transformative for participants, and how a competitor’s ability to endure pain is a key marketing message for the event.

Tough Mudder founder Will Dean compares the event to a “kind of muddy baptism”. The pain, the mud, the camaraderie, and the extreme physical demands allow stressed workers to become reborn.

The Tough Mudder dramatises this pain, and leverages this in its advertising messages, using the strapline: “Find out if you’ve got the skill, strength, and sheer will to make it through a Tough Mudder alive.”

Reflective Pain – how pain is remembered and retold. Pain operates very differently during and after the event. When deep in the pain of the race, competitors seem incapable of complex thought and are temporarily freed from their own self-image.

Another competitor, Tyler, struggles to describe the pain of the Electro-Shock Therapy obstacle: “Well I just felt like a shock in my brain and I just knocked out automatically. And you can’t control that shock. You just … it just knocks you down. It feels weird but you can’t tell someone how it feels, you have to experience it.”

After the race, their wounds and stories are often used to develop their self-image and show the world what they have achieved – on social media and in everyday life. A third racegoer, Ruben, sums up the pride that those who finish the race feel when they get together with friends: “I just felt so accomplished because I knew this was something that not everyone did.”
These consumer experiences show that marketed pain does not fit within existing theories of consumerism and opens up new avenues of thinking about pain as a way for consumers to rediscover their forgotten bodies and escape from the self.

Pain-based consumerism

On a global scale, the Tough Mudder still caters for a niche audience, but as workforces around the world continue to shift from manual labour towards office work, the pain consumer segment could see significant growth.

There are other obstacle races, such as the Spartan Race and Rugged Maniac, but most are not as focused on pain as Tough Mudder. These are either individual athletic pursuits where entrants are timed and compete against others, or team-based events with more traditional obstacles. This allows consumers to choose the level of pain or competition they want to experience.

White-collar boxing has many similarities with the Tough Mudder event: the target market, raising money for charity, the training, the camaraderie and the inevitable pain – but the promise of pain does not feature in marketing material. This is likely to be because the pain and the dangers associated with boxing are well documented and it would be unacceptable for companies to promote the thrill and pain of a fight.

There are other, more extreme experiences available that could hint at the future of pain-based consumerism. There has been a recent spate of survivor-type TV shows where competitors are stranded in the wild and must escape, although many are staged for TV. History channel’s Alone is a more genuine example, where competitors regularly risk their lives through starvation, infection or attack by predators. Here they do so for a chance to win a US$500,000 prize, but would pain-seeking consumers pay for a similar experience in a controlled environment?

The Wilderness Life Survival Challenge in Lapland offers survival fanatics the chance to test their skills in simulated situations such as being lost in the forest or to build a camp and survive the night with limited equipment. As life becomes more sterile and sanitised the market for these more extreme escapes could grow.

It may be hard to envisage pain as a selling point for everyday products, but as automation proliferates and life becomes more sheltered, the desire to feel pain could lead to new pain-based services. A key component in the marketability of the Tough Mudder is that it is packaged as a race-like event. If the assault course element was removed and people were just paying to be administered pain, there may be less acceptance. Nevertheless, in the future such a service could cater for consumers who want the restorative effects of a painful experience, but have no interest in an obstacle course.

There is also an opportunity for businesses to tackle the problem of stress by providing entry to these events as employee benefits. This study shows that participating in extraordinary events has a regenerative effect that can help knowledge workers deal with their workloads and maintain a healthier work-life balance.

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Authors: Professor Gemma Calvert
Date: 28 June 2017

About the Authors

Professor Gemma Calvert is the Director for Research & Development at the Institute for Asian Consumer Insight and Professor of Marketing at the Nanyang Business School, NTU. A pioneer of neuromarketing, she helps companies to break into Asian emerging markets through deeper understanding of Asian consumers using brain and psychology-based research methods.

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