It’s the Most Inadequate Time of the Year

New Year’s resolutions are the perfect opportunity for consumer brands to remind you of all the ways you could be better.

Three people run on treadmills.
James Leynse / Corbis via Getty

You might have recently noticed Queen Latifah, Ted Danson, and a Jonas brother in a series of TV commercials, encouraging you to take care of yourself with Cigna health insurance in 2019. They’re part of a sweeping campaign that also includes a website and sponsored Twitter trending topic, and that gives the impression Cigna has invested a lot of money in associating itself with the neuroses that haunt Americans as they look to ways to improve themselves in the new year: too much work, a bad diet, not enough adventure. The website has infographics about mental health, articles about dietary dangers, and the general vibe of self-improvement that often permeates end-of-year advertising.

Attempts like this abound to influence consumer behavior by reminding you that it’s almost next year, and you’re still the same imperfect person you’ve always been. On December 31, Target’s website featured an array of fitness products under “Wellness for the Win,” which sat directly under an assortment of New Year’s Eve party supplies. Equinox, a chain of high-end gyms, abandoned its normally sleek, neutral aesthetic for a colorful, blinking GIF advertising its New Year’s Eve membership sale.

With New Year’s resolutions, the commodification of inadequacy can be explicit in a way that might seem rude during most of the year, and the message is clear: You’ve got some work you should be doing, and these companies have some related products they’d like to show you. New year, new you, new gym membership!

New Year’s resolutions have a long history in many forms, dating back at least 4,000 years to ancient Babylon, where people celebrated the feast of Akitu and promised to repay debts and return things they’d borrowed in an attempt to please fickle deities. Versions of the practice were also common in ancient Rome and medieval Europe, and the concept was carried into modern cultures by religious traditions like Christian watchnight services and the Jewish High Holidays, which emphasize taking stock of the previous year and making amends to move forward.

As American culture has become more secular, resolutions have been mostly stripped of their religious origins, pivoting instead to focus on the self. That’s been especially true since the self-help and personal fitness booms of the 1960s and ’70s, when self-improvement practices that had previously been confined to the fringe started seeping into mainstream use. Forty-four percent of American adults intend to make resolutions for 2019, according to a poll conducted in December by NPR, PBS Newshour, and Marist.

In the United States, self-improvement often boils down to being thin and amassing wealth. In the same poll, almost a third of those intending to make resolutions singled out eating habits, exercise, or weight as the problems they hope to fix, and another 10 percent chose finance-related goals. Down the list, being kinder, becoming more spiritual, or worrying less received only faint support. Marist’s historical polling data shows that Americans have been making the most popular resolutions in roughly similar numbers for years.

Not coincidentally, these resolutions are also the centerpieces of most resolution-dependent advertising. No data exist on how American commerce influences resolution choice, so on a statistical level, it’s a bit of a chicken/egg issue: Do we choose these resolutions because that’s how resolutions are marketed to us as a concept, or are these ideas central in year-end marketing because the people creating ads have noticed that’s where people are already trending?

At the very least, it’s worth noting that the top resolutions tend to be the ones for which it’s easiest to market products or services. Gym memberships, workout clothes, and meal-delivery plans are easily targeted to someone who feels pressure to change their physical self, but it’s less clear what kind of subscription pairs with the intention to be kinder. I’m sure someone’s working on it.

At this point, American conceptions of what self-improvement might entail are so static that it probably doesn’t matter whether the resolutions or the pressure from brands came first. Many Americans feel constant anxiety about whether they might be too fat or poor, and they can suffer real-world consequences for failing to lose weight or make more money. It’s not hard to imagine why people might choose those options when prompted to explain what they don’t like about themselves, and that they might buy things meant to assuage their fears of being unable to change. So much of modern cultural messaging about those changes comes from brands. The solutions they offer are their products.

In reality, though, changing yourself is hard work even when the results are worth it, and as few as 8 percent of people will accomplish their New Year’s resolutions. In particular, research suggests that lasting weight loss is nearly impossible for most people who go on diets, and the long-term health implications of the yo-yo cycle of losing and gaining weight could damage your well-being in the long term.

Just because resolutions usually don’t work doesn’t mean everyone is doomed to their worst habits, though. Research shows consistently that habit change is possible, even if it’s not easy. To be successful, motivation for the change has to come from personal desire, which is a problem for resolution marketing as a concept. Brands may successfully get you to buy products, and those products might even be useful for habit change in some way. But if your desire to change is prompted by an arbitrary date on the calendar or the appearance of a good deal, those dollars are almost certainly wasted.

The end of one year and the beginning of the next feels for many like a natural time to take stock of well-being progress, so maybe it’s not necessary to throw out the concept of New Year’s resolutions as a whole, even if “New Year, New You” has long since reached its sell-by date. I’ve been new to a job or new to a city, but the person who showed up to those things on the first day was always just me, to my occasional disappointment. And that’s totally fine. Accepting the fundamental fact of myself has allowed me to take stock of the things I do and to change the things within my control that I dislike. None of that has involved buying something on sale.