From dining to shopping to scrolling social media, consumers around the world are engaging in a wide array of addictive activities, and often to excess. These are “binge behaviors” and they apply to a lot more than just Netflix.

In an always-on digital world, where so many activities are at our fingertips, these over-indulging behaviors are taking on growing importance when it comes to understanding people’s habits and motivations. From a marketing perspective, knowing your audience requires knowing how they consume—including whether your products and services are being “binged.”

But what about the ethics of marketing to these over-indulgers? Should brands be catering to—and even encouraging—excessive consumption of their wares? Well, that all depends on why your consumers are doing what they’re doing—and where your brand fits within that bigger picture.

At Anagram, we believe knowing consumers is about more than knowing who they are and what they buy. It’s about knowing how and why they do and buy the things they do. That’s why we decided to explore how Americans indulge across a wide array of activities and—most importantly—why they do it.

What is Binge Behavior?

Binge behavior, regardless of the activity, is identified as a period of excessive indulgence. In our research on topics such as dining out, social media, shopping, and tv watching, we asked survey respondents to identify which of these activities, within the past 12 months, they had personally engaged to an extent that they would consider excessive for a short period of time.

According to our study, consumers associate don’t necessarily see binging as negative behavior (as the word suggests) but have both positive and negative outcomes. Yes, it can allow for relaxation and distraction. But in other instances, it can be associated with dangerous excess and addiction. This dichotomy makes binging a particularly fascinating yet difficult behavior for brands to understand in the context of their consumers.

Is Binge Behavior harmful?

The concept of binge behavior tends to carry a negative connotation due to its association with excess, especially with some unhealthy habits. However, as noted above, it’s not all bad. Many consumers consider their indulging to yield positive outcomes. In fact, with some activities, 4 out of 10 of our interviewees believe binging can have a positive impact on their life and well-being, and the majority reported that binging helps them relax and decrease anxiety, without the behavior affecting other aspects of their life. At the same time, though, more than half reported that they “occasionally overindulge” when binging.

In other words, there’s no painting with broad strokes when it comes to deeming overindulgent behavior to be positive or negative. From a marketer’s perspective, it comes down to the individual behavior and the lens through which consumers view it—and that’s where our study goes deeper. 

What Are the Main Binging Activities Among People?

For our research, we talked to more than 1,000 self-identified “bingers” to discover not just what, why and how they binge, but also what effect they believe these behaviors have on their lives and well-being. Here are the top five binge behaviors reported by our respondents:

Watching and Streaming TV Shows: An impressive 68 percent of respondents identified this top binge tendency within their habits. In fact, binge watching and streaming TV is a fairly universal behavior across gender, age and socioeconomic groups. Overall, watching and streaming TV shows is done mainly for entertainment purposes (59 percent) and to relieve anxiety (44 percent). About a quarter (28 percent) of interviewees say binge-viewing has a negative impact on their health and well-being, while another 28 percent believe it has a positive impact. Likewise, 23 percent say they would be willing to decrease or stop this binging behavior in the next year, while 16 percent plan to slightly or significantly increase the behavior.

Spending Time on Social Media: Half of the survey respondents say they’ve spent excessive time on social media within the past 12 months, with women (55 percent) being more likely than men (42 percent) to report this behavior. Social media binging is reported at the highest levels by those aged 18-29, though the behavior does not vary greatly by socioeconomic level. Typically, spending time on social media is mainly done for entertainment purposes (56 percent) and to fill in the time (40 percent). In addition, more than a third (37 percent) of social media bingers say they do it to relieve boredom, 31 percent say they do it to relieve stress and anxiety, and just a quarter (27 percent) say it’s a reason to socialize with others. Notably, 44 percent of social media bingers say that the activity has a negative impact on their lives, versus just 22 percent who report a positive impact. That said, only 2 out of 10 social media bingers say it’s likely that they’ll stop or significantly decrease their social media binging in the next 12 months.

Shopping: 43 percent of respondents consider shopping to be one of their binge behaviors, with women (45 percent) reporting at slightly higher levels than men (40 percent). Consumers aged 30-40 report the highest prevalence of this behavior at 54 percent, while (unsurprisingly) consumers at the highest socioeconomic level tend to do it the most. Binge shopping is done mainly to lift the spirit and relieve anxiety. At the same time, 27 percent of interviewees say binge shopping has a negative impact on their lives, and 30 percent are willing to stop or decrease this behavior in the coming year.

Eating Out: More than a third (38 percent) of respondents say they are prone to binge dining, with the 18-29 crowd reported the highest level at 45 percent. Motivations tend to be emotional, with 38 percent of interviewees reporting a desire to lift their spirits as their main motivation. When it comes to the impact that binge dining has on their lives, the respondents are split: 34 percent consider it to have a negative impact on their lives, while 29 percent see an overall positive effect. About a third of respondents are considering decreasing or stopping this binging behavior within the next 12 months.

Exercising or Working Out: 37 percent of respondents consider exercising or working out to be one of their binge behaviors, with men (45 percent) reporting significantly higher levels than women (31 percent). Consumers aged 30-40 report the highest prevalence of this behavior at 44 percent, while the prevalence of this activity increased along with socioeconomic levels. Binge exercising is done mainly to lift the spirit and relieve anxiety, and an impressive 77 percent of respondents agree that it has a positive impact on their lives.

Should Marketers Support Binge Behavior?

From a strictly financial perspective, consumers who are prone to binging a certain product or service would seem to represent a brand’s best potential customers. However, from an ethical standpoint, marketers must consider the impact that these binges have on consumers when deciding whether targeting bingers or encouraging binge behavior is an appropriate approach to take within a brand’s marketing plan.

For certain behaviors, like exercising, binging is widely seen as having an overall positive effect on consumers’ lives and, thus, makes sense to encourage. But what about less universally embraced binge behaviors like spending time on social media or dining out? In instances where a consumer is hoping to reduce a behavior for the sake of their own well-being, is it ethical for marketers to continue to encourage greater consumption?

These are the true conundrums of consumer-centric marketing. At Anagram, we believe brands today have a responsibility to look out for the health and well-being of their customers, which is why it’s so vital to have access to rich insights into how, when, and why people are using a given product or service—as well as the impact that has on a person’s life.

These aren’t simple questions. But with the right data and insights, we believe marketers can make informed, ethical decisions about how they market their products in the era of binge behavior.

Want to dig deeper? Anagram can help. Let’s talk!