5 Ways Companies Have Tried to Engineer Happiness

iStock / iStock

In the words of Mad Men’s Don Draper, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness.” Not much has changed since the 1960s advertising landscape that was dramatized in that television show. Advertisers are still in the business of manufacturing “happiness," though the lengths to which they'll go to achieve that end have evolved.

Here are five examples where companies have tried to engineer happiness.


British Airways designed a way to see when passengers were happiest and when they were most stressed during a flight. That invention is the Happiness Blanket, which works by connecting a headband that measures neurons to a blanket woven with fiber-optic lights. If the blanket goes red, the wearer is stressed; if it goes blue, they are relaxed. Seven passengers were given the chance to test out the blanket during a flight, letting flight attendants know when they were truly satisfied with their service.


This infamous study of how statuses affect a user's mood is a pretty cut-and-dry example of trying to manufacture emotions. In 2014, the company revealed that, for a week in January 2012, it controlled the number of positive and negative posts in the news feeds of over 600,000 users to see what effect the changes had on their own posts. The researchers found that those who saw more positive posts wrote more positive things themselves, and those who saw more negative posts responded by being more negative.

After facing criticism, Adam D.I. Kramer, the Facebook researcher who led the study, posted an apology and explanation to his Facebook page. “We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out," he wrote. "At the same time, we were concerned that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook.”


Coca-Cola regularly capitalizes on the concept of happiness for its campaigns, linking togetherness and private moments of joy to that very fizzy drink. One example of their attempt to engineer happiness was introduced in a 2014 commercial called “Hello Happiness.” Migrant workers in Dubai are paid $6 per day for their work, while a phone call home costs them just under $1 per minute. Coca-Cola put up special phone booths near their workplaces wherein a bottle cap could be used to make a three-minute phone call (a bottle of coke costs them about 50 cents). The commercial ends with the line: “Because happiness is a Coca-Cola, and a phone call home.” The phone booths were dismantled after a month.

The campaign was far from being controversy-proof. As Vauhini Vara wrote in The New Yorker, "The question is whether Coca-Cola is shedding light on a little-known human-rights crisis and, in its own small way, helping to alleviate the troubles of the victims of that crisis, or whether it is adding to the exploitation of migrant workers in the Middle East and Asia."


Another example of Coca-Cola’s attempts to bottle happiness is its “#MakeItHappy” campaign, introduced during 2015's Super Bowl. The company’s Twitter account would take mean tweets users sent its way (with the #MakeItHappy hashtag) and turn them into Twitter art. The soft drink giant wanted to transform the Internet's negativity into something beautiful, though they got far more than they bargained for. Gawker demonstrated just one of the many ways pranksters could take advantage of this hashtag when they got Coca-Cola's Twitter account to tweet out quotes from Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

The campaign was soon suspended. In an email to AdWeek, a Coca-Cola spokesperson wrote: "The #MakeItHappy message is simple: The Internet is what we make it, and we hoped to inspire people to make it a more positive place. It's unfortunate that Gawker is trying to turn this campaign into something that it isn't. Building a bot that attempts to spread hate through #MakeItHappy is a perfect example of the pervasive online negativity Coca-Cola wanted to address with this campaign."


The fast food company's 2015 “Paid with Lovin’” campaign was an attempt to encourage nice gestures (and, thus, happiness). One hundred customers were selected at random over a two-week period to do nice things (saying “I love you” to those around them, dancing, etc.) in exchange for a meal.

Not everyone was on board. Kate Bachelder, an editor at The Wall Street Journal, was one of the customers chosen to "pay with lovin'," and she wasn't thrilled about it. In an editorial headlined "I'm Not Lovin' It," she wrote about the experience:

"Suddenly the [cashier] began clapping and cheering, and the restaurant crew quickly gathered around her and joined in. This can’t be good, I thought, half expecting someone to put a birthday sombrero on my head. The cashier announced with glee, 'You get to pay with lovin’!' Confused, I again started to try to pay. But no... "...My fellow customers seemed to look on with pity as I drew my fate: 'Ask someone to dance.' I stood there for a mortified second or two, and then the cashier mercifully suggested that we all dance together. Not wanting to be a spoilsport, I forced a smile and 'raised the roof' a couple of times, as employees tried to lure cringing customers into forming some kind of conga line, asking them when they’d last been asked to dance. "The public embarrassment ended soon enough, and I slunk away with my free breakfast, thinking: Now there’s an idea that never should have left the conference room."