Relationship as Product

Transacting in the Age of Loneliness

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 care, 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.”

We conjecture that selling relationship as product generates 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 II illustrates how firms make relationship a product through the use of “love promises” and illusions of intimacy and affection. Part III 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 IV explains how relationship as product can be viewed as a defective product that harms individual consumers and society at large. Part V recommends avenues for expanding consumer law and policy to address these challenges.

a. Professor of Law, Victoria University of Wellington. LL.M, J.S.D., Yale Law School.

b. Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School.
We thank Mark Bartholomew, Omri Ben-Shahar, Chris Bradley, Matt Bruckner, Mark Budnitz, Yuval Feldman, Luke Herrine, Dave Hoffman, Ethan Leib, Daniel Markovits, John Newman, Przemysław Pałka, Jeannie Paterson, Dee Pridgen, Roy Shapira, Roseanna Sommers, Ahmed Taha, Rory Van Loo, Lauren Willis, and participants at the Consumer Law Scholars Conference (Berkeley Law School, 2021) for valuable comments and discussions, Carly Rothman Siditsky, Mike Pugliese, and Inez Asante for useful anecdotes and illustrations, and Carly Rothman Siditsky and William Britton for their invaluable research assistance. We also acknowledge the kind financial support of Rutgers Law School and Wellington School of Business and Government.

The full text of this Article is available to download as a PDF.