15 Surprising Facts About the Self Help Industry

Whether you're studying to become a social worker, nutritionist or psychologist, or if you're just stressed to the max yourself and looking for motivation from a supposed professional, you might be tempted to get sucked into the ever-booming self-help industry. And while there are lots of legitimate, caring experts who've developed sensible, effective plans for their clients, there are some surprising things about the industry you may not have realized. Here are 15 facts about the marketing strategies, profits and success of the industry.

  1. Women are the new target audience: All right, maybe this little fact isn't totally surprising. But the intensity with which the industry prowls for female consumers — and virtually ignores male consumers — is still remarkable. If you count prophets like Oprah as major promoters of the self-help industry — and you should — many American women have become insatiable when it comes to New Age spiritualism, snapping up books like Eat, Pray Love and all kinds of products designed to make them look and feel beautiful.
  2. Americans spent $11 billion on self-help in 2008: Despite — or even as a cause of — the recession, the self-help industry's profits continue to swell. Marketdata Enterprises released an $11 billion estimate for what Americans spent on self-help books, coaching and similar products and services in 2008 alone.
  3. We've renounced ownership of ourselves: Steve Salerno investigates the self-help industry in his book Sham and concludes that many followers have renounced ownership of themselves by giving in to the hype. It's as if we've given up on the idea that we can control anything about ourselves, and that all of our shortcomings can be justified, that we're all victims. Some coaches and self-help leaders prey on this perception, he argues.
  4. "Self-Help" dates back to 1859: The term self-help may have been coined in its modern form in 1859, when a Scottish social reformer published the first self-improvement book titled, "Self-Help." But the idea has been around much, much longer. Many ancient cultures in India, Greece, Rome and East Asia created better living guides and touted principles designed to improve ourselves, from the Stoics to Proverbs and beyond.
  5. Infomericals pull in the largest sales volume: The most profitable sector in the self-help industry is infomercials — yep, you're not the only one watching those fitness or wellness spots late at night.
  6. Most self-help guides ignore environmental factors: One critique of the industry is that many self-help guides ignore or minimize the effect that environmental factors may have on a person's well-being or their "shortcomings." A background of abuse or another social influence may be partly to blame for a weight problem, and can't be solved by simply loving yourself more becoming a more forgiving person in general.
  7. Materialism trumps spiritualism: All the talk about spiritualism is nice to hear on TV or to read in a self-help book, but as Joshunda Saunders and Diana Barnes-Brown pointed out to Alternet.org, materialism is often at the root of any "secrets" to a better life. "Materialism and dependency masked as empowerment, with evangelical zeal" is what people like Oprah are really promoting, they argue, as new beauty and weight management products are thrown at us buy gurus and experts.
  8. It's taking over the sports industry, too: Self-help isn't just for softies crying in their apartments, alone. It's hitting the sports industry, as parents are hiring private coaches to shock their young athletes-to-be into better players. Tim Keown writes for ESPN The Magazine, "the self-help industry is selling an idea as much as a product: Practice might not make perfect, but you've got a better chance if you have the right program, the right trainer and the right accessories."
  9. Over 13 million relationship self-help books were sold in 2007: Yes, someone is buying those ridiculously titled self-help books you laugh at to your friends. In fact, 13.5 million relationship self-help books were sold in 2007.
  10. Around 18,000 life coaches work in the U.S.: CNN reported in 2007 that the International Coach Federation (ICF) acknowledged over 12,000 members worldwide. According to the ICF's website, over 18,000 members work today.
  11. Women buy stupidly titled self-help books: As we noted above, 13.5 million self-help books were sold in 2007, even those without a catchy or cool title. Everything from Women Who Love Too Much to Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them sell awesomely well.
  12. But men rarely buy them: The same Forbes article notes that publishing houses and marketing firms don't even bother coming up with products or books that cater to men — they simply won't buy them.
  13. There is no oversight board for life coaching: A 2002 USA Today article reported that there is no real oversight board for life coaches, and no set guidelines for coaching. There still doesn't seem to be any restricting or accountability board, and coaches are not required to be certified. Coaches who do claim to be certified have most likely attended independent training schools like this one.
  14. TV is helping the industry flourish: When you watch TV, you may not realize that a bulk of primetime programming is all fueling the self-help industry. Shows like Intervention, Hoarders, The Biggest Loser, What Not to Wear, Made and others bank on pointing out what's wrong with people and then trying to help them — and hopefully convincing you that you need help, too.
  15. Life coaching may be a more profitable angle for mental health professionals: As mental health professionals aim to stay competitive — many are turning to life coaching services. It requires no extra training or certification but has the power to draw in new clients who are attracted to the "life coach" marketing angle.

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