Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Hurry! Offers end soon!

According to Brock (1968)’s commodity theory, if a product is thought to be scarce, its perceived value or desirability is increased. This effect has been demonstrated in various studies such as Parker and Lehmann (2011) where participants were asked to select items from a simulated store and it was found that they had a tendency to choose the items that were scarcer. This tendency can be exploited by marketing professionals by marketing items as limited availability or ‘short-time only’ (Cialdini, 2009).

When I first heard about this technique, the online clothing company PrettyLittleThing came to mind. I go on their website fairly regularly and I have noticed that every time I do, they have some kind of timer counting down at the top of the page to alert you to the fact that one of their offers is going to end soon, urging you to hurry up and buy the product.

Watching this timer tick away can create a sense of stress or anxiety in a shopper. This then reduces the cognitive resources they have available for making informed decisions about whether they should by the product (e.g. considering its quality, practicality and whether they actually need it), so they become more persuaded by peripheral cues (Petty and Cacioppo, 1986). There are many peripheral cues available on the PrettyLittleThing website such as the use of pretty colours, celebrity endorsement and attractive models, all of which can be persuasive to a stressed shopper.

However, as someone who browses the website often and realises that there is almost always an offer on, this technique of ‘limited time only’ no longer works on me. This doesn’t mean that PrettyLittleThing is no longer able to exploit my desire for scarce items though. As shown in research by Aggarwal, Jun and Huh (2013), marketing an item as limited-quantity is actually a slightly more effective method. So if they were to tell me how many of each item were left, possibly in a red font as many other clothing companies do, to create a sense of urgency, maybe I’d be more persuaded…


Aggarwal, P., Jun, S. Y., & Huh, J. H. (2011). Scarcity messages. Journal of Advertising, 40(3), 19-30.

Brock, T. C. (1968). Implications of commodity theory for value change. Psychological foundations of attitudes, 10, 243-275.

Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (Vol. 4). Boston, MA: Pearson education.

Parker, J. R., & Lehmann, D. R. (2011). When shelf-based scarcity impacts consumer preferences. Journal of Retailing, 87(2), 142-155.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T.  (1981).  Attitudes and persuasion:  Classic and contemporary approaches. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers.   

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