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.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"World’s Most Wanted Pen”...Parker "51"

“The World’s Most Wanted Pen” was the advertising slogan for Parker “51”, the bestselling (20-50 million sold) and most successful fountain pen in history. Parker “51” was introduced in 1941, with an iconic cigar-shaped design and futuristic-looking hooded nib that wrote smoothly. There were also built to be highly reliable and durable. In fact, I still write regularly with a 60-year-old Parker “51”.

The secret of Parker “51”s success was the persuasive technique they used in their advertising campaign: Psychological reactance to scarcity. Whenever a free choice is restricted, such as when the perceived availability of a product is scarce, an emotional state called psychological reactance is ignited, and this need to restore our freedom makes us want the free choice more than before (Brehm, 1966).

Parker “51” was introduced during the Second World War, when the quantity being produced was very scarce due to war assignments (military rockets were made instead of fountain pens in the Parker factory). However, Parker used the situation wisely to their advantage, by running an extensive advertising campaign that was focused on Parker “51”s scarcity. Parker constantly advertised their lack of “51’s” to sell, with the advertisement shown above being an example. This advertisement stated that production of Parker 51 has been curtailed by government order, and the Parker "51's" produced must be rationed to dealers: "So many need the Parker "51"...some may have to wait." There was even a plea to the public to buy “fewer” Parker “51's"! The perceived unavailability of the Parker “51” led to psychological reactance amongst the public and made this pen highly desirable, even though few had actually seen one during the wartime.

My 60-year-old Parker "51"

Evidence for the psychological reactance to scarcity comes from West (1975), who examined the effects of the elimination of a free behaviour. In the study, college students were first asked to rate the quality of their cafeteria food using the 6-point Likert-type scale, with 1 representing “dislike very much” and 6 representing “like very much”. 9 days later, they gave ratings again after randomly receiving 1 of the 3 communications: the elimination condition where they were told they cannot eat at the cafeteria for the next two weeks due to a fire, and two other control conditions.

As shown in Table 1, college students re-evaluated the food positively by giving better rating scores only in the elimination condition. West (1975) argued that elimination of the free behaviour (students’ freedom in eating at their college cafeteria) caused psychological reactance towards the eliminated behaviour, which led to the eliminated behaviour being rated as more attractive than before.

Parker “51” was a magnificent pen to start with, but what made it so successful and popular was most likely due to the use of psychological reactance to scarcity in its advertising campaign during WW2, which led to a huge post-war demand that took many years to fulfil.


Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York.

West, S. G. (1975). Increasing the attractiveness of college cafeteria food: A reactance theory perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 60(5), 656.

-Conan Wan

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