On my walk home through South Leamington each day, I pass the above advert for fireworks. I’m sure many other students who live in South Leamington also pass the advert but (like me) never pay it much attention. Why might this be? This is a question which I had never before asked myself until tasked with the assignment to find a persuasive message in the world that isn’t actually that persuasive.
The main problem with the above advert is that it claims the fireworks to be available ‘all year’ – if I don’t buy them today, they’ll still be there to purchase tomorrow, or the next day, or the next month, should I change my mind. By advertising their fireworks as readily available, the shop is actually doing itself a disservice - psychological research has found people to prefer those items which are scarce – the main principle here being ‘few is good’. When we have limited access to something, we want it more
In a study by Worchel, Lee and Adewole (1975), participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of cookies. It was found that the cookies were deemed more attractive when there were only two cookies in the jar than when there were ten in the jar. This demonstrates that scarcity is an effective persuasive device. People tend to believe that things which are rare are valuable.
One condition in the experiment (the demand condition) involved initially presenting participants with a jar of ten cookies, which was then replaced with one containing only two cookies under the pretence that the experimenter needed the extra cookies because participants in another condition had eaten more cookies than expected. In this case, participants rated the cookies as more attractive than the constant two cookies in a jar showing that scarcity causes a sense of urgency and panic that increases its effectiveness as an influence device.
In the accident condition, the procedure was the same as above, but participants were told that the experimenter needed the extra cookies because he had accidently given the participant the wrong jar; he gave the jar with ten but he was supposed to give the jar with two. The control condition involved no change in the number of cookies.
Participants were also either placed in a low-participation condition (told that only a few other participants were completing the study) or a high-participation condition (told that a large number of participants were taking part in the study).
Participants were asked to rate their liking of the cookies, how much they were attracted to them and how much they think the cookies should cost. The results are detailed in the table below.
Table 1: When the cookies were scarce, participants valued them more highly. Participants rated liking the cookies that had become scarce the most; similar results were found for ratings of attractiveness. Participants thought that scarce cookies should cost more, especially if the scarcity occurred as a result of demand as opposed to accident.
So as Worchel, Lee and Adewole (1975) demonstrated, people want what is rare and the results of the study can be used to change the unpersuasive advert at the start of this blog. The advert would be far more effective if it read something along the lines of ‘Fireworks: This week only!’ – this would indicate to potential customers that the product would not be around forever. Increasing the perceived scarcity of the fireworks would also serve to increase their perceived worth. People perceive things which are rare as having increased worth; if the advert promoted a limited availability product, they’ll not only be likely to sell more fireworks, but may also be able to sell them at a higher price too.
Another possible tactic would be to keep the current advert but tell customers who came into the store that, due to high demand for fireworks from other customers, there were now only a limited number left. This would mirror the scarcity-demand condition from Worchel, Lee and Adewole’s (1975) study.
Customers who bought the fireworks that were sold under the guise of scarcity would also be likely to feel better about themselves; Fromkin (1970) found that when a person possesses a rare item, they experience feelings of increased uniqueness and self-worth.
So not only are people more likely to purchase things which they believe are scarce, when they buy these items they also have enhanced perceptions of themselves as owners of such items. Now I know why I’ve never been tempted by that pesky advert before.
Fromkin, H. L. (1970). Effects of experimentally aroused feelings of undistinctiveness upon valuation of scarce and novel experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16, 521-519
Worchel, S., Lee, J., & Adewole, A. (1975). Effects of supply and demand on ratings of object value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 906-914.