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Why scarcity can be as powerful as celebrity endorsement

Making something scarce can be just as powerful as an endorsement. By understanding and using contextual cues like scarcity savvy, marketers keep finding new ways to make us buy, buy, buy.

Scarcity cues us into action

A particular context creates scarcity it cues us into action. Now what do you think it happens in this live auction example? On sale is a single white polyester suit that garners attention and people keep raising their hands to outbid. The other looking each other, sizing each other up, they continue to raise their bids.

In the end, the polyester suit sells for $145,000. Sounds like an unlikely scenario right? Right?! Well, that really happened! The white suit in question was the one worn by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and though $145,000 is a lot to pay for a dated piece of clothing it was one-of-a-kind.

It was the one for both award during filming in the competition between bidders drove up the price. In describing this bidding contest in his book Cialdini reported that the auctioneer was delighted and quite politic when describing the outcome he simply noted that certainly is a record for polyester.

Natural instincts to value scarce goods

Of course, that’s not a record for an auction. Many individuals and companies opt to sell their goods and possessions at auctions. As long as they can get a good crowd there, then they can get competition. At Sotheby’s art auctions there are often multimillion dollar prices on certain items: a piece by the American abstract artist Jackson Pollock, for example, fetched over $40 million.

Now, not everyone is a fan of Pollock’s unusual drip style of painting, but there are no fans of his unique work and not enough original paintings around, especially because Pollock died in a car crash at the age of 44. For most of us, Sotheby’s auctions are a bit outside of our price range, but we can witness more mundane examples of scarcity in the Black Friday sales.

With only a few items at sale prices lines often form events and people work hard to get those items resorting at times to pushing, shoving and name-calling. And, well, often the same goods were available the day before and the day after for a price that really isn’t that much different, but retailers take advantage of our natural instincts to value the scarce to get us moving.

Knowing how we interpret scarcity

For particular items to be tagged limited availability, they must be valuable right?! This is when retailers, knowing how we interpret scarcity, turn this context into an influence tactic and they get us to buy. By understanding and using contextual cues like scarcity savvy marketers keep finding new ways to make us buy, buy, buy.

A similar mechanism operates when a movie or book is banned. When a school district or watchdog group bans a particular item it raises interest on the part of public and also sends a signal that this item may become restricted in supply and thus more valuable. For example the Vatican condemned Sister Margaret A. Farley’s 2006 book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.

In her book Farley wrote about human sexuality, gay marriage and even masturbation, it was considered blasphemous by the Roman Catholic Church. After the ban, concerns were raised about how easy it would be get a copy, the book quickly rose from number 142,982 on Amazon’s overall sales ranking to number 16. It also became the number one best-selling religious studies book for some time.

Some of you might think that this is all about the racy title in the subject, but remember the book and been out for some time and sales had been mediocre, the spike in sales occurred after the ban. This is led some to call book banning the new Oprah effect named after the boost in book sales that occurs when Oprah Winfrey selects a book for her reading club.