Scarcity in Marketing – Why Marketers Use It. How it Hurts Us.

empty-fuel-tankScarcity is one of the cornerstones of “old school” marketing, primarily because it WORKS. But does it really? Author and marketer Lynn Serafinn explains how scarcity brings only more scarcity in the long term.

Last week on Facebook, I posted a ‘note’ asking the question:

“Where have YOU seen scarcity used in marketing, and how do you think it affects us?”

Within a few hours, I received a LONG list of responses, with people citing everything from children’s toys, to oil, to computers, to supplies for anticipated emergencies or crises. Clearly, people had a lot to say about this hot topic.

The use of scarcity in marketing has long been acknowledged. Everywhere I look, I see marketing mentors tell their mentees to use scarcity as a tool to close the deal and make the sale. And the sad thing about this is that it WORKS. But at what cost to our lives, our health, our communities, our economy and our planet does it do so?

From research I have done, I have come to see that every living being has an autonomic and unconscious response to scarcity. One example I give in my book The 7 Graces of Marketing is research I uncovered about the Great Dutch Famine of the 1940s, where thousands of people were starving to death due to a complexity of political issues. Many studies have been done on the impact of the scarcity of food upon both the people who lived through those times, as well as the babies who were conceived during those lean years. One of the most fascinating findings is that the babies who were conceived during those times of famine were born underweight, but then went on to develop physiques that were markedly OVERWEIGHT throughout the rest of their lives, due to their bodies’ being conditioned to hold onto fat reserves in response to starvation in utero. Anyone who has be a yo-yo dieter has probably also experienced the same phenomenon.

Scarcity gets into our very genes. We humans are hard-wired to respond to scarcity, at a physical, emotional and mental level. Marketers have long known this, and they use it to their advantage.

The most obvious form of scarcity in marketing is the perception of limited supply or availability. We are exposed to this kind of scarcity marketing from a very early age. One person in our Facebook discussion cited an example of when her young daughter saw an advert for a cookie-baking set and said, “Mom, I have to buy now! They only have 12 left!” Another cited the example of cabbage patch dolls. From Playstations to Harry Potter books, we’ve all seen this kind of scarcity marketing. It makes us panic, rush and buy, fearing we’ll “lose out.”

The use of deadlines in marketing is another form of scarcity. This particular breed is rife in Internet marketing and is taught by just about every Internet marketing guru on the planet. How many times have we heard, “Buy within the next hour before the price goes up!” I’m not saying it’s “wrong” to set sort of “end” to (hence a deadline) to a campaign; we cannot operate a marketing campaign without a clear time-frame. But when deadlines are used intentionally as a means to create excessive anxiety in our clients and customers to convince them to act before they have had a chance to make an informed decision, we might make the sale, but what are we contributing to the health, well-being, empowerment and happiness of our customers (and ourselves)?

But scarcity operates at even more subtle levels in marketing. In order to feel we’re going to “lose out” we first have to feel the need. In order for a person to want to buy products they don’t actually need, marketers first have to create the need, and then tell you that the only way to fill that need is to buy their product. If you look deeply enough, you will see that the unconscious message is that you are inadequate or incomplete without such-and-such product. When we are young, it’s all about needing a product to give us fun and popularity. When we are adults, it’s all about sexual and social worth “Because you’re worth it” is actually saying “If you don’t spend the extra money on this product, you’re not really worth much.” The real underlying story of “scarcity” is where marketers tell you in one way or another that you are not enough without their product. If you add into the mix the anxiety that the product that will make us feel like we are “enough” is not going to be available to us for much longer, we have a marketing recipe that influences us to “buy now”, no matter what.

Scarcity marketing is one of the cornerstones of “old school” marketing, primarily because it WORKS. There is no question that it motivates people to act fast. But with the rise of social media, a new era of conscious marketers is emerging where our influence is now felt on a global level. In response to this fundamental change in our society, we simple MUST ask ourselves:

“In the bigger picture, and at a holistic level,
is scarcity REALLY working?
We might be making the sale, but what are we REALLY creating?”

It is my belief that by using scarcity as a fundamental motivator in our marketing, we are really creating:

  • stress
  • fear
  • mistrust
  • over-spending
  • over-consumption
  • waste
  • debt
  • massive environmental imbalances

The irony of scarcity is:

When we see the world through the eyes of scarcity we extract, create, consume, hoard or pillage more than we actually need, and we begin to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of actual scarcity on our planet.

In my view, the natural antidote is “Abundance”, which I define as “a fundamental belief that there is enough.” Enough to go around, enough of me, enough of you, enough. When we embrace a fundamental belief that the Universe has provided us with enough, abundance also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because we act according to the balance and natural flow of the rhythm of the Universe instead of against it.

The topic of “Scarcity versus Abundance” is a massive subject that I discuss in great detail in The 7 Graces of Marketing, as well as many blog posts on this site. I hope you’ll browse around the wealth of materials here and stay a while so we can share an abundance of great ideas together.

Let’s continue the dialogue in the comments below.

Find out more about how changing the paradigm can help make the world a better place:
The 7 Graces of Marketing BOOK COVER

The 7 Graces of Marketing: how to heal humanity and the planet by changing the way we sell, by Lynn Serafinn, where you can learn how the 7 Deadly Sins and the 7 Graces impact the world through media and marketing. You can receive 7 MP3 audios from the 7 Graces Telesummit (with 20+ guest speakers) when you buy the book.

Brit Writers Awards Finalist
eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian & Ecological Social Issues

PLEASE VOTE for the 7 Graces of Marketing for the People’s Book Prize (voting ends 31st August 2013). Sample chapters of the book are available from their site.

Tweep-e-licious: 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market Their Business Ethically, by Lynn Serafinn, which can help you learn how to create meaningful collaborations through Twitter and other social media.

eLit Book Awards Bronze Medal in Business and Sales

Get instant access to a free 90-minute Twitter marketing class at

Lynn Serafinn author of The 7 Graces of Marketing

LYNN SERAFINN, MAED, CPCC is a certified, award-winning coach, teacher, marketer, social media expert, radio host, speaker and author of the number one bestseller The 7 Graces of Marketing — How to Heal Humanity and the Planet by Changing the Way We Sell and Tweep-e-licious! 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market their Business Ethically. She is listed in the Top 20 of the Top Marketing Authors on Twitter by Social Media Magazine and was a finalist for the prestigious Brit Writers Awards. She also received the eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian and Ecological Social Affairs, as well as the Bronze Medal in Business and Sales.

Lynn’s eclectic approach to marketing incorporates her vast professional experience in the music industry and the educational sector along with more than two decades of study and practice of the spirituality of India. Her innovative marketing campaigns have produced a long list of bestselling non-fiction authors through her company Spirit Authors. Lynn is also the Founder of the 7 Graces Project CIC, a not-for-profit social enterprise created to train, support, mentor and inspire independent business owners to market their business ethically, serve society and planet, and restore all that is best about humanity.

(not just for Londoners, as we meet also on Skype)

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2 Responses to Scarcity in Marketing – Why Marketers Use It. How it Hurts Us.

  1. Great article Lynn, looking forward to the 7 Graces of Marketing blog.

  2. Peter Prevos says:

    Scarcity is what Cialdini calls one of the “six weapons of influence”. Apple uses scarecity in their iPhone marketing. See my earlier posting on this

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