guest blog: scarcity in marketing – why marketers use it. how it hurts us.

by Lynn Serafinn


Earlier this week, I sent a note to my Facebook friends 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 (if you’re my FB friend, come join us and share your view at 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 upcoming 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 timeframe. 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, wellbeing, 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
• overspending
• overconsumption
• waste
• debt
• massive environmental imbalances

The irony of scarcity is that 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: how to heal humanity and the planet by changing the way we sell (coming December 2011), and will be elaborating upon in upcoming blog posts, along with the other “deadly sins” and “graces” of marketing presented in the book.

I hope this short introduction has given you some food for thought and that you’ll keep your eye out for future articles. Please share your thoughts and responses in the comments below. I look forward to reading them!

Also, do subscribe this new 7 Graces of Marketing Blog, which will be rolling out articles and videos on these topics this summer. Just enter your name and email in the form on this page to receive them.

Lynn Serafinn is bestselling author, marketer, coach, speaker, radio host and promotional manager for a long list of #1 selling mind-body-spirit authors. In her work, she has witnessed both the conscious and unconscious mechanics of marketing that threaten our society and our very planet. In her book The 7 Graces of Marketing: how to heal humanity and the planet by changing the way we sell (Humanity 1 Press, Dec 2011), she reveals how modern marketing has played a hand in the the rise of consumer culture, negatively impacting our health, happiness, economy and natural world in an unparalleled way, and offers us hope via a new paradigm she calls “The 7 Graces of Marketing.” Subscribe to this blog to keep on top of how you can help change the world through 7 Graces thinking. Author, marketing and radio show enquiries, please send via


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