The Power of Artificial Scarcity

Artificial scarcity is fair game—just don't lie.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Creating arti­fi­cial scarcity works — but is it ethical?

In my line of work as a spin doc­tor, I some­times cre­ate arti­fi­cial scarcity to ful­fil my PR object­ives. And I’m not alone — many com­mu­nic­at­ors and mar­keters do the same thing.

In this blog art­icle, I will dis­cuss why cre­at­ing scarcity works, why we use it, and wheth­er or not it is ethical.

Here we go:

Three Uncomfortable Anecdotes

Here are three short anec­dotes that I’ve been pon­der­ing lately:

I know a CEO who moved a grow­ing com­pany to an ample new office space. The idea was to grow into it, but effi­ciency quickly took a nose­dive. Was it wrong to move into a spa­cious new office? The CEO divided the room and crammed all employ­ees into less than half the avail­able space. Once more, people had to get in early to get a chair and a desk. And soon after that, effi­ciency soared back up again.

When I run monthly edit­or­i­al meet­ings for cli­ents, I bring an engraved trophy to the meet­ing. I give it to the per­son whose edit­or­i­al con­tri­bu­tions brought the most value to the brand (traffic, leads, shares etc.). We typ­ic­ally poke fun at the whole trophy thing, but it usu­ally does­n’t take long before even a room full of hard-to-impress engin­eers turns into highly engaged con­tent creators.

I remem­ber play­ing ten­nis with my dad as a kid. There was no book­ing sys­tem for the court we used to play at, so we always hoped it would be avail­able. We could some­times see a pair of play­ers fin­ish­ing up at a dis­tance. However, as soon as the play­ers were made aware that their court was “in demand”, they would stop pack­ing up and keep play­ing for an addi­tion­al 20 – 30 minutes. 1My dad and I called this the “ten­nis effect” because it occurred so often. It also taught us how to approach a ten­nis court without seem­ing as we were — quite a rare skill, I’d ima­gine.

What’s going on here?

The Principle of Scarcity

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The Principle of Scarcity

The prin­ciple of scarcity is well-estab­lished in sci­entif­ic lit­er­at­ure. If some­thing seems scarce, we anti­cip­ate our pos­sible regret of fail­ing to acquire the resource in time:

In 2 exper­i­ments, a total of 200 female under­gradu­ates rated the value and attract­ive­ness of cook­ies that were either in abund­ant sup­ply or scarce sup­ply. […] Results indic­ate that (a) cook­ies in scarce sup­ply were rated as more desir­able than cook­ies in abund­ant sup­ply; (b) cook­ies were rated as more valu­able when their sup­ply changed from abund­ant to scarce than when they were con­stantly scarce; and © cook­ies scarce because of high demand were rated high­er than cook­ies that were scarce because of an acci­dent.“
Source: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2Worchel, S., Lee, J., & Adewole, A. (1975). Effects of sup­ply and demand on rat­ings of object value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(5), 906 – 914.

We are pro­grammed for sur­viv­al and will, there­fore, a) over­value items and ser­vices that are scarce and b) under­value those plen­ti­fully. 3The beha­viour is some­times called FOMO (fear of miss­ing out).

Creating arti­fi­cial scarcity (by lim­it­ing avail­ab­il­ity) is a power­ful PR strategy, but to avoid back­fir­ing, the PR pro­fes­sion­al must refrain from fram­ing the offer using untrue statements.

Learn more: The Power of Artificial Scarcity

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Leveraging Artificial Scarcity in PR

People tend to act more quickly when they believe that the thing they want is about to dis­ap­pear. The fear of not hav­ing some­thing can drive people to take action when they would­n’t have oth­er­wise acted.

Our brain releases dopam­ine in response to a poten­tial reward, which causes our beha­viour to be rewar­ded by the pro­spect of a new thing. It’s FOMO (fear of miss­ing out).

PR pro­fes­sion­als often base their PR strategies on the cre­ation of arti­fi­cial scarcity. We know that the more scarce some­thing is, the more people want it.

In a world where everything has become so read­ily avail­able, it isn’t hard to under­stand why many PR pro­fes­sion­als, com­mu­nic­at­ors, and mar­keters use arti­fi­cial scarcity as one of their favour­ite tricks. We apply arti­fi­cial scarcity in many ways, such as lim­it­ing quant­it­ies, expiry offers, exclus­ive stor­ies, rare occur­rences, etc.

I once cre­ated an invite-only wait­ing list for a new stream­ing ser­vice. Your place on the wait­ing list was par­tially determ­ined by your num­ber of social fol­low­ers and the num­ber of fol­low­ers of the per­son who invited you. The scarcity of avail­able seats sparked intense anticipation.

The Ethics of Manufacturing Scarcity

The Principle of Scarcity is an effect­ive motiv­at­or because it appeals to people’s instinct to acquire what they per­ceive as lim­ited. People have an innate desire for things or activ­it­ies that are scarce.

Creating arti­fi­cial scarcity can be an effect­ive motiv­at­or if appro­pri­ately util­ised. Is it eth­ic­al? I wish I could deny the inher­ent cyn­icism that seems to go hand in hand with our scarcity bias.

My approach is to use arti­fi­cial scarcity sparingly.

Example: I could use a count­down timer to get more users to sign up for a spe­cif­ic deal. But I would only use the timer if I were con­fid­ent that the offer would­n’t remain or resur­face soon after the count­down runs out.

Another way of put­ting it:
Creating arti­fi­cial scarcity is okay. But lying nev­er is.

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Thanks for read­ing. Please con­sider shar­ing my pub­lic rela­tions blog with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. If you have ques­tions (or want to retain my PR ser­vices), please con­tact me at jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

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1 My dad and I called this the “ten­nis effect” because it occurred so often. It also taught us how to approach a ten­nis court without seem­ing as we were — quite a rare skill, I’d imagine.
2 Worchel, S., Lee, J., & Adewole, A. (1975). Effects of sup­ply and demand on rat­ings of object value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(5), 906 – 914.
3 The beha­viour is some­times called FOMO (fear of miss­ing out).
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo isn't related to public relations; it's just a photo of mine. Think of it as a 'decorative diversion', a subtle reminder that there is more to life than strategic communication.

The cover photo has


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