Years ago, I think it was National Lampoon sent out a mail campaign trying to get subscribers… or maybe it was renewals…
With a picture of a man holding an adorable puppy draped over his left arm. In his right hand, he held what looked like Dirty Harry’s revolver. The headline read (I’m paraphrasing): “Subscribe now or the puppy gets it!”
Depending on how you feel about puppies, that qualifies as an “urgency” pitch. Of course, there are other ways to create urgency.
“Crazy Eddie” yelling on late night TV about his looney low prices on TVs and stereos… firesales and special edition offers… expiring coupons.
The list goes on. And on. And on.
It’s no accident. Creating urgency is part and parcel of many a winning ad campaign. Maybe that’s why Linda, one of your fellow CR readers, wrote me asking what on earth was going on.
The urgency plea, she says, is both everywhere and far too often just plain baloney. Sales end up lasting longer, last-minute prices seem to last forever, and so on.
I took a minute to write Linda a reply. Then figured it was good enough to share with you too. See if you agree.
Yes and yes, I told her.
You’re right on two fronts.
First, lots of ads do whatever they can to pound the urgency button. Reason being, all marketing is more or less at war with the onslaught of “other” ads you mention — each of which competes for space in the customer’s mind — and more importantly, with the overwhelming forces of inertia.
The customer who reads and ad that encourages him to put it down for later consideration, is generally a customer lost in the long run. Put more simply, those who don’t “act now” tend not to act at all.
For a brilliant explanation of how this works, beyond the obvious, check out the much recommended “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Dr. Robert Cialdini. Especially what he has to say about the pulling power of scarcity. People really do want to snap up the “last” of anything, rather than miss out.
That said, the other thing you’re right about is that when every single ad is saying you’re going to miss out, the message starts to get diluted. Everyone starts to sound the same. And in selling, sounding the same as everybody else is slow poison to your business.
When that happens, what happens next?
The clever sellers will come up with other ways to express urgency, other than “limited supply” pitches.
As you mention, they’ll have deadlines before price increases, limited-time offers on extras thrown into a deal, special bonuses limited to the first few respondents, etc. Among the group of info publishers I work closely with, one of the most powerful innovations of the last two years — literally worth hundreds of millions of dollars (and counting) — has been to create online “countdown” offers with time deadlines tracked right down to the hour and minute on which the deal is available. I keep thinking they’ll stop working. Yet they keep working, just the same.
But here’s one last key.
To really work, the limits need to be real. Even if they’re created just to increase the urgency, they have to be enforced. Otherwise, as you suggest, the customer’s get wise to the ruse. Not only does the seller sacrifice trust in his claims, he also sacrifices the power of the technique.
Even as a marketer, I would also second guess those businesses that don’t make good on their “last chance” offers in the way you’re suggesting. Both for the reasons above and also because, frankly, it’s a bad sign for other reasons.
For instance, I know that with the marketers I work with, legal teams actually scan the offers and make sure that if there’s a deadline mentioned, the offer gets pulled the minute the deadline passes.
And if there’s a “limited low price” offered, the legal eagles make sure it never gets offered again. Price hikes are made to happen. Limited bonuses get retired according to the restrictions printed on the reply card. This keeps the marketers honest.
But it also preserves the power of the technique for the rest of us, when we want to try it elsewhere to the same audience.
Long story short…
You’re right to question the “urgency” pitch as a consumer. But both good and bad marketers use it. And likely, will use it forever.
Likewise, if you ever find yourself on the marketing side of the fence, it’s something you don’t want to rule out too quickly.
Last modified: June 3, 2020