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Buying Things You Don’t Need and the Illusion of Demand

Posted by on April 30, 2015 at 8:26 AM

Companies across the globe continually try to dream up ways to replicate the marketing tactics and demand-generating activities of Apple. Apple is somewhat of a specialist in generating a desire for a product before it’s even been released. A great example recently has been the Apple iWatch, which sold more items on its opening day than any other smartwatch across the duration of 2014.

Buying Things You Don’t Need and the Illusion of Demand

Creating an illusion of demand for a product can work in a number of ways but a classic example can often be found in infomercials. During the pitch it’s common to hear a phrase like “If you cant get through right away, we are experiencing high call volumes, Please try again.” This builds a desire by basing our decisions on the behaviour of others, otherwise known as “Herd Behaviour”. So, what are the tactics used by big companies which we should be aware of to understand how they pressure us into buying something that you don’t really need?


Herd Behaviour has been used for many years to understand how a group of individuals can act collectively when together, without centralised direction. The theory can be seen in the behaviour of animals in herds, packs, fish schools, riots, general strikes, stock markets and opinion forming. Raafat, Chater and Frith proposed the concept based on many domains such as cognitive neuroscience and economics.

Buying Things You Don’t Need and the Illusion of DemandA good example would be a group of animals fleeing a predator. The herd know that the safest place is within the centre but also acting as a unit provides a better defence against predators. However, under panic situations some members of the herd may think escape via another route would save them. This selfish behaviour causes other members to believe that route might be better and choose to follow. A great example of this in modern times can be seen on the stock market and within economic bubbles.

Demand creators know that even ‘very good’ isn’t satisfactory. Impulse needs to be electric which is why companies like Apple and Samsung spend in the region of $351 million a year on advertising, suggested in research by Kantar Media. Advertisements come in the form of TV ads, billboards, Internet articles, print media and lavish launch parties.


Buying Things You Don’t Need and the Illusion of Demand

All of these advertising methods create a buzz about a product that gets the public engaged with the brand. This in return they hope gets people scrambling to buy the new gadget as close to the launch date as possible, allowing companies to capitalise on high profit margins. You may have read a story about a particular product selling out in 1.5 minutes, but what the companies don’t tell you are how many products were for sale.

The most effective tool is confirmation bias. This is something you believe based on years of information that you have absorbed which conforms to your existing beliefs. Generally you will also choose to ignore or at least discount information that doesn’t co-inside with your existing knowledge. A great example is the common cold that many believe can be cured by vitamin C and zinc. Although there is no solid evidence that these components have any measurable affect at curing your cold, because people have been told it for so many years, they will still buy advertised vitamin D and zinc products. It’s an unwillingness to accept opposing evidence, similar to term ‘selective hearing’.

Another big theme within the advertising world currently is building a back-story to your product and brand. Count how many people do you know who can tell you about Steve Jobs’ life compared to Oh-Hyun Kwon’s life (Vice Chairman and CEO of Samsung).


Buying Things You Don’t Need and the Illusion of Demand

These are just some of the tactics used by brands to help you lose yourself within its myriad of demands and commands and devoutly follow whatever it says. Take the Apple watch for example, probably one of the most useless products to be released by Apple. Your iPhone can do everything the Apple watch can do, yet people still feel compelled to spend between $499 to $10,000 just to say they basically have a miniature control for their phone sitting on their wrist. Think about it objectively, its ridiculous.

Good advice would be to sit and think about any buying decision you are going to make before you buy it. If the companies told you that, however, they wouldn’t exist. Ask yourself, do you really need the latest iPhone or is it because every else has one. Can you really afford that fast car or do you simply want to massage your ego? More often than not the anticipation of buying something is much more pleasurable than actually owning it, but if its an expense you cant really afford or don’t really need, there is only one winner in that equation.

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