Question #23: In 2003, what money-losing product far exceeded its sales projections for the year in spite of the fact that manufacturer made no material upgrades to the product and spent less money on advertising?
The answer is the Oldsmobile and its success was all the more surprising because its parent company, General Motors, had decided to discontinue the line after 2004 due to consistently weak sales. In retrospect, this paradoxical outcome was driven by the realization the Oldsmobile was only going to be available for a limited time.
The idea that something is special just because it is limited in number—or even rare—is worth unlearning on a limited basis. (It goes without saying that sometimes limited items and objects are special and deserving of our attention. Often, however, they are not.)
Consider, for example, sales of other products that are advertised as being available for a “limited time.” This time honored marketing tactic has been employed for one simple reason: it works. People fear the potential loss of the product more than the actual benefit it will deliver. If you have ever ended up with buyer’s remorse or wondered why you are donating a pair of shoes you never wore to charity, it is possible you fell prey to this trap.
The “scarcity principle”—the idea that since something might be going away it makes sense to buy it—is a play on the same theme. The problem becomes more pernicious when even more people are clamoring for the scarce item. If you’ve ever witnessed the insanity of a pre-holiday rush as a store’s patrons sprint to secure the last few remaining versions of a Cabbage Patch Doll, Tickle-Me-Elmo, Beanie Baby or the latest “must-have” toy you get the general idea. Many people are motivated by nothing more than the fear of being left empty-handed.
This habit of confusing scarcity with value leads to the unusual title of this unlearning lesson. During my sophomore year of high school, I recall being dragged outside during the middle of the school day to view a rare full eclipse. The only problem is that I wasn’t actually allowed to look at the eclipse as it occurred lest I do irreparable damage to my eyes. To avoid this cataclysmic fate, my fellow classmates and I were instructed on how to construct a “pinhole projector.” As I recall, we punched a hole in the flimsy piece of poster board and held the board up so that it blocked our view of the event and, in its place, cast a shadow of the eclipse onto the ground. It was, to say the least, a decidely unsatisfying experience.
I mention this because during high school I was never once advised or encouraged to get up early to enjoy the radiant beauty of a sunrise or to slow down at the end of a day to admire the magnificence of a setting sun—even though both are far more beautiful than a solar eclipse.
The relationship between quantity—or availability—and value is often tenuous at best and sometimes can be as weak as the shadow of an eclipse cast upon the ground through a make-shift pinhole projector.
Homework Assignment #23: While enjoying either an early morning sunrise or a late afternoon sunset, make a list of common items that have great value to you and compare it with a second list of those scarce items you possess but which hold little value.
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