5 things I hate about TV commercials (#3)

#3 Fake Urgency

This post doesn’t come with a snappy little video.  It doesn’t need to. I won’t even be able to scratch the surface of this nonsense and you’ll be able to list many, many more instances of fake urgency that you’ve seen.

Urgency in advertising is meant to encourage viewers to run to the nearest store and buy whatever is being offered. It’s meant to drive sales now. That part is okay. Ads that use real urgency are able to explain that events are about to change and a purchase now is better than a purchase in the near future. Limited time offers are a good example of this.

And then there are the ads that try to fake it. Usually these are car dealership ads or furniture store ads. And their messages go something like this: “Hurry! These prices won’t last long”. “You may never see prices like this again!” “This is a once-in-a-lifetime price”. “Because of customer demand, we’ve held over our sale for just one more week”. “We’re overstocked for the holiday season”. “The boss is away on vacation for two weeks so we’ve marked prices down.” etc,

Businesses offering these deals are so price-driven that I know we will see prices like this again. Probably sooner than later. That’s what makes this urgency fake.

… And we all know they intentionally overstocked for the holidays and most wholesalers would simply buy back whatever they sold to the retailer.

… And we all know that the boss okayed a price mark-down before he or she left on vacation because if it hadn’t been okayed, everyone would lose their jobs when the boss got back.

What diminishes their urgency is the use of open-ended words like “these prices won’t last long” (how long is long. An hour? A month?) and “you may never see prices like this again” (I may not… but I may. And I’m willing to bet that I probably will).

About 6 months ago I got a call from a cellphone company trying to sell me their plan. I kept declining the offer and the person on the other end suggested that I was passing up an unbelievable once-in-a-lifetime deal. I didn’t say anything to the salesperson but I was sure it wasn’t once-in-a-lifetime. Sure enough, three months later, I got a similar once-in-a-lifetime offer from the same company. I’m so lucky with these once-in-a-lifetime offers, maybe I should play the lottery (and be extra careful of lightning!). I’m about due for my semi-annual once-in-a-lifetime cellphone offer again.

In your advertising, it’s good to include an element of urgency. Just make sure it’s legitimate urgency. Don’t overstate how shockingly low your prices are. Don’t use open ended language like “you may never see a sale like this again”. Instead, create real urgency with limited time offers and significant sale prices. Make sure your sale ends when it ends. Offer different types of sales through the year (so that customers don’t think that they’ll simply catch your once-in-a-lifetime prices when you offer them again next month).

Here’s an observation: Airlines do put seats on sale once in a while, usually in anticipation of slower travel seasons, but they don’t need to do much to explain urgency because travelers know that these prices fluctuate by the minute and we all know that if we find a good price, we need to snap it up fast. I’m not suggesting that this will work for every other business, but we’ve become accustomed to this invisible auction pricing policy from airlines… so it might work in other businesses to.

Here’s another observation: Businesses that sell e-books have struggled for a few years on how to create urgency. If you have ever visited one of those super-long sales pages for ebooks you’ll read something about “this deal won’t last” or “buy now and for a limited time you’ll receive this free bonus”. In most cases, we can be sure that the limited time offer is perpetual. (Update: Since writing this post in my previous blog and then importing it here, I’ve seen 3 examples where the limited time offer was truly limited!)

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