chapter  10
Ostensible demarketing: the power of prohibition
Pages 14

Ostensible demarketing happens when professionals attempt to restrict or prevent the way a product, service or brand is offered: whether by accident or design, the threat of withdrawal paradoxically increases its desirability. This phenomenon was identified nearly 50 years ago by Jack Brehm who called it ‘psychological reactance’. Brehm (1966) argued that, when the freedom to act in a particular way was taken away, or when it was suggested that this freedom was about to be withdrawn, consumers would invariably persuade themselves that the item in question was better than they had previously thought. Since Brehm’s classic study was published, the theory has been tested on a range of

products (for example Mazis et al. 1973), and has provided plausible explanations for numerous marketing phenomena where consumers appear not to have acted in the manner predicted by economists. A good example was the decision by Coca-Cola in 1985 to replace their staple product line with something called New Coke: the mistake, according to Ringold (1988) and others, was not the launching of New Coke (the company spent $4million onmarket research), but the decision to take the long-established original product off the market. Psychological reactance applies to this sort of product-based demarketing,

where a brand owner announces its intention to kill off an under-performing product. It is also relevant where distribution is restricted, for example by withdrawing the product from certain channels, or by restricting how much of it consumers are able to buy. There is also ample evidence to show that what Brehm described in 1966 can explain the way in which the ostensible demarketing of companies, brands, products and services actually works to their benefit. The term ‘ostensible demarketing’ seems first to have been coined by Kotler and

Levy in 1971, and is distinguished from other forms of demarketing by the focus on creating the appearance of trying to discourage demand as a device for actually increasing it. The problem for me in this chapter is the notion of ‘creating the

appearance’: while there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence about products and services that appear deliberately to have been demarketed, in some cases their enhanced appeal has been an unintended consequence. Kotler and Levy’s definition of ostensible demarketing is problematic in that in order for it to apply we need the certainty that a stratagem of deliberate deception was being practised. There are many examples where demarketing a product, or having an

advertisement banned, has benefited the brand, but hardly any where the marketing people have publicly admitted that this was their intention all along. This is unsurprising, as owning up to any kind of manipulation of public and media alike could easily rebound. More common is the reaction of Coca-Cola to accusations that they had deceived the public in 1985: their claim ‘We are not smart enough for that’ (Clifford 2009) neatly dodged the ethical questions and positioned the company as being the consumer’s friend. In order not to become diverted by a whole raft of deontological or teleological

debates, it is more useful to consider ostensible demarketing, in the light of Brehm’s study of psychological reactance and those that subsequently tested it, as the process by which a product, service or brand becomes more effectively marketed by being demarketed. Similarly avoiding the tricky question of whether or not brand owners

connived in ‘successful’ demarketing campaigns or merely benefited from them, in this chapter, I will be taking examples where a decision to restrict or prohibit some aspect of marketing appears instead to have boosted the brand in question. This means that my definition of ‘ostensible demarketing’ is by nature broader than Kotler and Levy’s: as well as considering the strategic execution (a putative withdrawal of the product or advertising as a way of boosting its appeal), I will be looking at how this sort of outcome can emerge accidentally, often because the initiators were unaware of consumers’ tendency ‘to long after things forbidden and to desire what it denied us’ (Rabelais). Ostensible demarketing, in this broader definition, therefore includes the attempts by different players to prevent or restrict the marketing of something: it may, for example, be practised by brand owners boosting demand by restricting supply, or by regulators banning an advertising campaign. In both cases, the ostensible aim of restricting marketing achieves the opposite. In this chapter, I examine a number of areas where ostensible demarketing

takes place: in advertising, music and publishing, creative work emerges only to fall foul of censors, regulators or other public guardians. I also show how when a government acts in the public interest to change behaviours or to withdraw services it can unwittingly create new demand; and finally I look at how taking a product off the market (or just threatening to) can dramatically boost demand and prepare the ground for a successful rebranding.