Friday, 8 March 2013

Psychological reactance

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 by 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when the freedom to act in a particular way was taken away, or when it was suggested that this freedom was about to be withdrawn, consumers would invariably persuade themselves that the item in question was better than they had previously thought.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.

The claim about theatre owners is often attributed to
Samuel Johnson, but I haven't been able to find the  reference.
Picture from Wikimedia
The terms ostensible demarketing and psychological reactance both sound like grandiose theories of consumer behaviour, but in fact state something which is well known to ordinary people.  We often call it reverse psychology, and parents will tell you how they persuade their children to do things by arguing the exact opposite.  You will also find that a good strategy for selling something is to let it be known that it isn't for sale.  And, as theatre owners discovered in 17th century Britain, a powerful way of selling tickets was to get the word out that the show was sold out.

Ostensible demarketing seems to have been coined by Kotler and Levy in a Harvard Business Review article from 1971.  Their definition talks of creating the appearance of demarketing as a way of boosting demand.  This definition is problematic: although there are lots of examples of marketing people running successful campaigns where products have been withdrawn or advertising banned, it is hard to find marketers owning up to this sort of deception.  Hardly surprising, really: who is honest enough to admit to dishonesty?


  • Brehm, J.W. (1966), A theory of psychological reactance, New York: Academic Press
  • Kotler, Philip and Sidney Levy (1971), “Demarketing, yes, demarketing”, Harvard Business Review, November-December, pp. 74-80
  • Mazis, Michael B., Robert B. Settle and Dennis C. Leslie (1973), “Elimination of phosphate detergents and psychological reactance”, Journal of Marketing Research, 10, pp.390-395

1 comment:

  1. BS"D

    I love this post Robin! "Ostensible Demarketing" was given another name by Cialdini in his book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion": Scarcity Marketing. It's the case when a book on Amazon features the line "Only two left in stock". You immediately buy it!

    I really appreciate your scientific style of blogging with references. I bookmarked you blog on my bookmarks list and will be checking back in the near future. Take a look at my website as well and let me know what you think. – Consumer Behaviour Blog

    best, Pep