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eyes on the U.S.

Marketer's Ruse: How To Foment Popularity

Restaurant, cell phone and clothes: People usually buy what others appear to want, so companies use the illusion of low supply to create new demand. But there are paradoxes to human instincts and desires.

A deep love
A deep love
Jürgen Schmieder, Angelika Slavik and Vivien Timmler

MUNICH — "Professional Line Sitters." That's a real profession. No training needed — those employed in the field do nothing but wait in line for others, in front of the supermarket, the motor vehicles bureau or a fancy night club.

Agencies do exist: one in New York, for example, which is called Same Old Line Dudes. They take $25 for the first hour and $10 for each additional 30 minutes. And they make sure you get those tickets for the Broadway musical Hamilton, or wake up at 3 a.m. to queue for your fresh-baked Cronuts. Bad weather costs extra, by the way: $5 per hour.

The founder Robert Samuel once waited 38 hours for a new model iPhone. In Los Angeles they have the LineAngels, who queue for you at celebrity appearances or movie premieres, for $18 per hour.

But what happens if there's no queue? If the club isn't that trendy, if the movie's a flop? There's a solution for that, too, in the ol" USA: a popular student job, where you get paid $30 for spending 3 hours in front of the cinema, waiting in the cold, pretending there's nothing you want more than to see this particular film. At this point, you're not only a professional line sitter, you're a professional line creator. For consumer brand companies, this is God's work.

Staged demand is not limited to the USA. In Germany, the fashion label Abercrombie & Fitch, for instance, lets in only a few people when opening new stores. The shops are almost empty, but there are dozens of teenagers waiting outside.

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At the Tate Modern, London. Alone? — Photo: Fodt

And Apple, too, has been repeatedly accused of reducing the supply artificially when launching new products to boost demand. The lines in front of Apple stores, fashion boutiques and cinemas have one message: We have something that everybody wants.

Reducing the risk

The strategy is not new. But why do people trust other people's decisions? Imitation is particularly effective with products of everyday use. Because here, the risk of making a purchasing mistake is relatively low. "Humans are ready to blindly rely on what others do," says consumer psychologist Georg Felser. "It's a rational approach."

Deviating from the masses increases individual risk; the higher the risk, the more likely we are to imitate others.

Nevertheless, these instincts compete with the human desire to stand out. "Clients are torn between two extremes: on the one hand, they want to be part of what others are doing," explains Felser. "On the other hand, they don't want to get lost in the shuffle, they want to keep their individuality."

There are differences: Music, haircuts or wine are sources of individuality for many. Dish liquid, sneakers and TV shows are less relevant. "People are striving for the so-called "ideal distinctiveness,"" says Felser. "They want to be different enough to feel satsified, and yet always belong to the group."

Klaus-Dieter Koch, head of the consulting firm Brandtrust, explains how companies can transform themselves into a much sought-after brand. He says that consumption is about affiliation, but also about self-determination. "In the past, certain materials and colors were reserved to the upper classes," Koch says. "Those who didn't belong to that group tried to find similar materials, they imitated."

Today, people are drawn to the choices of Hollywood idols and sports stars. Simulating desire in order to create real demand is not a privilege of the masses: individuals can do it too, if their lives are interesting enough. "If Kim Kardashian uses a specific product in front of the camera, there won't be sales figures to worry about for a while," says Koch.

But in general it's rather dangerous to feign demand. "This may work once, but if the product itself is disappointing, it won't help the company in the long run," Koch notes.

Boundaries between real and faux desire are fluid. For example, if you've waited for hours in the rain in front of the cinema, when you finally get in, the joy is real. Not so much because of the movie, but because you're out of the cold.

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