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Holiday marketing is bigger and louder than any other time of year. The signs, the sales, the storefronts–everything is exaggerated and impossible to miss. Obviously, that’s on purpose, and there’s actually science behind it all. 

There’s science behind just about everything, but most of the time we either aren’t looking for it or it’s simply such an integral part of the “thing” that we miss it entirely. While marketing during any season is no exception to this, marketing during the holiday season is where psychological tricks are most visible. 

At the end of the day, it’s all about making things easy for customers–allowing them not to think too deeply, or too much at all, about what they’re buying. It’s about using marketing psychology to influence consumer behavior.


The Scarcity Effect

The scarcity principle, in the area of social psychology, works a lot like scarcity in the area of economics. Consumers place a higher value on scarce goods than they do on goods that are well-supplied. According to psychologists, when a service or good is understood to be scarce, people find it more desirable.

For example, how many times have you seen an advertisement stating: limited quantities, limited time offer, liquidation sale, while supplies last, only a few items left in stock, etc. As you can imagine, this fabricated scarcity causes a swell in the demand for the product. It’s all about wanting what they can’t have–this sentiment may drive buyers to desire an object even more. If something is available, it isn’t valued or desired as much.

During the holidays, in particular, marketers use the scarcity principle to drive up sales and demand. The science and psychology behind the scarcity principle ties back to social proof and commitment. Social proof shares the belief that people judge a product’s quality based on the scarcity (meaning that others appear to be buying it). On the principle of commitment: Someone who has committed to obtaining something will find it more desirable if he finds out he cannot have it.

Many shopping malls and centers have annual promotions during the first few weeks of December (and during Black Friday, of course) that only last a single day. Similarly, many stores offer Holiday-only gift sets or bundles at great “discounts” (which duplicates the scarcity effect). These tactics tap into our readiness to give in to the scarcity effect and purchase things immediately and probably in higher quantity than we initially intended.


Overwhelming Stimuli & Ego Depletion

Do you ever walk into the mall at Christmas time and feel absolutely overwhelmed? The lights, the decorations, the reds and greens, the music–when surrounded with stimuli designed to surmount our cognitive processing, we are much less likely to think through decisions (or purchases) in any comprehensive way.

This is where ego depletion comes into play. Ego depletion pertains to the notion that self-control or willpower comes from a restricted supply of mental resources that can be used up. When the energy for mental activity is low (ex: distracted by many decorations, sales, and lights), self-control can be weakened (ex: buying everything and anything to get it done), which would be considered a state of ego depletion.


How to Resist Holiday Marketing

Although we all consider ourselves to be unique and one-of-a-kind, we’re really just human–social, compliant and conforming creatures. If we see people doing something (ex: looking up at the sky or buying presents for our loved ones in December) we’ll probably do the same. 

By focusing more on other aspects of the holidays–time with family, friends, and food–you may be able to resist some of the commercial temptations that have become so relentless in the later months of the year.

While there’s nothing wrong with exchanging gifts with those you love during the holidays, there’s something wrong with the way we often go about it. Really think about the reasons behind your gift-giving and the actual gift itself–this may make the holiday season more enjoyable for you and those around you.


-Written by Lily Tillman