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ASU team researches why shoppers become Black Friday brawlers

'Limited-quantity' ads play a role in consumer aggression, marketing team finds

Andrea Morales and Kirk Kristofferson
November 15, 2016

The Black Friday shopping extravaganza is approaching, and every year there are media reports of people brawling in stores while trying to get great deals, sometimes with injuries, arrests and even fatalities.

Why do people fight over things like big-screen TVs?

Advertising might play a role, according to a new study by two professors at Arizona State University, who found that just looking at a certain type of ad can provoke aggression.

The team of researchers were intrigued by the phenomenon of people throwing punches in order to buy deeply discounted items on the day after Thanksgiving and wanted to know what sparked that aggression over luxury items.

“The evolutionary psychology literature has established that with the last loaf of bread, yes, you’ll take someone down for survival,” said Kirk Kristofferson, an assistant professor of marketing at the W. P. Carey School of Business, one of the researchers.

“But we’re in a resource-rich environment and we’re finding this with 60-inch plasma TVs,” said Kristofferson, who worked with Andrea Morales, a professor of marketing in the W. P. Carey School of Business who holds the Lonnie L. Ostrom Chair in Business, as well as Brent McFerran, associate professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, and Darren W. Dahl, a professor at the University of British Columbia.

The team wanted to know whether “scarcity promotions” — ads for deeply discounted items of very limited quantities — incited people toward aggression.

“Of course there are people who elbow in line. But is it possible that simply being exposed to these sorts of promotional ads is enough to start the chain reaction to induce aggressive behavior? Maybe it starts beforehand, not when you get in line,” Kristofferson said.

A research team with two professors from the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU found that simply looking at an ad for a limited-quantity discounted item could induce aggression.

The team ran seven studies with more than 1,100 subjects and proved that simply being exposed to a “scarcity ad” was enough to incite aggressive behavior. Their paper, “The Dark Side of Scarcity Promotions: How Exposure to Limited-Quantity Promotions Can Induce Aggression,” was just published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“One of the really cool parts of this paper is how we tested it. In a controlled-lab setting, it’s really hard to get people to behave aggressively,” Kristofferson said. “If they’re put in a situation to behave negatively, they resist. So we had to think of unique ways to observe the behavior and to measure it.”

Some of the studies were done at the University of British Columbia and some at ASU, in the marketing lab at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

“That’s one of the things I love most about our job — we get to think about an interesting question and then find a creative and compelling way to test it,” Morales said.

In one study, subjects were shown one of two ads for iPhones on sale for $50. One ad promoted that only three phones were available, and the other did not limit quantities. Then the subjects, believing they were moving on to a separate study, were asked to evaluate a video game in which they “shot” at targets. A software program measured the shots taken and found that the subjects who saw the limited-quantity ad were more aggressive, shooting more often — and less accurately — than the people who saw the other ad.

Kristofferson especially liked the “vending machine study.” Subjects were shown one of the same ads and then, again believing they were in a different study, told to buy a candy bar from a vending machine.

“But we rigged the machine to jam. And we covertly set up a video camera, and we recorded and measured how they behaved,” he said.

Students studied the video of each subject at the vending machine and rated the aggressive reactions from 1 (pushing the buttons harder) to 5 (shoving and kicking the machine).

“And we found that in the limited-quantity promotional condition, they were much more aggressive. They hit the machine more, and the level of assault was higher,” he said.

Building off those two studies, the team wanted to see whether there was a physiological reaction to seeing the limited-quantity ads. So they ran a “spit study.” They took baseline samples of saliva from 150 people, then showed them the same iPhone ads, took saliva samples again and then tested the samples at the InstituteThat unit has since relocated to another university. for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research at ASU.

Those who saw the scarcity ad had higher testosterone levels in their samples.

“Some say higher testosterone levels lead to aggression and some say it doesn’t, but it’s a pointer. There’s a lot of work that says it’s a predictor of behaving aggressively,” Kristofferson said.

Other studies had subjects play a Wii boxing game or choose a violent or non-violent video game, and both showed increased aggressive tendencies after exposure to the limited-quantity ad.

The team also tested store-brandThe team picked those stores based on the number of reported violent incidents on the website. associations, theorizing that consumers perceive the threat from other shoppers differently depending on the store. People who saw a low-quantity ad for a luxury watch at Walmart scored higher on aggression than those who saw the same ad for a watch at Nordstrom.

Aggression spiked when people saw ads that limited quantity, but not time — such as a “one-day-only” sale.

“We see the aggression in the quantity ad because if you get there before me, I don’t get it. The consumers are pitted against each other. But if it’s a limited-time ad, you can get there at 9:01 and I can get there at 4:59 and I still get it. We’ve removed the threat.”

Kristofferson, whose next project will examine the use of virtual reality in marketing, said the scarcity-ad paper can inform both retailers and consumers.

“Retailers could be more cautious in how they use these promotions, because it doesn’t do them any favors to have these assaults going viral.

“But consumers should understand that psychologically, these effects can happen and you should control your own behavior.”

Top photo: Andrea Morales, a professor of marketing, and Kirk Kristofferson, an assistant professor of marketing, were on the team that found that even looking at a limited-quantity ad could induce aggressive behavior. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now