The Scarcity of Beauty

Is scarcity inherent to product aesthetics or is beauty in the eye of the beholder?

La escasez de la belleza

Companies like Tesla or Apple invest considerable resources into the aesthetics and design of their products. It is not only a matter of differentiation; beautiful products are perceived by consumers as harder to obtain and consequently scarcer than their less attractive counterparts. Because of its scarcity, product aesthetics can mobilize the effort to acquire beautiful products –perhaps similar to physical attractiveness, which represents a scarce commodity due to genetic differences.

Work conducted with colleagues Freeman Wu (Vanderbilt University), Gratiana Pol (Hyperthesis LLC) and C. Whan Park (University of Southern California) examines how the association between aesthetics and scarcity can impact consumer behavior. The results of this research were published in the article “The scarcity of beauty: how and why product aesthetics mobilize consumer acquisition effort” (Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 2022). Previously, a pilot study found that the more beautiful a product was considered to be, the greater was its perceived scarcity.

This research is aimed to understand how and to what extent consumers are motivated to acquire beautiful products and why consumers might be motivated to pursue aesthetically appealing products in the first place.

The relationship between aesthetics and scarcity

Unlike prior literature on scarcity, that identified consumer reactions that are precise and quantifiable, this research focused on beauty, a resource that is neither precise or quantifiable, demonstrating that it can naturally elicit perceptions of scarcity. In fact, part of the allure of beauty stems from its perceived scarcity, as the positive impact of beauty on acquisition effort is reduced when it is thought to be abundant in supply.

The link between aesthetics and acquisition effort

This research shows that consumers are willing to invest more effort —whether through time, money, physical energy, or other forms of consumer engagement— to acquire beautiful products. It also demonstrates that the relationship between aesthetics and effort is not limited to the production process, so that beautiful products elicit greater perceptions of effort in their creation. But this effort can be observed among consumers themselves in their pursuit of beauty.

The mediating roles of anticipated ownership pride and instantaneous desire

The authors also identify two affective mechanisms that underlie the relationship between aesthetics and acquisition effort: anticipated ownership pride and instantaneous desire. Pride often motivates the exertion of effort to enhance one’s social value and is associated with a sense of achievement. At the same time, desire is a powerful motivating force in pursuing consumer goals. Both pride and desire intensify when there is scarcity. In this sense, they propose that anticipated ownership and instantaneous desire both represent discreet, positive emotional-motivational state that occur in response to aesthetic stimuli.

There are some limitations to this research. Is beauty truly scarce, or does it lie in the eye of the beholder and is thus potentially abundant? Can any object be perceived as beautiful —and by extension, scarce—depending on the viewer? While beauty may be subject to individual, social, and cultural variation, the authors argue that there are certain universal aesthetic principles upon which most viewers agree, including unity and prototypicality, certain color combinations, and interstitial space. Because finding the ideal combination of their aesthetic elements is a difficult balancing act for product designers, true beauty is hard to achieve and, thus, not common.

The author is Distinguished Visiting Professor in Consumer Behavior at EGADE Business School and Tec's Undergraduate Business School.

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