Limited Time Only

Of all of the sandwiches available at all of the fast-food joints across the world, none can match the fanatical devotion displayed by fans of McDonald’s McRib.

I can assure you that it is both one of the best and worst things that you can eat, as delicious as it is unhealthy.

A pork sandwich with barbecue sauce, onions, and pickles is not something particularly difficult to make - you could produce a worthy facsimile after a trip to the grocery store - but in the case of the McRib, a large part of its appeal is in how it is made; more specifically, how it is not made.

The McRib is the definition of a limited-time menu item, yet with all the consistency that we would expect of a worldwide chain stripped away.

It is only available in certain markets at certain times, and appropriately enough, its appearance is dependant on the bulk price of pork. Some places are lucky enough to receive it on a yearly basis, while it hasn’t been available in others for years.

If McDonald’s genuinely wanted to, they could figure out a way to offer the McRib all of the time. Come on - they’re McDonald’s. The company’s net income in 2016 was almost five billion dollars, and they’re already the single-largest purchaser of pork in the United States.

Doubtless, that would take some the magic out of the proceedings when the sandwich becomes available.

People will always want what they can’t have.

Scarcity, even if it’s manufactured, can be a great marketing tactic.

Think of all of the things you’ve bought in your life that have been labelled as “limited edition”. For me, that would be video games, stationary, and while not strictly equitable, hardcover books. Though the regular versions provide the same utility, we’re willing to spend more to avoid missing out, even if the design is just a little different, even if the extras we get just end up sitting in a closet somewhere.

Making something available “for a limited time” is a great way to encourage people who would have bought a product anyway to spend more, and to purchase faster than they may normally, because it’s the only way to avoid the hassle in trying to track something down after the fact.

However, much as with comparative advertising, using product scarcity as a marketing tactic is a double-edged blade, one that seems to cut its wielder more often than not.

For every success - as with the McRib - there can be a PR nightmare, as was the case this past October with the Szechuan sauce debacle, where demand far exceeded supply, or with Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino last year - specifically only available for five days, most stores ran out of ingredients long before it was removed from the menu.

It turns out that - as when you go to the grocery store for a specific item that they never seem to have - scarcity can be annoying.

Annoying enough for your customers to give up on your product and buy from the competition.