Eighteenth Century FOMO

In eighteenth-century Europe, potatoes were considered a leprosy inducing invention of the devil and this belief was particularly pernicious in France, so no one ate them. The humble tuber might not have attained its preeminent status in European cuisine, if not for a French pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier.

As a prisoner of war in Prussia, Parmentier was starved for long duration and when fed, it was boiled potato mash, considered slops by his jailers. This was his moment of epiphany, when he realized that potatoes were cheap, nutritious and tasty and could be the solution to massive famines that swept through France. He decided to make popularizing potatoes his life’s mission.


(Image courtesy : Wikipedia)

Upon his return to France, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier embarked on a series of scientific experiments to prove that potatoes were perfectly nutritious. He published a treatise and presented it to the scientific academy. But, then as now, in the face of deeply held preconceived notions, scientific evidence meant nothing, the potato remained accursed.

So Parmentier decided to woo the court, he reached out to Louis XVI, the monarch, who agreed to support his cause and offered land for his experiments. Soon, Parmentier started throwing dinner parties with twenty different dishes on the menu – all made with potatoes. Understanding, the role of fashion in Parisian society he presented the King and the Queen with bouquets of potato flowers and they wore it on their hat and jabot. While the aristocracy of Versailles took to the latest fashion and ate potatoes in his parties, he couldn’t get the common people of France to eat the humble tuber.

And that’s when King Louis XVI and Antoine-Augustin Parmentier devised an elaborate con to get the French populace to eat potatoes.

In those days, much of the King’s wealth came from the loathed gabelle – the onerous and unfair salt tax. Salt fields and salt convoys were heavily guarded by the military. The peasants saw that Parmentier’s potato fields were similarly guarded by the King’s guards who maintained a tight vigil. They thought that if potato fields were guarded like the salt fields, then potatoes must be valuable and not leprosy inducing. And why should only the royalty enjoy what grew in those guarded fields? So, one day, as the guards took a break, the peasants stole some of the tuber and very soon potato fields started cropping up across the country. The people even found potato recipes in cook books, helpfully, written by Parmentier himself. The ruse was a success and Antoine-Augustin Parmentier finally managed to popularize the humble potato.

As Parmentier discovered, preconceived notions cannot be breached by throwing science at it. Scientific claims may be reasons to believe but are not a reason to buy, however, many marketers continue confuse these. Only creative solutions that stem from an intimate understanding of how people behave, manage to drive behavior and spur action.

Today, modern marketers may describe tactics employed by Parmentier to popularize his spuds, as influencer marketing or content marketing. But the core of his success lay in tapping into a behavioral bias – the less there is, the more you want it.

Robert Cialdini’s landmark book Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion, lists scarcity as one the key principles that can make a product appear more valuable. If you reflect deeply, this is an age-old technique, deployed by saree salesmen in Chandni Chowk to hawkers in Dadar market. From De Beers to Hermes’ Birkin bag, brands have successfully tapped into this behavioral bias. When stores limit the number of items you can buy, it sparks a buying frenzy. Introduction of limited editions and countdowns on shopping websites that show how long special prices will be available for are all variations of the same basic insight.

Sneaker and street-wear brands employ a sales tactic called ‘drop’. Limited release of, say a new sneaker, is announced on social media, this is amplified by influencers, celebrities and sneaker heads who whip up a frenzy. And when the sneaker is released, it is sold out in a matter of seconds and finds its way into the resale market where it is resold at exorbitant premiums. Nike was the originator of the ‘drop’ with its Air Jordan in the 1980s and now brands like Adidas with their Yeezy Boost collection; the famed collaboration with Kayne West, have successfully mastered this vicious hype circle of drop, buy and resale.

Unfortunately, there are also examples where industries and brands employ dodgy sales techniques built on these very insights. Earlier this year, UK’s competition commission clamped down and fined travel websites for making false representations of a hotel’s popularity, with claims such as ‘one room left at this price’. These websites engaged in pressure selling techniques, misled consumers over prices and gave prominence to hotels that paid the most commissions.

If you hear someone speak about how Gen Z is unique in its suffering from FOMO, remind them of Parmentier’s story. Stripped to its essentials, FOMO is fundamentally the same behavioral bias exhibited by 18th century French peasantry.

As the legendary Bill Bernbach said; it took a million years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to vary. It is fashionable to talk about the changing man. A communicator must be concerned with the unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.

Note: The edited version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 8 December, 2019.