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FOMO - Fear of missing out


Toilet paper stockpiling is created from a psychological phenomenon driven by image-based media and constant news cycles – and largely because everyone else is doing it.

As humans, we are sheep and suffer FOMO – Fear of Missing Out. And running out of loo paper, for those who don’t have a bidet installed at home, is really, really inconvenient.

Over the years I’ve spent a fair amount of time watching and using consumer behaviour to help drive sales or influence outcomes for our clients. The nature of Territorians, even when we upgrade from a cyclone watch to a warning, is calm to the point of complacent. The boy- who-cried wolf syndrome – so many alerts that fizzled out to nothing – or the cynical belief that the newspapers must be in partnership with insurance companies or any other excuse is used to justify our lack of action. Maybe our remote location means it takes a fair bit to excite the average punter into panic purchasing on any level.

But whatever it is, one person diagnosed with a serious illness doesn’t normally get much of a reaction, let alone spark a panic in a place such as Darwin. That was until the coronavirus and the bizarre stockpiling of toilet paper started. Shelves were stripped overnight. Fannie Bay IGA had empty shelves and yet people were still coming in looking for loo paper in the five minutes I was there buying fresh mint and wondering what all the fuss was about.

Then I started seeing panic buying online – 70-year-old women fighting in the aisles, images on twitter of bulk purchasing, people being verbally abusive, snatching and assaulting strangers. Thankfully, that wasn’t in Darwin. I was confused at first because coronavirus has flu- like systems and I asked: why the hysteria over toilet paper and not tissues or Day and Night tablets? Face masks were not a big seller and, to be honest, I wouldn’t know where to go to buy that kind of thing here anyway.

What all this presents is a unique opportunity to study FOMO consumer behaviour. The main attribute of this virus is how easily it spreads and how you might have caught it weeks ago and not shown any symptoms. The direct action is to self-quarantine, which means no access to the outside world for 14 days, including those who have come into contact with you. It’s this isolation that is driving fear triggered by some basic consumer actions.

Feeling helpless about a situation doesn’t sit well with people. When we are faced with a spiralling situation, we experience a strong desire to do what we can to protect ourselves and regain a sense of control. Hence, buying bulk toilet paper makes perfect sense if faced with the real situation of self-quarantine. Entire countries of millions of people are being shut down and there is vision of people being locked in their own homes by force because they were not complying with quarantine instructions.

The scale of toilet paper hoarding can be directly linked to increased peace of mind that things are more under control. The more I have, the safer I’ll be for longer. In Darwin, we understand hoarding behaviour occurs in times of threat or panic. We are often faced with major weather conditions; products are stockpiled – things that are close to the body, such as food, medical care and alcohol. I remember being hunkered down during a cyclone warning and advised to stay off the roads.

I had a limited number of nappies. It was nothing short of terrifying. But I did have two bottles of gin, so things were not so dire for at least a week. In times of panic people do what they can to feel safe – filling up the car with fuel, buying double the amount of dog food or, as we are seeing played out on a global level now, buying loo paper.

Crazy becomes normal. Seeing people stockpiling toilet paper encourages others to do the same and suddenly everyone is doing it – it’s normalised, and we make it make sense. We are followers when we don’t fully understand what’s happening; it’s human nature to look to others around us and follow what they are doing. We find comfort in doing what others are doing because we feel like we are more in control.

I bet everyone who has needed to go to the supermarket has done a mental stocktake on the toilet paper situation, even if they say they don’t think the hype. Then out of curiosity I bet at one stage you have gone in search of toilet paper even if you didn’t need it. It was interesting when I went to the supermarket that I noticed there was also a shortage of pasta, tinned food and rice – what I would expect if we were under a bad weather warning, but nobody was photographing that. Why? Because it’s not visual enough.

Someone with a trolley overloaded with Sorbent toilet paper is far more visual and amusing than 10 bags of pasta and a trolley of tinned spaghetti. There’s something humorous about seeing people with lots of toilet paper, just the kind of thing that social and viral broadcasting loves. Every channel, every news break, shared Facebook posts, tweets and Youtube videos – you can’t get away from it. The more outrageous the story the more it circulates, and the cycle continues to feed the FOMO phenomenon.

Another aspect of visual impact is real estate. Toilet paper is a big and bulky product and there is always a dedicated aisle to the stuff, compared with bags of rice or tins of tuna. When there is a rush on, shelves empty quicker than shelves of baked beans – and the empty space is odd, confronting, and those who went looking for it immediately feel vulnerable. Therefore, when you do come across toilet paper you stock up more than normal – just in case. Stuff the other people who might actually need just a few rolls.

It’s everyone for themselves – dog eat dog, roll for roll. I joked that I was going to do a stocktake and audit of the commercial supply situation in the office and nobody seemed to think that was unreasonable. It wasn’t until I joked that bag checks at closing were going to be introduced to protect the loo paper supply did they think I was going over the top.

The good thing is for those who don’t have hoarded piles stacked up in the corner of the lounge room is that FOMO consumer behaviour and panic buying usually passes as quickly as it started. Another good thing with loo paper is that you will use it all eventually – it doesn’t expire.

Anya Lorimer is a Gruen Trophy winner with over 25 years’ experience in creative design, marketing and communications. Campaign Edge Sprout specialise in the power of persuasion for strategic marketing, branding and understanding consumers’ needs. Contact us today if you need some clever thinking that makes sense. TQ