Try to ban something? You'll encounter the Streisand Effect and power of forbidden fruit
Want to “ban” something? Politicians rarely learn “the last convertible rule,” aka “supply and demand.” Others understand it instinctively — and get rich.
In 1975, General Motors announced the 1975 Chevy Corvette and the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado would become the last American convertibles. Convertible production peaked at 7 percent of U.S. automobiles in the 1960s but cratered to just 1 percent by the mid-1970s. And now it was all over?
Many excuses were given (never-passed federal rollover safety regulations, the popularity of air conditioning). So GM announced “the last American convertible,’’ the end of the road.
Anytime you take something away (or threaten to ban it), demand soars. And prices follow suit:
Wealthy investors bought up these “last convertibles,” paying more than the $12,000 sticker price, putting them in garages, waiting for the prices to soar to a projected $100,000.
A new “after-market” to “chop” coupes into convertibles was created.
A new market blossomed with people paying $5,000 to turn coupes into convertibles. Seeing the profit potential, automakers wanted those sales back. The New York Times declared in 1981, “The U.S. Convertible Making a Comeback.”
All automakers soon offered convertibles again, including Cadillac. Investors who bought those “last convertibles” in 1976 filed a class action lawsuit but lost.
Remember “The Last Convertible Rule” when “bans” are announced
“Today a Classic, tomorrow a Collector’s Item,’’ one of the 1976 last convertible ads said in its headline. “‘76 Eldorado Convertible… Last of a Magnificent Breed.”
Sales spiked upward as people lined up to get them before they were gone. The Law of Supply and Demand: The greater the supply, the lower the demand. Limit or threaten to end supply and demand shoots upward.
Walt Disney famously milked “the Last Convertible Rule’’ by re-releasing an old cartoon classic like “Snow White,” claiming it would be available again for a limited time and then would be locked back in the vault for decades.
The Streisand Effect:
The Streisand Effect, named after singer Barbara Streisand, refers to an attempt to censor, hide or remove information that provokes the opposite response: more public attention than would have occurred otherwise.
The term is named after Streisand’s attempt to suppress the California Coastal Records Project’s photograph of her residence in Malibu, California. Cease-and-desist letters were sent to stop the photos, but the information received far more publicity through news coverage, videos, and even spoof songs.
Psychologists call this psychological reactance: when people know something is being kept from them, they are motivated to want to know more — not less — about it.
As a young journalist, this happened to me constantly: If a government board or agency gave us a stack of documents, we glanced at it with a passing interest. But the one sheet of paper we requested and didn’t get captured most of our attention. We want whatever we are told we can’t have.
And being told something or someone is actually banned or forbidden? Suddenly, it’s become the forbidden fruit we can’t stop thinking about.
Bans: From Prohibition to today
During World War I, the Great War, America was at war with Germany, most of the large U.S. breweries were owned by wealthy German-Americans, and a century-old debate over alcohol reached a boiling point.
Congress pushed through Prohibition, a constitutional amendment attempting to curtail alcohol use. Instead, demand for the banned substance grew, a whole new illegal sector of alcohol delivery, and public defiance of laws spread until the constitutional amendment was repealed in 1933.
The trend repeats itself when the government tries to ban or block things:
- In 1971, Richard Nixon announced the War on Drugs, which has continued with a federal investment of about $1 trillion. A 2014 Carnegie Mellon University study argues prohibition raises the cost of drugs 10-fold. The Monitoring the Future survey has tracked illicit drug use among high school students since 1975. It found 30.7 percent of high school seniors reported using drugs in the previous month during 1975, and that rate had dropped to 14.4 percent in 1992 but rose back to 25.2 percent by 2013.
- After the 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings, Barack Obama spoke out eloquently against mass shootings, calling for new gun sales restrictions. No restrictions were passed. Instead, gun sales shot upward: NSSF data found 655,143 guns were sold the month before Obama took office, rising to 847,808 guns purchased the month he began his presidency. In December 2012, the month of Obama’s remarks, a then-record 2,237,731 guns were sold. That number remained at 1,790,154 during the following month.
- In 2013, the French intelligence agency DCRI tried to classify and ban a Wikipedia article about the military radio station of Pierre-sur-Haute. It instead became the most viewed page on French Wikipedia.
- In 2017, South Africa tried to ban The President’s Keepers, a book about alleged corruption. The book sales shot up dramatically, and the book sold out within 24 hours before the ban was set to go into effect.
- In 2019, U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes sued Twitter and three users for defamation. One of the users he sued had a parody account called @DevinCow with 1,200 followers, but the media attention made that follower account soar to 600,000. Today the account has 772,000 followers.
- In October 2020, The New York Post published a series of news reports detailing emails from the laptop of Hunter Biden, son of Joe Biden. Twitter blocked the Post’s account and other users from sharing the story, including White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany. MIT researchers argued the ban caused an increase of 5,500 extra shares every 15 minutes as soon as the ban went into effect. They argued the Streisand Effect showed attention nearly doubled the attention the story received.
- In 2021, Twitter and other social media platforms announced they were blocking Donald Trump and many other political users from using their platforms. The company’s stock and user traffic declined. Will demand for the blocked content now grow as people move to alternatives? Will the Streisand Effect and the Rule of the Last Convertible create new demand?