A lesson in scarcity with Simeon Stylites
Simeon Stylites was born around 390AD and lived until 2nd September 459AD when he died on top of the forty-five-foot stone pillar he’d decided to live on for thirty-seven years for the last thirty-seven years of his life.
Yes, he lived on top of a pillar for thirty-seven years.
And he died there.
And yes, before you ask, this is real.
It happened. Madness, I know.
Of course, Simeon didn’t see himself as being strange for desiring a simple, austere life. He just wanted to pray, contemplate things, and offer what spiritual advice he could to anyone struggling to face the suffering of this mortal coil.
He practiced what is known as asceticism, essentially abstaining from any sensual pleasure. By that I don’t just mean avoiding sex but abstaining from pretty much any stimulation of the senses, even drinking an ice-cold beer after a tough day, or listening to a Miles Davis record loud at the weekend.
It was Simeon’s aim to be an ascetic from a very young age. Having been born in a place known as Sis, now called Kozan, a city in Turkey forty-three miles North East of Adana, it’s said Simeon was well into Jesus from the age of just thirteen. He had the posters and everything.
At sixteen he joined a monastery but was expelled for being TOO austere.
His reaction to this was, naturally, to shut himself off and live in a hut for a year and a half. You’d do the same, right? He fasted throughout lent and when he finally came out, presumably to stretch his legs, it was hailed as a miracle.
But this created a problem for Simeon.
While he wanted to carry on off-grid and avoid Instagram as much as possible, the people had different ideas. They wanted to hire the miracle man for their own ends and try to bask in some of his miracle glow.
For a while he moved into a cosy twenty-metre crawl space in the rocky Sheik Barakat Mountains. Not the roomiest apartment available on Rightmove at the time, but the view was really something.
Still, when fans got wind of his new mountain abode, crowds would descend upon him demanding he perform his holiest of hits.
This is when Simeon thought to reduce demand for his services by reducing supply, a plan so flawed on a basic economic modelling level, even Lehman Brothers would have avoided hiring him.
Undeterred, he began with a more modest ten-foot pillar, and this seemed to work. He could sit up there comfortably, have boys bring him food and, generally, it didn’t seem too dangerous.
But people could still access him quite easily and talk to him as much as they liked. So, he reportedly kept moving to higher and higher pillars, until he finally settled on a forty-five-foot number in what is now Aleppo in modern day Syria. Now he was sure to be able to repent undisturbed.
Did it work? Did it hell. As news of his pillar-living spread through Byzantium, even emperors wanted in on the action. By inhibiting his availability, he was now attracting the big money.
Emperor Theodosius II and his wife Aelia Eudocia took Simeon’s counsel and various other bigwigs of the eastern Roman empire, such as Leo I, looked on the letters he would fire off from his plinth about Christian issues in a favourable manner.
Atop his pillar, Simeon had never been more in celebrated or in demand.
Others saw what he was doing and started imitating him creating a whole Stylite movement of – let’s face it – mad-heads living on pillars as a means of mortifying their bodies so their souls would have an easier route up to heaven.
Nowadays, Simeon is known as Simeon Stylites the Elder, just to help distinguish him from all the other crackpot Stylites that spent most of their days plonked up a post.
Still, aside from maybe David Blane, Simeon is the most famous of the pillar posers and lived on his for a mind-boggling thirty-seven years never quite getting the ‘me time’ he sought in the first place because he’d become too famous.
The story of Simeon Stylites has fascinated me ever since I first read about the ascetics like him who would live up a pillar, spend months hiding out in a mountain cave or bed-down for the night in a tub hanging between two poles.
But more than the sheer weirdness of this whole crew, I’ve always been interested by the fact that instead of dismissing these folks as nutters, a huge amount of the public at the time became more attracted to them.
They saw them as being more holy, living out an ideal of some form. And, crucially, what made them such attractions, was the very fact they were more difficult to reach, your chances to seek their counsel scarcer because of their isolated nature.
This goes to the heart of a basic fact in advertising: people often want what they can’t have.
When something is perceived as being scarce or unattainable, it’s perceived value and the urgency with which you must acquire it increases. You only need to look at the window displays of Tiffany’s or Louis Vuitton to see this idea in action.
A single diamond necklace or a lone leather handbag sits there atop its own precious pillar drawing your attention.
The very fact it seems so isolated makes you think it must be worth more and you want it more.
Scarcity is a powerful influence.
Indeed, we see the same principal in action when we’re told of a closing down sale. Despite the fact the products or services will likely be available elsewhere the next day and quite possibly at the same price (or even cheaper on Amazon at the same time as the sale), we tend to go hog-wild and buy things we never would have dreamed of with extreme urgency.
Because we’re led to believe it won’t be available, that we won’t be allowed it tomorrow.
We’re told the supply is restricted and so our demand rises.
To stop people bothering him for prayers and advice, Simeon really should have set up an extremely accessible stall in the marketplace, put up a sign offering free prayers and guidance for everyone and then happily watched as the populous quickly became bored and uninterested in his readily available spiritual service.
Yet that’s just it, when we want to increase demand for our product and service, our first thought in terms of advertising is to go down the ‘hey everyone one, I’m here’ route, to make sure people know your product or service is easily accessible and utterly available. Yet as we’ve seen from Simeon’s experience, contrary to our initial inclination to make access easy, often when you make it harder for people, when you make the thing scarcer or ‘play hard to get’ as Simeon did, you end up having many more people interested.