The Cloaked Pull of Persuasion in Marketing

Originally Published in Psychology Today

 

How do sales tactics sway us to give our money away?

In the last post on hidden influences in marketing, we saw how companies strive to cultivate brand recognition and create the ideal store environment.  But marketing efforts go well beyond this, with carefully honed techniques all designed around the primary, financial bottom line—to lead us to buy.  When we understand some of the most effective marketing techniques, it’s easier to resist them, but knowledge alone isn’t enough to shield us from their persuasive power. If we think we’re above the pull of corporate influence, we’re apt to relax. And then it doesn’t matter how much information we possess. We’re still an easy target. So the more we can hold onto an awareness of marketing strategies and the realization that we're never immune from their influence, we’ll stand on more solid ground to make informed, less biased choices with our money. So, on that note, let’s explore some potent marketing methods.

Wait a minute!  What did you say?

"Thanks for the offer, but I’m all set!"

These words line up at the starting gate, ready to race from your mouth as you nod your head and wait for a pause in the sales pitch to shut it all down. I’m betting this sounds familiar to you, and it’s certainly no secret to salespeople either. So how do they stop the mental “No, thank you!” tape from playing? An off-beat sentence thrown in as a curve ball just before the actual sales pitch works quite nicely. It’s a technique called disrupt-then-reframe. Imagine you’re strolling through a mall when a salesperson selling gift cards approaches you.

"Good day! I’m selling gift cards, and the price for one is as little as 100 dimes. It’s a great deal! What do you say?"

Wow—100 dimes?! The quirkiness of dimes, as opposed to the familiarity of dollars, handily distracts you from saying no and leaves you more open to believing the sales pitch (i.e., that you’re getting a good deal). This simple approach is so effective that it can even lead people to go along with ideas that oppose their own best interests, like voting for a hike in yearly college tuition—when they’re going to college! 

If you won’t agree to give away your dog, how about donating $50?  

Another approach is known as door-in-the-face. It hinges on a potent but often unstated social expectation that when a person does something beneficial for us, we owe it to them to return the favor. In psychology, this is called the norm of reciprocity, and we can see its reflection in common expressions such as “tit for tat,” "One good turn deserves another," and “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” If you’ve ever grumbled about an unexpected gift somebody gave you because it meant that you would have to buy a present in return, you have the norm to thank. It even turns up in subtler ways. The next time you see a person open a door for someone else without receiving any appreciation in return, look at his or her face. You’ll probably see a twinge of surprise, amusement, irritation, or a blend of these.  

So how does this apply to marketing and door-in-the-face? Let’s imagine that a salesperson approaches you and says, "Hi there!  Would you like to buy a 16-ounce bottle of our luxurious bath oil? It will leave your skin soft and supple!" 

In response, you say, “No, thank you.” But before you can walk away, the savvy salesperson says, “OK, how about the four-ounce bottle instead?

Notice what just happened here.  After you passed on the larger bottle, the salesperson scaled down to a smaller one, creating the illusion that he or she is agreeably trying to reach a middle ground with you. This is where pressure from the norm of reciprocity kicks in, leaving you with the vague sense that you should buy the four-ounce bottle because, well, the salesperson did try to meet you halfway, right? As you walk away with bath oil you didn’t even need, what slipped right under your attention is that the salesperson wasn’t actually engaging in any kind of give and take with you at all.  Even though it felt like an even exchange of favors, the only one who did any favors in that situation was you. 

Will you donate $50? Okay, now will you give away your dog?

The foot-in-the-door is the flipside of the door-in-the-face.  The salesperson using this approach starts off by asking you for a relatively minor favor, then maneuvers to the larger, genuine request.  For instance, imagine that as you walk into a store, a salesperson approaches you and says, "Hi!  Would you be willing to try our hand cream and complete a brief survey about it?  It won’t take more than two or three minutes of your time!"

That seems pretty minor.  What’s two to three minutes? Plus, your hands are feeling a little dry. Then the real pitch comes once you hand back the survey. 

"Thank you very much!  Can I interest you in our special gift basket?  It has the hand cream you just tried, a loofa sponge, scented soaps, and minty foot cream for just $20!"

Now that you’ve already committed to the first, smaller favor, you’re more likely to agree to the second, larger one to keep your decisions in line with each other.  After all, you’ve already agreed to one request. Why stop now and turn down a second one? 

Glad you liked the offer! Ooh, sorry I have to take it back!

This one is called the low-ball technique.  Picture yourself at a car dealership where you’ve found your wheeled version of The One.  Even better, the salesperson gave you a smashing offer of $17,000—for thatcar. You can’t believe your good fortune. Where do you sign and how fast can you make this darn pen go? As the salesperson leaves to get the paperwork, you dreamily see yourself zooming around town in it, so comfy, so responsive, so you. Then, right as you decide to name the car after your beloved childhood pet, the sales rep yanks you back to reality. 

"Oh gosh, I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but it looks like the price is going to be a bit higher. My boss said the deal is only good for the base model if we have it in stock, and since this model is the jazzed up version with the moon roof, I’m afraid the deal doesn’t apply. The price on this car is $23,000."

What?!  Disappointment floods in, but you don’t waver even though the true cost carves a bigger dent in your bank account. You go ahead and purchase the car because you’ve already made the commitment to do so. Once people firmly plant their feet on the ground and make a choice, they’re more inclined to see that decision through. This is why low-balling works.   

Get it while it lasts, and it won’t last for long!

This tactic relies on the notion of scarcity. When we believe that our ability to get hold of something is shrinking, we want it more. If you pay attention, you can spot scarcity in ads quite often. Ever see a website with a sale and a ticking clock counting down to the end of your chance for savings? 

"Don’t miss out on this incredible sale!  Time is running out!"

And what about those dramatic news clips of Black Friday shoppers brawling over the last Tickle Me Elmo? Scarcity plays a part there, too. Anytime you see an ad stressing limited stock or a narrow window of time to take advantage of a superb deal, watch the pull you feel. We tend to view such purchases not as wasteful, but as savvy, keen moves on our part. 

C’mon, everybody’s doing it!

We’re immensely social creatures—we pay attention to what other people do, including what they purchase. If a product or service is all the rage, it becomes more attractive to us. Marketers are aware of this, and they draw on what’s called social proof to generate sales. The underlying assumption behind social proof is our tendency to view anything that lots of people want in a shiny, positive light. Just think about websites that alert you to their most in-demand products, or the books flagged as being on The New York Times Best Seller List.  If other people are in on it (wherever itis), we want to be in on it, too, whether we originally wanted it or not. 

Yay, I like you! Now do what I want!

We’re more inclined to go the extra mile for those we like. It’s called the liking effect. We can like people for various reasons, such as their beauty or handsomeness, because we see a bit of ourselves in them, or because we know them. And sales people will strive to win your favor to persuade you to give them your business. A quote by a pharmaceutical sales representative vividly illustrates this

"I frame everything as a gesture of friendship…I give them free samples not because it’s my job, but because I like them so much. I provide office lunches because visiting them is such a pleasant relief from all the other docs. My drugs rarely get mentioned by me during our dinners."

These gestures seem sincere and even “off the cuff,” but they’re actually carefully crafted. And the same is true in other areas of marketing.

I know what I’m talking about! Now do what I want!

For our final technique, we come to the tactic of wielding authority.  We tend to follow people who seem like they’re in a position of authority, believing we ought to listen to them by virtue of their power, influence, or expertise. Famous athletes, film and TV stars, and experts in a particular field are examples of authority figures. And when any of these authority figures tell us to buy a product, we take notice and are more likely to listen. So let’s give ourselves the gift of taking time to step back and be mindful consumers. Do we want the product because we actually want it, or because a celebrity seems pumped about it? 

We’ve covered a range of strategies marketers use to sway how we spend our money. And even though we need to know about these persuasive approaches so we can spot them, knowledge alone isn’t enough to resist these tactics. We also need to be aware that we can fall for them. If we walk through the world convinced that we’re too smart, clever, or in-the-know ("Hey, maybe other gullible, uninformed dopes are sitting ducks, but not us!"), then we’re missing out on the toughest tool we need to push back against these techniques—humility. Our vulnerability to influential approaches doesn’t make us stupid. It just makes us human.

Holly ParkerComment