Hidden Persuasion

One of the most important reasons why ad people can’t always communicate with marketeers is that they like to take decisions on gut feeling, while marketeers prefer to be convinced by evidence-based cases. There’s a bit of a Catch22 here, since creative agencies per definition try out completely new things that go unprecedented. However, if you zoom in on the psychological mechanism of persuasion of a certain idea, there are many scientific studies that might be able to tell you something about its potential effectiveness. The book Hidden Persuasion, recently published by BIS and written by Marc Andrews, Matthijs van Leeuwen and Rick van Baaren, has collected and summarised a big chunk of these studies.

For experienced advertisers most techniques in the book will sound pretty familiar. Axe’s (or Lynx’) world famous irresistible advertising, described in the book as “The Promised Land,” is something that hardly seems to require an academic point of view. What makes the book interesting though is that it dives into the nuances of persuasion mechanisms. About ‘the promised land’: “we know it is not (completely) true, but we wish it to be true – emotionally, we feel inspired and attracted to it.” Which is actually why advertising is not as evil as often described; people like to be seduced. Even by brands.

Another example is persuasion by ‘Humour.’ I knew already that it increases the likeability of a brand. But I never realised that this is the reason because it lowers the consumer’s resistance to advertising. And there’s even another (negative!) side effect that comes with humour; it decreases the memory of the brand. That’s probably why Bill Bernbach said: “humor should never be used to make a joke, only to make a point.

Hidden Persuasion Disrupt and Reframe - June 2014
Another technique – resembling humour quite a bit I know now – is usually simply caught in the cliche ‘Sex sells.’ According to Andrews, Van Leeuwen and Van Baaren however, it forms a “double edged sword.” While it obviously does draw attention, the attention is directed towards the sexual imagery itself rather than the brand – especially when there’s no natural link between sex and the product. Sex in advertising thus often negatively influences the recall for a product.

Evoking ‘Fear’ is also a tricky persuasion technique. Think of showing an animation of nasty bacteria in or on our body. Since the fear emotion is embedded in the evolutionary structures of our brain, it can easily trigger – in jargon – a “fight-or-flight” response. This means that if we see an ad that scares us, we are tempted into ‘flight’ or – in the world of consumer behaviour – we simply avoid the message. But there’s more. The danger of ‘Smokers die younger” on a packet of cigarettes – another fear-invoking mechanism – is that after some time we start to associate these messages with smoking, so that they can – in a Pavlovian way – even activate wanting and reward areas in the brain.

Consumers are not very rational creatures when it comes to their buying behaviours is what this book elaborately shows with its 33 different psychological influence techniques. It is thus fairly easy to persuade them into buying. The book however also makes you realise how many ads out there push the wrong buttons in the consumer’s brain. It almost helps you to appreciate a marketeer that is constantly begging for proof. I say ‘almost’ cause the book ends with a very important quote by John Wanamaker: “Advertisements may be evaluated scientifically; they cannot be created scientifically.” In other words, the creative gut is still probably the most important tool when having to come up with creative ideas.

Hidden Persuasion is available at BIS Publishers.