Persuasion Is Social, Stupid

Today I have the day off for a combination of Ambedkar Jayanti and Baisakhi. They say there is a festival for every day of the year in India – the reality is that on some days there are several. Anyway, by way of testament to the title of my blog, I’m spending some of the day writing up a few posts I’ve been thinking about but haven’t got round to. I’ll drip feed them over the next few days.

My starting point is persuasion. Persuasion is hugely unfashionable at the moment (it has never been that fashionable in fairness, we don’t really like to be reminded our job is to sell stuff), it is under attack from any number of angles. Ehrenberg, behavioural economics, neuroscience – all these things call into question what we thought we knew about persuasion. Ehrenberg tells us behaviour leads to attitudes and not the other way around, behavioural economics tells us we’re not the super-rational post-Enlightenment thinkers we think we are – we rarely, if ever, weigh up the options and make the best possible decision, neuroscience tells us we basically buy brands because we like them – advertising is not seperate from brand memories it’s all one big jumbled up mess, so by extension, the most effective ads are ads we like not ones that persuade us. I don’t doubt that any of this is true, which led me to ask myself why then is persuasion such a good predictor of short term sales changes – why does it work?

First, let’s deal with whether it actually does work. I’m fully willing to accept that we’re unlikely to learn much about long term sales from a persuasion question and we all know they’re the bulk of any sales an ad is likely to generate. I also accept that correlation doesn’t mean causation and I’m not arguing that persuasion questions work because we’re actually persuading people to change their behaviour in the traditional sense – but virtually every pre-test uses some approach to persuasion and despite arriving at a metric through different approaches and different means, they all tend to see some relationship with a change in sales in the short term. I know lots of people used to think the world was flat (remarkably, some still do) but I think it’s unlikely that we’ve all reached the same point through very different journeys and come up with something completely meaningless. It seems more likely that persuasion metrics are telling us something meaningful – just not necessarily what we thought they were telling us.

My personal hypothesis is this (emphasis on ‘my’ and ‘personal’ here) – we are not rational, we do not buy brands because we have been persuaded to do so by compelling, newsworthy creative – but we believe we are and we believe we do. Our peers in society expect us to behave in a rational and sensible way – if you’re a housewife in Pune spending an extra Rs100 on a washing powder, you’re going to have to justify that to your husband – ‘I liked it more’ doesn’t allow you to justify it to yourself, let alone him even if deep down that’s the fundamental reason you were swayed. One criticism we hear regularly is that we talk too much about what advertising does to people and not what people do with advertising – my feeling is that persuasive advertising has massive utility – it allows people to justify their irrational decisions to themselves and to their peers. It’s not telling us why people are buying, it’s telling us why people think they are buying.

Further, we know from neuroscience work we’ve done with the University of Bangor that brand memories sit in three broad buckets – knowledge, emotion and experience. We have found that a breadth of associations across these three buckets is more important than depth in any one single bucket. Effectively, the greater area of brain with firing neurons, the greater likely brand strength. Experience can be driven by advertising (through enhancement) but most advertising is probably primarily dealing with the other to. Ads that have traditionally been seen as persuasive are likely to be doing a good job with your knowledge bucket.

Broadly speaking, the emotional reaction will happen first (in fact it is this that garners our attention in the first place) and then spread across the brain into other areas where we seek to clarify what the reaction was and why we had it. Clearly if that initial emotional reaction is negative, we’ve lost – fundamentally, it’s this that drives our decisions. However, if two brands generate a positive emotion of similar proportions but one has done a better job of explaining why we feel that way (through being new, relevant, credible and different – sound familiar?) then that brand is likely to win out. Not only do we love it, but we can explain to people (including ourselves) why in terms that don’t make us sound ridiculous.

Fundamentally, there is no question that too much emphasis is placed on persuasion (for some people it’s the ONLY important metric!) given what we now know about decision making and how the brain works. I don’t think we should be afraid of admitting that. But I also think there’s a reason why measures that tell us how emotionally involving and likeable an ad is and measures of persuasion are both related to sales changes, but not related to each other. We shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but we should definitely be reappraising why that is and, more importantly, where our priorities should lie as a result.

I tried to come up with a clever acronym, but it’s probably a fair comment on my character that I came up with a puerile one instead – Persuasion is Social, Stupid. I’m not sure I’ve fully fleshed all this out in my own mind as yet, let alone in this post, and I’d welcome any thoughts.

3 thoughts on “Persuasion Is Social, Stupid”

    1. Probably, but it’s not a case of brand speaks to consumer, consumer speaks back. If we accept the brand exists in the consumers mind, then any dialogue that exists is essentially internal. Beyond simply building on whether I like the brand or not, does it help me explain/justify to myself and others why that is?

      In that sense ‘one’ indeed does need a dialogue!

  1. There was no time in the old monologue model to persuade. One had to be persuasive or die. But I agree persuasion is a lot more human so let me think about that a bit more.

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