Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

The Hidden Language of Persuasion

You’re navigating the aisles of your favorite supermarket. You’ve done it so many times that you know the map by heart. Perishables stand along the perimeter, paper goods are on aisle 5, snacks and drinks on 10. Except that today, something’s different. Instead of its usual packaging, every product in the store is encased in a plain brown wrapper. A simple white label identifies its contents: oat cereal, concentrated detergent, roasted almonds, sugar-free lollipops. Unless you are a stickler for sticking to your lists, be honest: Would your shopping cart, in this scenario, be half as full as it normally is?

Before we reach the registers, here’s another question: How does a purveyor of cans and bottles of cola become a multi-million dollar corporate giant? Can any soda, no matter how refreshing, have such an impact? Is its fantastic success the result of taste alone? What bubbly brown brew has such power?

Moving from market to mall, you notice two cotton knit polos hanging on parallel racks, in a store selling contemporary sportswear. Surprisingly, teens are ready to pay twenty to thirty dollars more for the shirt sporting the pony or alligator applique, despite the similarity in appearance and matching quality of both tops. Few of those young purchasers come from affluent homes, and often it’s their hard-earned baby-sitting money paying for these items.

Why does packaging play such an important, albeit barely noticed, role in determining what we buy? What is it about an ordinary item, such as a soft drink or a bottle of shampoo, that gives it larger-than-life appeal? And why do otherwise intelligent people of all ages and backgrounds make consumer choices that defy logic?

There is a force in the human psyche that bypasses logic, contradicting and often overpowering it. Rav Yerucham Levovitz describes that mysterious and ubiquitous force. He tells the story of a customer shopping for fabric, to be made into a special suit for an important occasion. Perusing the store’s selections, the person examines one sample for a few moments. Deciding it’s not right for him, he moves to drop it and go on. Suddenly, a highly trained salesperson hurries over, calling out, “Aha! I knew from the moment you walked into my shop that you were a person of impeccable taste. How did you know that on my most recent buying trip to Paris, this very fabric was what all the representatives of Europe’s fashion houses were buying? Unbelievable how you picked it out! And look how good this color looks on you, lighting up your whole face.

“Of course,” the seller murmurs, “this kind of quality comes at a price. However,” the voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper, “since you have such good taste, and you carry yourself so well, I think you’ll be a great advertisement for my merchandise. Therefore, I’m going to offer you a generous discount. But please,” the whisper descends a few dramatic decibels, “don’t tell anyone.”

The customer, thoroughly convinced, says, “Fine. I’ll take it.”

The cloth is cut, prettily wrapped, cash changes hands (or, in the updated version, a credit card is swiped), and “have a nice day!” echoes across the shop as the exit door swings open.

Most of us can identify with the scene just described, and with Rav Levovitz’s succeeding comments:

“Not just when the customer arrives home and has a chance to think,” reflects the mashgiach, whose understanding of human behavior was but one facet of his brilliance, “not even in as long as it takes to settle his packages around him for the train ride home, or to walk the two blocks from store to station does clarity return. The moment he leaves the store, he will clap his head in disbelief, wondering, ‘What did I do? Why did I buy this? It’s the wrong color, not at all right for me, and, despite the so-called ‘generous discount,’ it’s ridiculously overpriced!’”

And yet, we are persuaded. We believe, and we buy into, and we buy. Even the smartest among us. Because the force that persuades us does not feed on seichel, logic, but on emotions. It is called, in the words of the Rav Levovitz, “koach hapitui,” the force of emotional persuasion, as in “Hishomru lochem pen yifteh levavchem – Be on guard lest your hearts persuade you.”

Flattery regarding a customer’s impeccably good taste, a compliment about how a color lights up her face, and the intimation that an item’s cost represents a great bargain all rely on emotional appeal. They aim to draw feelings toward a desired end, as irresistibly as ocean tides are drawn to the moon.

Koach hapitui takes various forms, manifesting differently in different people. It comes in the form of fear, laziness, anger, or the desire for things ultimately destructive and not worth their price. The way to fight it – yes, of course there is a way – particularly when it tries to persuade one to sin, is explained powerfully by Rav Levovitz and is beyond the scope of this article. It is empowering, however, to know that koach hapitui is the fulcrum of Madison Avenue, the axis on which the entire advertising industry spins. Awareness of the ways in which advertisers appeal to our emotions, and of the language of persuasion, can help us become more knowledgeable consumers, less susceptible targets for exaggerated claims.While claims for a product may be cleverly constructed to imply outstanding qualities, advertisers stop short of outright untruths. The United States’ Truth in Advertising laws, such as the Pure Food and Drug Act, established during the Progressive Era to fight promotions for patent medicines and other unsubstantiated goods, threaten stiff penalties to any company making false assertions. And the Federal Trade Commission is constantly on the alert for slip-ups in the system. General Mills, for example, was ordered to modify what the government considered exaggerated claims of the cardiac benefits of Cheerios.

The watchword, then, for advertisers is, “Don’t lie. Imply.” If I want to interest you in my powdered lemonade mix that is chock-full of corn syrup and unpronounceable chemicals, I can’t do so by calling it “natural” “or wholesome” or “made totally with real lemons.” I can, however, portray it in a full-color magazine ad, showing a family at a picnic table, complete with red-and-white checked cloth, Grandma in bun and gingham apron, and a pitcher filled with icy cold liquid, fresh lemon slices floating on top.

I can’t say that the drink mix is made with real fruit, but I can say that it has “real lemon flavor.” I don’t need to spell out that the flavor is made in a laboratory. And I’m even allowed to name this brew, which has been dyed the color of highway caution tape, “Down-Home Lemon Delight,” “Nature’s Treat” or “Country Morning Lemonade.” That’ll pull in folks who pine for walks in the woods and hayrides on the old farm.

This hypothetical lemonade ad capitalizes on one of the most common techniques used by the ad industry, the transfer technique. Like an iron-on transfer pressed onto a white tee shirt, an image aiming to arouse positive feelings is transferred to the advertised product. For example, a mouthwash might be displayed amidst a party scene, full of attractive people, bringing the consumer to associate the breath freshener with good looks and fun times. Until 1971, when cigarette ads on electronic media were banned, a popular long-running campaign starred the Marlboro Man, a rugged cowboy riding a fast horse while a Marlboro cigarette dangles from his sun-chapped lips. Cigarettes, of course, have nothing to do with cowboys. Yet the visual message was powerful, and the symbol of male hardiness and adventure was arguably the best-known icon in the history of advertising. Also visually effective were ads for Kool, another brand of cigarettes. They portrayed young, healthy-looking people in a grassy field, with a shimmering waterfall as the backdrop. The cigarettes were transferred to that bucolic background in order to deliver the message that they represented nature and freshness. Cigarettes, yes.

Not all advertisements promote products of questionable value. There are thousands of functional, helpful, beautiful items on the market that serve people well. The problem arises when advertising convinces us that we need something when we really don’t. When they instill dissatisfaction, ruining the happiness attained through the middah of somei’ach bechelko. When they create wants and aspirations that do nothing for us, other than lead us to unnecessarily spend money. Often, it’s money we don’t have, spent on stuff that morphs into burdensome clutter, long before the Visa bill arrives.

One strategy that accomplishes this is the snob appeal technique, which feeds the consumer’s wish to feel a cut above, heir to exclusive baubles, a “bessere mentch.”

Years ago, a children’s wear shop in New York called itself “For Your Child Only.” A long-running ad for L’oreal shampoo featured a person holding “The most expensive shampoo in the world. Because I’m worth it.” Typical fodder for snob appeal campaigns includes luxury cars, fine jewelry, imported wines and fragrances and high-end furniture. Ads for these items artfully turn their glaring drawback – steep cost – into an enticing asset. It’s not about buying it despite the price, but because of it; a high-pressure ticket to join the ranks of exclusivity.

The opposite of exclusivity is the focus of the bandwagon technique. Derived from the old concept of jumping on the bandwagon to show support for a political candidate, bandwagon’s roots lie in the Latin appellation “ad populum, for the people. That phrase described a government figure who made decisions based on the mindset of the mass population, rather than on his own beliefs. Similarly, the bandwagon technique in advertising addresses a person’s desire to join the crowd and fit in. Any ad that encourages its audience to “Choose the toothpaste chosen by 9 out of 10 dentists surveyed” (the promoters are not required to disclose whether the 9 out of ten were those who got the product for free, or were, prior to the survey, known to use that brand); buy the “potato chip that’s number one in Los Angeles (Number one in sales? Quality? Customer service? Number of ads?)” or “Hurry! You don’t want to be the last kid on the block to own brand-new Brocs” is telling you to hop on the bandwagon. Other phrases that have no concrete meaning but are too vague to be disproved appear in slogans such as, “The book that’s taking the country by storm” and “Everyone’s favorite candy bar.”

Another strategy targeting its audience differently than does the snob appeal approach is called, appropriately, the plain folks technique. A plain folks ad aims to imbue its merchandise with a “for regular people like you and me” aura. It portrays a product as “no-nonsense, no silly frills, good value for folks who know all about real value.” All of our most recent US presidents took office as very wealthy individuals. Yet, during Jimmy Carter’s election campaign, he was shown hand-picking peanuts on his farm, with folk music playing in the background. Ronald Reagan was photographed chopping wood. People identify with the mythical “Good Guy Joe” mowing the lawn in his shirtsleeves and talking with his neighbors about the price of gas and the luck of the local sports team.

Ads for Motel 6, a discount chain, emphasized simplicity and comfort. Its famous catchphrases, “Just a clean comfortable room for x dollars a night” and “We’ll leave the light on for you,” endeared budget-minded travelers to its charms. It was easy to picture a kindly host turning on the guest room lamps and turning down the quilts. Who wants to pay extra for peppermints on the pillow, anyway?

Sometimes what we decide we need is influenced by well-known people who endorse a specific brand. Have you seen an ad in which a famous figure in professional sports, or the cosmetics industry, or the media, extols a product? The ad agency puts convincing words in the celebrity’s mouth, making it sound as if he is so taken with the benefits of a particular cereal, coffee, or conditioner that he insists on sharing his excitement and satisfaction with the public. It sounds that way, but that’s an illusion. Fact is, companies pay thousands for celebrity endorsements, called testimonials. The testimonial technique is one of the most successful, for consumers trust the expertise, real or assumed, of the endorser. Again, it’s all about implication. The basketball player promoting a popular brand of sneakers may not say, “I’m an all-star player because of my running shoes.” He is allowed, however, to announce, “I made my best slam-dunk ever in my Cikes,” leading the athletically ambitious target audience to view those shoes a pass to the big leagues.

There are major league players on the ball field, and major league words and phrases in advertising. Companies using the magic words technique like to use those words. According to David Ogilvy, one of the best-known names in the advertising world, some of the most persuasive words in marketing are:


  • Now
  • Announcing
  • Introducing
  • Revolutionary
  • Offer
  • Quick
  • Easy
  • Compare
  • Hurry

Often, a “magic words ad” will highlight, emphasize, magnify, or otherwise draw attention to a word or phrase, giving it artificial importance by constructing it into a larger-than-life edifice. A can of soup is advertised as 100% LEAN BEEF. Someone reading that begins to visualize a bowl brimming with chunks of succulent meat. Of course, no soup is made of 100% beef; if it were, it would be beef, not soup. The true statement made by the ad is that whatever meat is in the soup – and it may be a very small amount – is 100% lean. But the magic words “100%” and “lean beef” jump at the reader, raising the specialness of the soup in her mind.

An ad appearing in women’s magazines in the 1930s, when canned fruits and vegetables were beginning to make inroads into the American pantry, praised the benefits of canned pineapple, capitalizing and underlining the phrase continuously, as it lauded the product. The qualities the ad mentioned, including vitamin c, fiber, and good taste, did indeed apply to canned pineapple. Those bold words, however, distracted the consumer from the realization that fresh pineapple had those same benefits in equal or greater measure. With a few strokes of the pen and brush, canned turns into magic.

The magic words technique can also be used to downgrade a product that competes with the one being advertised. Have you heard of “old-fashioned powder cleaners,” “weak liquid detergents,” “regular aspirin” and “ordinary cat food”? Did you ever wonder what the modifiers really meant? Do they mean anything?

Even if those associations are illogical, as are the intimation that a presidential candidate in overalls is one who understands you; the implication that purchasing high-priced possessions makes you special, or the suggestion that teabags in a box with a sailboat graphic have more of a calming effect than the same tea in a different package, they have the power to reach us, via our koach hapitui , the influence of emotional persuasion. Awareness of how it works puts us in a better position to choose. For knowledge, too, is power. We do have a choice and advertisers know that. That is why they work so hard, to strategize and refine the art and language of persuasion.



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