Sixty years ago Vance Packard’s best-seller The Hidden Persuadersintroduced post-WW2 Americans to the work of motivational researchers studying underlying consumer motives using analytical techniques. Regarded as highly controversial by the advertising industry, the sensational, and unattributed contents nevertheless drew heavily on articles published during the 1950s in the industry’s own Journal of Marketing.

Using many of the same techniques discussed in his book, Packard successfully promoted The Hidden Persuaders by emphasizing the controversial idea that people were “targets” of “subliminal” and coercive psychoanalytical techniques they couldn’t resist–or at least that’s what authorities such as journalist and critics accused him of. In fact, Packard never used the word subliminal and said very little about subthreshold effects. The premise was simply that advertising agencies were using in-depth interviews to understand consumer’s hidden motivations so they could use them to encourage consumers to buy.

The techniques he described had nothing to do with psychoanalytics, but today the technoques they used are well understood within the fields of psychology, neuroscience, advertising, and consumer research. Indeed, since the 1980s, cognitive research has shown the substantial role non-conscious processes play in everyday life. Guerilla marketing techniques, product placement, infomercials, and other modern techniques draw heavily on cognitive science to create influencing strategies.

But most of the marketing, mass media, and advertising at the time the book came out was based on a behaviorist view. What happened in the black box of a consumer mind was assumed to be simply stimulus-response, and internal cognitive processes were not accessible. Proof of the view, they argued, was Orson Welles’s 1938 stimulus War of the Worlds radio show about an alien invasion and the public’s hysterical response.

It’s worth noting that the leading proponent of behaviorism was John Watson, who became vice president at renowned ad-agency J. Walter Thompson.

Motivational researchers, however, believed that “deep” interviews could reveal unconscious motives and emotional responses that went beyond knee-jerk reactions. But the pall of coercion hung over the field prompting Theodore Levitt of Marketing Myopia fame to ask, “What are the effects of manipulation—whether it be blatant persuasion or subtle motivation like the hidden persuaders? Will we become a nation of robots with mechanical appetites?”

Thanks to behaviorism’s inability to adequately explain human behavior, social cognition research emerged to try to explain the inner workings of our minds based on conscious information processing and our predisposition to evaluate people, issues, and objects favorably or unfavorably.

But even in the late 1990s, consumer research focused on explicit processing models, typically tested under tight experimental conditions. The real world is a messy, uncontrollable place, however, and multiple influences compete for people’s attention and people often have conflicting motivations and goals.

Today, researchers meld the behaviorists’ external influences of with cognitive psychology’s internal processes. What they’ve found is that multiple factors (external and internal) combine to create our perceptions, emotions, and judgments—some conscious and some subconscious. More interesting, perhaps, they’ve found that some motivations can be activated or primed subliminally or supraliminally such that people are aware of the stimulus, but not its influence. (See the example of the effect of music in a wine shop.)

Robert Cialdini’s  2001 book Influence, codified six principles of persuasion that describe our intuitive understanding of the way people think and behave. What isn’t so obvious, he points out, is that the principles can be used in combination to enhance their effect. Discussing your background with colleague allows you to tap into their natural response to your authority. Learning about their expertise allows you both to bond over similarities. And once aligned, others will be inclined to cooperate thanks to social evidence.

It’s worth pointing out—and Cialdini, to his credit, is emphatic on the issue—the science of social influence can be misused like any other scientific knowledge. Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that using the principles of persuasion to manipulate others inevitably backfires in the long run.

All parties can benefit if the principles of scarcity, expertise, obligations, similarities, social proof, and commitments are understood and applied. It’s just good business if the persuaders aren’t hidden, it turns out.


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