See what I did there? I made you read this because you were afraid you might not be able to later. That’s the principle of scarcity.
In his powerful book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini outlines a number of key points that drive us as social creatures, and does two competing things at the same time.
- He teaches people how to use these skills to persuade others (hence, the book is very popular with sales organizations), and
- He teaches people how to recognize these techniques and deflect them, which is an equally important skill.
The simple truth is that everyone likes to buy, but no one likes to be sold. Hence the salesman’s job is to find ways to get around people’s natural resistance to being influenced or persuaded, and do it in such a way that the
victim customer feels as though all the decisions were his or hers, and his or hers alone.
Have a look at the following instructions presented at a training meeting for automobile salesmen.
“Treat them like your dog.” Is it any wonder that people feel more than slightly soiled when they interact with salesmen on a car lot (or anywhere else these techniques are deliberately practiced)?  This training is designed to create a win/lose scenario; the salesman wins, and gets his or her commission; the
victim customer loses (although they think they’ve won) because in all likelihood they’ve bought a car that doesn’t suit them for a price they didn’t want to pay.
Cialdini’s central thesis comes from the concept that most sales or persuasion techniques strive to activate the “click, whirr” response. For instance, mother turkeys will attack any perceived danger, unless that danger is emitting a “cheep-cheep” sound, in which case it will be nurtured. The response is always stimulated by a trigger feature, usually a small part of the whole. To translate that into the world of sales, an example would be:
Expensive = Good. Click, whirr
Here is the executive summary of Cialdini’s book, for your gratuitous reading pleasure, taken from an article at Psychology Today entitled “The Art of Influence” (a good read in its own right)
- Reciprocation: Consider the in-store wine tasting, or the free scone at the coffee shop. We think we’re coming out on top, but the expectation to give back is strong within us, and leads us to buy something.
- Consistency: We like to see ourselves as consistent souls with unwavering beliefs. So if you ask me to publicly declare my devotion to animal rights, for example, I’m more likely to donate money to PETA later.
- Social Validation: Rugged individualist fantasies aside, we are more likely to do something if we see that many other people like us have also done it.
- Liking: If you like someone, you are more likely to say “yes” to her request. If she is pretty, you’re even more likely. And if she compliments you, well, that works, too.
- Authority: Four out of five dentists recommend using the reassuring gloss of authority to sell this toothpaste.
- Scarcity: Anyone who has grabbed a plain, overpriced t-shirt from another’s hands at a “one-day-only” sale understands how persuasive limited-time and limited-quantity offers are.
All of this creates a dilemma for suppliers of goods and services who wish to get the word out about their products in an ethical manner. Sales are driven by advertising, like it or not; it becomes a challenge of monumental proportions to attract people to your product without being dishonest or deceptive, especially amid the cacophony of hundreds of millions of products vying for attention.
It’s no wonder, then, that some of the most effective commercials have been first and foremost entertaining, because they deliver value in addition to information. I’ve blogged about entertaining commercials elsewhere, but here again are two of my favorites:
This commercial for Pepsi doesn’t even use the word… in fact, there are no words at all in this ad, or in the one below, besides displaying the product image. The clip is funny, and you are left with a good feeling which has been tied to the idea that this particular product is refreshing.
Again, this ad is totally wordless – but it’s a crackup, and rated at the very top of the Superbowl ads for that year. The look of satisfaction on the good ol’ boy’s face, the punchline at the end, all combine to tell you (while your brain is being flooded with endorphins) that this product is hot and satisfying.
Strangely enough, the classic Alka Seltzer commercial “Spicy Meatball” was hugely entertaining but not all that successful, because people weren’t quite sure which product was being advertised; many people thought it was a spot for spaghetti sauce.
The two fastest ways to convince people (including yourself) of something are 1) repetition, and 2) tying the experience to a strong emotional response. Hence advertising that entertains, in addition to providing the extraneous benefit of brightening people’s day, are also very effective in associating the idea of a product with that good feeling.
For myself, I reject the notion that advertising and sales must be linked to the above-mentioned persuasion mechanisms. I prefer an honest and factual presentation of a product or service and allowing a customer to decide for themselves based on the information at hand. There are prices and benefits to this approach – I will never create a Fortune 500 company, but I can sleep well at night knowing I’ve not made money by the practice of deception.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
 One of the most violent applications of manipulative sales techniques can be found in those “vacation resort presentations” that people get roped into on cruises or in holiday locations; the fact that people still buy timeshare condos, despite the fact that they are one of the worst possible and least practical investments, is a tribute to the manipulation skill of these barely-legal con artists.
Now, in the interest of fairness, the timeshare condo can be a good purchase for certain people with a very narrow set of criteria; I know some folks that are very happy with their arrangements. That said, it should never be treated as an investment, because these things lose value when you sign on the dotted line faster than a car being driven off the lot; here are 10 Myths about Timeshares from One Cent at a Time; the internet is full of similar pages, most full of good advice. Just do a web search for “truth about timeshares” and go from there.
Be aware, however, that many of these pages are run by people who either want to sell you timeshares and who have used black-hat SEO techniques to get you to their page, or by realtors who are promoting their own services. You’re going to have to do your homework, starting with the assumption that anything found on the Internet should be taken with a grain of salt until it has been independently confirmed by trustworthy sources.