How to use the tools of persuasion in advertising?

Advertisements hold the power to persuade readers into buying the products it is promoting. The keyword here is persuasion. Advertisers uses persuasion everyday to influence potential consumers into buying their products / services.

Dr. Robert Cialdini, best known for his 1984 book on persuasion and marketing, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, writes that there are six principles of persuasion that we can utilize in order to influence others at our will.

First, there’s reciprocation. All of us are taught since young to repay others whenever we can. Most people will find ways to avoid being called a freeloader, or a moocher. In the perspective of advertising, this tactic is used often. Free samples or free trails are often offered to potential customers to persuade them to buy the products / services. A sense of indebtedness can be formed when uninvited “first favors” such free samples are given. With that sense of guilt, the potential customer will feel the need to reciprocate and in return, buy the product / service, which is the goal of the advertisers. For example, supermarkets or stores would have sampling stations near the product advertised to hand out free tastings and will preach about the product when the potential customers are enjoying the samples. When potential customers accepts the free samples, they automatically would be “in debt” and will try to reciprocate by buying the product that’s being offered to them.

Second, there’s the principle of commitment and consistency. When users have made a choice or taken a stand, they are more likely to stick with their decisions until the end. The desire for consistency is the new way of advertising. Many companies such as Amazon, Spotify, Blue Apron and other subscription based services will use discounted rates or free trials to lure potential customers into commit to their services. For example, gym advertisers would offer free-month-at-the-gym trials for new customers to lure them into signing a gym membership. Once they have completed the free trials, the need to be consistent will motivate them to sign a one year gym membership deal with the company.

Third, social proof is a powerful principle that let us identify and follow a certain “correct” behavior. If everybody around us behaves a certain way, we will assume that it is the right thing to do. This principle is very effective because most people in society follow norms. For example, Dunkin’ Donuts has a tagline that reads “America runs on Dunkin’.” By emphasizing America as a whole in the slogan, potential customers will think, “well, the whole country is eating Dunkin’, I should be too.” Advertisers uses the power of norms in slogans such as Dunkin’ Donuts to influence more people to make the common decision of buying that certain brand of product / service.

Fourth, liking is the key to saying “yes”. People have been known to trust and be influenced by people that are similar to them. Most people loves flattery, even when they are unaware of it. Advertisers would use this tactic to “get on the good side” of potential customers to get them to buy their products / services. Like a car salesman, if he sees a mom pulls up with two kids in the back seat and a golfing bumper sticker on the car, the salesman would casually talk about his own kids and golfing hobbies to establish a comfort level and familiarity in that encounter, leading the mom to buy a car from that salesman because he is appears so similar to herself.

Fifth, authority has the power (no pun intended) to influence us. Degree of compliance varies according to situations but most people grew up with a respect to authority, no matter if it is real of implied. Advertisers uses this aspect to their advantage by hiring professionals or celebrities to promote their products / services. Potential customers are more willing to comply when the person making the offer looked the part. For example, toothpaste commercials often features the testimonials coming from dentists because potential customers would trust the words of a professional when making purchasing decisions.

Sixth, and lastly, there is the principle of scarcity. Cialdini mentions that opportunities seem more valuable when they are less available. Advertisers love using the term “limited” to make their product more interesting that it actually is. Hard-to-get items are perceived more positively and more desirable just because it is more difficult to be obtained. A fine example would be Milwaukee’s Summerfest organizers. Summerfest have used the appeal of scarcity to increase the crowd volume during the festival week by offering tickets at a limited amount or time. When Summerfest festival goers see the daily admission promotions, they will think the limited number of tickets available as a sign of rarity and show up early, then typically spends the whole day within the grounds, spending on food and merchandises, which ultimately will profit Summerfest.

Shown here are all the six principles found in the ways persuasion can be used in advertising and how dangerously effective it can be. Reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity are some of the ways advertisers can apply to influence potential customers into investing in their products / services.


Cialdini, R. B. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. NY: HarperCollins.




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