What’s ‘Pre-Suasion?’ How marketers make us receptive to an ad

Editor’s Note: For the latest Making Sen$e segment, economics correspondent Paul Solman spoke with psychology professor Robert Cialdini about his new book “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.” Below, Cialdini discusses how marketers make you more receptive to an ad before you even realize it. For more on the topic, tune in to tonight’s Making Sen$e report, which airs every Thursday on the PBS NewsHour. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

— Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

ROBERT CIALDINI: Here is what I would say is the big picture of my book: The factor that frequently determines whether people are going to make a particular choice is not the factor that counsels wisely or the one that leads to the greatest economic benefit. It’s the one that’s top of the consciousness in the moment.

Pre-suasion is the practice of getting people sympathetic to your message before they experience it. It’s the ability to cause people to have something at the top of their consciousness that makes them receptive to your message that’s yet to come.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, the first book you wrote, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” you wrote in order to arm normal readers and consumers against the influence that others were trying to manipulate us with, right?


PAUL SOLMAN: And who responded most to that book?

ROBERT CIALDINI: Almost never consumers. The people who responded were people who were interested in harnessing the psychological principles of influence. And it wasn’t just commercial influencers. The people who wrote to me said, “Well, how can I influence my family members, how can I influence my friends, how can I influence my colleagues at work?”

PAUL SOLMAN: So it wasn’t just people trying to make a buck off the book or the book’s insights, it was people with good intentions as well?

ROBERT CIALDINI: That’s right. Charity solicitors, who have good intentions for good causes, were ravenously interested in how to more effectively move people in their direction.

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PAUL SOLMAN: But is “Pre-Suasion” written for the influencers or the influenced?

ROBERT CIALDINI: This book is written for all of us who want to be more influential in our lives. Of course, we have to take an ethical approach, but there is an under-recognized component of being successful. It is what you say immediately before you deliver your message that leverages your success tremendously.

PAUL SOLMAN: Give me some of your favorite examples.

ROBERT CIALDINI: So here is an example of a study that was done by my research team. We showed people clips from a movie, either a scary movie, “The Shining,” or a romantic comedy, “Before Sunset.”

We then showed them an ad for the San Francisco Museum of Art. One ad said, “Be one of the many who has visited.” The other ad said, “Be one of the few who have experienced the wonders of this museum.” If they had seen the scary movie and were feeling threatened and needed safety, they went for the ad that said, “Be one of the many.” If they were seeing a romantic comedy, they were in a romantic state of mind, where you don’t want to be with a lot of people, you want to be individualized. In that case, they went for the ad that said, “Be one of the few.”

PAUL SOLMAN: And by “went for,” what do you mean?

ROBERT CIALDINI: They were more likely, they were significantly more likely to want to visit the museum in the future.

Here’s another example. A few years ago, the Bose Acoustics Corporation had a new product, the Bose Wave Music System. And their ad campaign for it was not successful until they changed one thing. At the top of the ad they said, “Hear what you’ve been missing.” And that caused the skyrocketing of the interest in purchasing of the product. Why? Because with something new, people are uncertain, and when they are uncertain, they want to avoid losses. So what the Bose marketers did, they put it at the top of the ad: “Something you will lose, something you will miss.” They put them in the mindset of loss, and people decided to buy this equipment, so they wouldn’t lose the benefits.

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PAUL SOLMAN: And this is the great insight of behavioral economics, as learned through psychology, which is prospect theory: “A loss hurts more than a gain gives you.”

ROBERT CIALDINI: And that is especially true when people are unsure or uncertain, which is the case for a new product. So that’s why saying, “Hear what you’ve missing,” worked so well for a product that people were unfamiliar with. Because under the conditions of uncertainty, you want to avoid loss, or you want to tell them what they’re missing, and they want it more now.

PAUL SOLMAN: And this is maybe the greatest insight of behavioral economics, as learned through your field of psychology, “Loss aversion.”

ROBERT CIALDINI: All of this becomes powerful and influential when people don’t recognize that there is an influence attempt. So if something is behind the scene, something that’s in the background –

PAUL SOLMAN: An old trick is product placement, right?

ROBERT CIALDINI: Yes. So if Jerry Seinfeld, back in those days reached for a Pepsi that would cause people to want Pepsi more after they viewed the program. But if you saw him do that three times, now instead of a background piece of information, it became clearly a push. And that caused the people to be less likely to want to purchase Pepsi. Because they were being pushed into it, as opposed to simply influence by legendary Seinfeld.

PAUL SOLMAN: It was no longer pre-suasion, it was obvious persuasion.