How politicians, celebrities, and brands get you to “like” them

A paper sign on a lamp post that says "Be the first of your friends to like this post" below it has the facebook thumb's up icon so people can tear one off.
“Like This Post” by Bernard Goldbach is licensed under CC BY 2.0

During a recent online discussion, a colleague posed a question about the Persuasion Principle of Liking (Robert Cialdini). Most of the examples in literature are at an individual scale, meant for 1:1 interaction. He was interested in how this does or could scale.

For my contribution to the discussion, I decided to focus on politicians, celebrities, and brands and how they utilize the Principle of Liking to encourage the general public or their target markets to “like” them at scale.

Similarities

The first example of this that came to mind is how people will say “They talk like me,” or “They tell it like it is,” (which, in my opinion, actually means “this person has the same opinions as me”) about why they like particular politicians. If you’re curious about this and don’t mind a very dense read, I recommend The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, as he breaks down the moral structures and topics (which then you could deuce wording and phrases) that appeal to different subsets of the public.

Another way I think brands, celebrities, and politicians foster similarity this is through origin stories. A brand for a protein bar will tell you the story of how it all started with an avid fitness person in their kitchen who wanted a better option than the ones currently on the market. Or a politician or celebrity will tell the story of their humble beginnings. An underrated example of this, in my opinion, is Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block” song, which highlights her “regular” upbringing.

Brands also highlight similarity by featuring people who look like you in ads. When I was looking for a new car a few years ago, I was shocked that I subconsciously added the Cadillac brand to my online search, as I’ve always associated Cadillac with “my grandmother drove one of those.” But when I thought about it, I’d seen several Cadillac ads recently where they showed women who looked like me owning and driving them. While I’m yet to find proof, I’m also convinced Cadillac may have had a marketing agreement with Carrie Underwood to create her song “Two Black Cadillacs” to market to younger women.

Compliments

Politicians and performers on stage tend to give these compliments outright. I’ve come to dread the part of concerts where they shout “We love you New Orleans!” because I’m sure they say that in every city. And I wonder if it’s written somewhere where they can see it so they don’t say the wrong name, but I digress….

Politicians tend to say things like “Detroit, you are amazing. You’ve had a tough few years, but you are coming back because you all are incredible.” Arguably, the more the politician or celebrity genuinely believes this, the more genuine it’ll come across.

Brands are usually more subtle. The one that immediately comes to mind is the Dove campaign for real beauty ads. They are celebrating women’s bodies and saying “You are beautiful no matter your size, shape, stretch marks, etc.” Although it’s worth noting that their parent company also owns Axe body spray, which as a brand has a vastly different commentary on women and beauty.

Cooperation

I joke that you could channel-surf on TV by which commercials are on (Subway ads = Simpsons, Family Guy, or American Dad mostly). I think that’s especially true on Sunday mornings during the intellectual news and financial market commentary. The ads during these times are highly environmental and cooperative-focused. They tend to have a theme around, “We’re working with you to protect and sustain our environment” and are run by oil companies and the like.

While I could also argue it’s reciprocity, Chick-Fil-a’s marketing strategy of sponsoring a tremendous amount of community events, in my opinion, is a great example of, “We’re a part of this community cooperating with you to make it a better place” cooperation.

Ethics consideration

With scale, you cross an ethical line if you lead the person to believe there is a direct or personal connection when there isn’t. I get emails that have my name in the subject area and are addressed to me, but I realize that it’s a form letter. But if they sent an automated email that made me think a particular person (such as a politician or celebrity) themselves wrote to me when they didn’t and/or made me think the message was sent to just me when it wasn’t, I think that’s unethical. And, it risks ruining the relationship of the person discovers it.

Marketer vs. high-pressure sales home remodeling contractor

Obviously I had way too much fun analyzing their sales pitch.  Let’s break down what they did.

What we thought was going to be a simple task of having a contractor come over to our house and provide us with a quote for remodeling our bathroom turned into a two-hour high-pressure sales pitch from two salespeople, including a slide deck, videos, and a lot of sales tactics.

After they left, my husband started laughing and said, “I want to see your notebook.” “Why?,” I asked. “Because I saw your face crack into a smile and furious writing, and I know you.” Dang, I guess I’m not as sneaky as I thought.

So, without further adieu, here’s my notebook:

The notebook shows general notes about the bath remodel but also includes the following comments: - Price anchoring. “The average bath remodel costs.” - Priming “What’s important to you in a company you work with?” - Awards/endorsements = external affirmation - They just did the “I need to get something from my car, can I let myself back in?” Trick!!! “Building trust” - Affirmation & Good vs. bad guy. “Now Scott, I can see their point…” - Price anchoring again! Except the quote for us is above average (whoops!) - “We’re so busy, if we don’t have to come back out again before you say yes” discount - Social norms “Most people go with paying this way.” - Small yes to try to move to bigger yes “I know you said you’d have to think about it, but if you were going to move forward, which of these three payment options would you pick?” Really threw them off when we still wouldn’t answer.
My notes (with some modifications for privacy reasons) from listening to a sales pitch from a home remodeling contractor.

Obviously I had way too much fun analyzing their sales pitch.  Let’s break down what they did.

Sales prompts

Not listed on my notes, but one of the salespeople had a printed-out sales prompt form. It was multiple sheets, where he filled in our responses to questions like “What’s important to you in a company you work with?” At one point, he set it down next to me, and I was a little too obvious in looking at it, so he picked it up and moved it. Bummer.

Price anchoring

Near the beginning and right before they gave us the quote for our bathroom at the end, they showed us the “national average” price for a bathroom remodel.

This is a technique called price anchoring, where consumers tend to over-rely on the first price they hear or see. In most cases, this is used to make someone think they are getting an amazing deal. A good example of this is furniture stores, where they show the “list price” and then a much lower price they are asking, which makes the price they are asking seem like a great deal.

In this case though, price anchoring was a fail because their quote for us came in up to 2-3% higher than the national average. I can’t think of any reason they’d do this intentionally, so I’m pretty sure this was a mistake.

Priming

The sales presentation began with the question, “What’s important to you in a company you work with?”.  This is called priming, getting the customer to say who they are and/or what they value, then showing them why they should buy from you related to who they said they are or what their values are.

My personal annoyance with priming is when a sales person doesn’t change their presentation to the priming points and instead just brings them back up at the end, which is what these two salespeople did (more on this later). To add insult to injury, they did their priming in the most obvious way, “Now let’s look back at what you said you valued” instead of being more subtle about it.

Awards/endorsements

One of the salespeople also showed us a list of their awards they’ve received. This technique is most closely related to the association principle, where someone is attempting to associate their brand or themselves with something of higher value.

The majority of their awards were fluff, primarily a lot of “fastest growing company” awards which don’t really tell the consumer anything, but sound impressive. It’s easy to get “fastest growing” awards when you are just starting out. For example, if you go from one to four employees in a year, that’s a 300% increase.

The list also backfired with us because one of the awards was for being the top seller of a particular product for many years in a row. So we knew later on in the sales pitch they were going to push that product.

Small displays of trust

One technique commonly used by high-pressure sales people is for the salesperson to create a situation where you have to demonstrate a small amount of trust toward them. Why? Because this primes you to trust them in bigger ways later on.

I’ve read about the “Can I let myself back in?” tactic so many times and was actually quite excited to see it live because it’s always struck me as very over-the-top. Here’s how it works:

The salesperson…

  1. “Forgets” something in their car.
  2. Tells the customer that they need to go get it from their car.
  3. Asks the customer if they can let themselves back in. Bonus points if it requires the client having to give the salesperson the key to their home to let themselves back in.

Step 3 is where the customer shows trust, by agreeing to let the person let themselves back in.

To be fair, in this case, the guy came back with a large case of samples. If he’d brought this in from the start, that probably would have turned a lot of people off, so I could argue waiting was a good thing. But having seen his sales prompt sheet and the rest of their presentation, I’m convinced this was intentional.

Affirmation (good vs. bad guy)

At one point, I started to entertain myself by bringing up legitimate counterpoints to their sales pitch. And so did my husband. To counter us, the second salesperson said “Now Scott, I can see their point, if that’s not important to them and if that’s their goal…”

Oh that’s good.

The second salesperson was building trust by affirming us and making it seem like he’s on our side. He then argued for us to the first salesperson, but in a backhanded way.  Non-academics and young people commonly refer to this as negging.

Social norms

After price anchoring and showing us our quotes, they moved to three different payment plan options. During this part, they said something to the effect of “now most people go with this one,” which is a social norms argument. Essentially, social norms in this context means you’ll go along with what others are doing because you assume that the majority of people doing something means it’s the right approach.

While it may be true that most people do put home improvement projects on credit, the option “most people” choose is also the one that added 7% interest fees to the total for the project, so it was in their financial best interest to push this one.

Small yes to bigger yes

Similar to building trust and priming, a common high-pressure sales tactic is to get you to say yes to small things and thus walk you into saying yes to bigger things. One of the ways the salespeople did this was after presenting the payment options.

They asked us what we thought after presenting the price and payment options in a variety of ways. We gave very noncommittal answers each time, mostly “We’ll have to think about it.” So they moved to a small yes, by asking “…but if you had to move forward, which of these three payment options would you pick?” The goal was to get us to say which one of those we would pick (small yes) and then move to the final close.

But we didn’t. We just kept saying “We’ll have to think about it.” At this point, I think we genuinely threw them off their programming; they seemed to not know what to do. They ended up giving up and leaving. I “helped” them make this decision by standing up from the table as if to say “Ok, enough.”

They broke the golden rule…

If you’re trying to convince someone of something, start by knowing your target market. As you’ve probably guessed by now, a high-pressure sales tactic was the wrong approach to take with us. And it had the opposite of the intended effect; it made us not trust them.

This is the issue with such pre-prescribed sales pitches; it doesn’t allow the person presenting the material flexibility to tailor it to the target market. Had they taken time to get to know us better at the beginning and had they been able to modify their approach with us based on the cues we were giving, they may have been able to make the sale or at least be considered.

Outtake

Salesperson to my husband: Don’t you want to be excited every time you walk into your bathroom?

Husband: I don’t get excited about bathrooms.