I recently found myself at one of those multi-level marketing (MLM) or pyramid scheme wine parties to support a family member. At the party I was intrigued to hear the “rules” of the wine tasting because the first rule is hugely important & applicable to many marketing efforts.
The first rule of the tasting was that we couldn’t criticize the wine until everyone had a chance to taste it. Whether it was the individual consultant’s rule or the company’s rule I wasn’t able to independently confirm, but it does highlight the impact public opinion and when that opinion can greatly influence others.
The first part of this is the concept of Priming, which is the process of pre-disposing a person to a particular way of thinking. As Robert Cialdini points out in his book Pre-suasion, people are pre-disposed to confirm a statement from another vs. refute it. For the wine party, if the first comment was a negative one, then the rest of the group would subconsciously seek to confirm the negative comment and not provide positive comments about it. Obviously, this would be very bad for sales.
Similarly, the rule comes from the idea of Social Norms Theory, where people subconsciously act how they see others acting as they subscribe to an unspoken set of social rules. One of my favorite examples of this is parking. If you are looking for a parking spot and come to a section of a neighborhood where no one else is parking, you assume there is a reason no one else is parking there and you shouldn’t either. It doesn’t matter if I point out to you that there’s no sign prohibiting you from parking there, the social norm of “no one else is parking there, so I shouldn’t either” is what you will respond to.
Social norms are particularly important, I would argue, with wine because wine knowledge is positively associated with social status in the U.S. So, if the rest of the people at the party hear person x say, “This wine is ok, but it lacks the depth of most Malbecs,” then they will subconsciously: a) assume that person x must be knowledgeable about wine b) assume that person x is of a higher status, and thus c) be influenced by person x’s comment because they view person x as more knowledgable and they want to appear higher status themselves. This could have the opposite impact as well, if person x says a positive comment.
Other applications of priming and social norms
Priming and social norms are why a lot of speakers, particularly if speaking to an unfriendly audience, will recruit someone prior to the talk to ask the first question and have it be a positive question. You’ve probably heard this called “setting the tone” for the conversation.
Similarly, when people are using sign-up sheets at talks or events, they will often “start” the sheet by writing in a name of someone who has already given them the OK to do so or they hand the sheet to someone who they know will fill-in the sheet. Having one or two names on the sheet to start “signals” to everyone else that filling-in the sheet is a socially acceptable thing to do.
Back to the wine party, if you’ve been to these types of parties, you also know that one of the social norms is that, if you come, you will buy something. And I did. If you’re in New Orleans, stop by, I have some wine I could use help drinking.