THE DUAL NATURE OF PERSUASION
The meanings of persuasion
The term “persuasion” is fascinating; it derives from Latin (persuasio -onis) and denotes the act of “advising and convincing.” I see it as something positive, almost noble: guiding someone toward the right choice. However, today we often associate “persuasion” with efforts aimed at influencing or conditioning others to achieve personal goals. This connotation increasingly links the word “persuasion” to the world of marketing and, more specifically, to communication.
With over twelve years of experience as a consultant in this field and the creation of brand strategies for companies on four continents, I have questioned the true meaning of my work: helping companies persuade customers and, most importantly, whether all of this is ethical. I have wondered how the meaning of “advising and convincing” has evolved to become “manipulating,” “seducing,” or even “deceiving.” This transformation has prompted me to delve further: in Anglo-Saxon culture, the term “persuasion” is not limited to this negative connotation but also includes the concept of “encouraging, inspiring, or motivating.” This is why, in my view, a skilled marketer can create brands capable of positive persuasion through authentic and sincere communication that establishes an emotional connection with people.
The art of persuasion in children
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From childhood, we used to master the art of persuasion, often leaning towards more seductive tactics than inspiring ones. Think back to when we tried to convince a playmate to share a toy or when, still young, we sought money from our parents to go to the movies. Knowing the right moment to make the request was a honed strategy.
I remember my first foray into marketing tactics to get what I wanted: I was 14 years old and wanted to persuade my father to buy me a scooter. I knew I had to intercept him at the right time, in the right place, and with the right words. To help you understand my strategy, allow me to provide some context. My father used to work late, arriving home exhausted. At dinner, we shared our day, and afterward, he would relax on the couch to watch TV. What he preferred was watching soccer matches, and when Napoli won, he became more open to discussions. So, this was the perfect opportunity to start discussing about the scooter. But how to broach the topic?
Aware of his perspective on the dangers of riding a scooter and his “reward rather than spoil” approach, I remember constructing a very persuasive speech:
“Dad,” I said, “I noticed that Calaiò played an excellent game tonight. The victory is bringing us closer to Juventus in the championship.”
“Yes, son, this year could be the right one to win the championship”, my father replied. It was a good sign; I had obtained his agreement on something. Now it would be easier to convince him about the scooter. “You know, dad, I got a 7 ½ on my last math assignment, and my grades are improving overall. I thought that since I’ll be turning fourteen next month, I would be grateful if you could reward my hard work with something I really want: a scooter. I’ve identified a very safe model. It doesn’t reach high speeds and has excellent brakes. I would only use it during the day, mainly to go to school, to save time, and to get a bit more rest in the morning, improving my productivity. I wouldn’t use it at night to avoid risks, so you wouldn’t have to worry.”
If I had expressed the same message in a different context, I would have undoubtedly received a flat “No!” But in this case, my father was open to discussion. After some negotiations and promises, I got the scooter I wanted.
As a “typical teenager,” I only kept half of the promises I had made, using the scooter in the evenings and not just for school. From then on, my mother called me a “charmer” and my father learned his lesson: when it came time to buy a car, he didn’t let himself be fooled. Perhaps I had just learned the hard way one of the limits of “negative persuasion.”
The negative persuasion of companies
The dual nature of persuasion means that sometimes, if marketers try too hard to persuade, they completely miss their goals. Unfortunately, many companies continue to disappoint consumer expectations with promises of products and services that fall far short of what is advertised. Think about fast food and the frustration when the burger received is far from the perfection shown on billboards, on TV, or online.
An example of advertising that some have interpreted as negative persuasion is that of Red Bull. An American citizen sued the company for taking the famous slogan “Red Bull gives you wings” literally, accusing the company of deceptive advertising for its energy drink. The result? A $13 million expenditure in compensation for everyone who had purchased a Red Bull between January 1, 2002, and October 3, 2014.
In 2010, Nivea was fined €150,000 after the Antitrust Authority questioned the scientific validity of an ad promising a 3 cm reduction in four weeks with the product My Silhouette.
Even Giuliani and their brand Bioscalin received a similar fine. The advertisement promised a 79.9% reduction in hair loss and a 57.8% increase in hair diameter. However, the test had been conducted on only 40 subjects suffering from a specific type of baldness.
PoltroneSofà, an Italian brand of armchairs and sofas, despite being known for quality, often uses chains of promotions that create urgency, such as “Last days… last sofas… only until Sunday.” These claims overlap, leaving consumers uncertain about the actual duration of the offers and the authenticity of the discounts. This form of advertising is also considered negative and has resulted in fines of up to €500,000 for the Forlì-based company.
These examples demonstrate that such mechanisms of persuasive advertising can be successful in the short term but are far from the kind of “marketing I would like” from an ethical standpoint. Such practices undermine consumer trust and erode the integrity of the advertising industry.
I have always believed that marketing has the noble purpose of listening to, understanding, and helping people feel better about themselves and others. Marketing strategies that rely on negative persuasion have the sole aim of selling products (or services), while positive persuasion is what inspires you to experience emotional connections through the brand.
To evoke emotions means touching people’s hearts by understanding their fears and points of tension and then attempting to address them with our brands.
At Human-Centric Group, thanks to the use of Big Data, we have developed human-centric segmentation: a segmentation aimed at understanding the people living in a specific country (market). This segmentation is applicable to any company, large or small, across different sectors. The core is the description of different human profiles in their complexity, not limiting them to being consumers of a single product. This segmentation focuses on the passions, fears, and tensions of different individuals, which become the guide to creating brands and communications that are authentically engaging, and capable of resolving inner conflicts.
Here are some examples of advertisements that, in my opinion, have succeeded in inspiring and motivating rather than manipulating and deceiving:
As we grow up, memories of when we were little fade away. It’s indeed challenging to remember being a baby, the first time we put on skis or rode a bicycle, yet our parents remember them as moments filled with emotions. Google, with the ad “Dear Sophie,” tells the story of an ordinary father, Daniel Lee, who manages to collect and narrate some of the most exciting moments of their life to his daughter Sophie, thanks to Google’s platform that showcases its features simply and truthfully. The tone is authentic, and the message is clear and motivating: “The web is what you make out of it.”
Another example of advertising that captured my attention a few years ago is Gillette Venus: “Basta un Gesto” (Just a Touch). The ad delicately explores the mother-daughter relationship during adolescence, when the daughter’s body changes. It tells the story of a mother who, perhaps unknowingly, fails to grasp this phase of her daughter’s body transformation, causing a rift between them and tension. Empathy is demonstrated when the mother buys her daughter adult razors, Venus blades, for the first time. The happiness on the daughter’s face reveals that she finally feels seen by her mother as a young woman, not just as a child. The ad concludes with a message: “When you no longer see her as a child, you help her become a woman.”
Unilever addresses a crucial topic and communicates something beyond the product sale: the importance of being present for your daughter during a challenging phase of her life.
Lastly, I believe that every respectable brand should have a purpose, a reason for its existence that goes beyond the desire to create profits, such as Nike, whose mission is:
“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.
*If you have a body, you are an athlete.”
Campaigns authentically connected to their brand’s purpose, in my opinion, are the ones that truly succeed in inspiring, moving, and engaging, like Nike’s “Dream Crazy” campaign.
I also find the approach of HiPro, Danone’s high-protein yogurt, very authentic. Danone’s strategy was to focus on a very specific target: the crossfit tribe. The communication strategy aimed to promote crossfit with the HiPro brand rather than the other way around (promoting HiPro among cross-fitters). Danone marketrs created a series of activities, which main purpose was the growth of this discipline, such as offering personal trainer sessions to those who purchased the product.
Persuasion: using it consciously
Persuasion, when used ethically and authentically, can create genuine bonds between brands and people, inspiring, moving, and engaging them. Conversely, when it is synonymous with manipulation or deceit, it creates distance. What sets negative persuasion apart from positive persuasion is the intention to create real value for the audience. This becomes evident when marketers strive to understand people’s fears, desires, and points of tension to address them through their brand.
In the end, persuasion in marketing is a powerful tool that can shape people’s perceptions and influence their decisions. However, it is up to companies to decide how to use it: to manipulate or to create value, emotion, and connection. Personally, I am increasingly convinced that true success lies in an ethical, authentic, and positive approach to persuasion that contributes to improving people’s lives.