What is Persuasion?

Persuasion is defined as a type of social influence. Social influence is a general process through which a person, a community or an institution seeks or tries to change the way of feeling, evaluating, or thinking of another person or community towards a given object (a brand, a country, a politician, an illness, etc).

There are social processes which generate psychological changes, effects and impacts bit which are not thought of as persuasion forms (e.g. the effect of cultivation, the effects of agenda setting, etc). Persuasion is distinguished of other forms of social influences because it holds three definitory characteristics (Perloff, 1993; Zimbardo and Leippe, 1991):

a) There is an explicit desire or will (of the communicator) to influence. In other processes of influence, such as socialization or teaching of beliefs, there is no such explicit purpose.

b) There is the possibility (for the receiver) to leave aside the recommendation supported in the communication. The freedom of choice is limited in other processes, such as coercion or "brainwashing".

c) If a person accepts to act as the recommendation of persuasive communication dictates, it is because such optin is "privately" accepted or internalized. It implies a change of affective or cognitive nature. Other social influence processes such as submission, coercion or conformity do not go along with private approbation of the proposed recommendation; rather, the acceptation will only appear in public.

How are we Persuaded?.

The following are examples of how we are subject to advertising:

1st Case: At home, after a day's work, watching a film, we face "passively" the advertising that appears in the TV's programming breaks (low subjective involvement).

2nd Case: At home, after a conversation with some friends in which we have pondered buying a car. We "devour" the ads, paying close attention, but only to those referring to cars (high objective and subjective involvement).

3rd Case: At home, the housewife watches a soap opera just before going shopping, gets "drenched" in washing powder commercials (low objective involvement, and subjective?-the social role and position determine the necessity of the product with more or less involvement).

The previous cases are useful to exemplify how we face persuasion, usually in a very different manner depending on our degree of involvement in the subject discussed in persuasive communication (Petty, Cacioppo, and Schumann, 1983). Now, we can separate two different types of involvement in relation to advertising. Objective involvement depends on two criteria: the product's prize and the frequency of purchasing of this product. Expensive products and low purchasing frequency are of high involvement (a car). Low prized products and high purchasing frequency are of low involvement (washing powder).
Subjective involvement refers to the degree of interest or motivation the person might have towards the products and/or matters treated by advertising.

There is an interest in persuasion science (Social Psychology of Persuasion) to study how we are influenced by persuasive communications, through which psychological processes. It is about studying what goes through people's "head" when exposed to advertising. People:

a) Think, reason, and reach conclusions concerning the products, guided by the information and the arguments transmitted.

b) Feel, are moved, shocked affectively by what's been told or narrated in the ads, and this affects not only the attitude or appraisement of the commercial, but also the appraisement of the product (e.g. classic conditioning).

c) Emotions and cognitions influence each other. The state of mind influences how they think.
The theory of the "two routes of persuasion" has been proposed: a central route and a peripherical route (Petty and
Caccioppo, 1984; Petty, Cacioppo, Stratmann and Priester, 1994).

People tend to think about what is shown in persuasive messages when their interest for the subject, their involvement with the issue, is high. Somebody who wants to buy a car, operation in which there is a great economic risk on top of everything, will not only try to compare prizes, but will also be skeptical towards the ads that do not convince him and will form a positive attitude or pondering of those advertised products which make them "think positively". "Demonstrative", "comparative" ads show the good in our product and offer specific reasons for its purchase.

However, people do not always look for reasons to justify their judgement of the products, even less so in relation to such trivial products as bread, for instance. The image transmitted in the commercials, which is associated to the consumption of a definite product, the pounding repetition of the message will make the latter able to influence, although in a different manner: it does not go for the "bottom" but for the "periphery". The commercials with "bits of life" and "bits of films" (dramatizations) offer life styles definitions which arouse positive reactions in target audiences (e.g. Levi's jeans commercials). People find support in simple peripherical keywords to emit what have been called "heuristic judgements". Affective answers can be caused in a simpler way, as well, associating positive (or negative) values to the advertised product or issue.

But things are not that simple, thre are not two incompatible routes, but rather in some contexts they can both happen at the same time: there might be "parallel processing". Any ad can not only persuade through the arguments it holds but may, for instance, through the presence of popular people (who appear in many spots), cause sympathetic feelings or reactions and give credit to what they say (since, as it is commonly known, "one can trust an expert").

Affective States and Persuasion.

Emotion is a central component of advertising's creation. Many communications of this sort try to provoke positive, pleasant feelings (associate the product to desirable objects as an independent way of living; if you smoke, specially Camels or Marlboros), others recur to fear or try to scare people. The latter are remarkably common in campaigns of health information: if you smoke, you will die of cancer; if you drink, you will have an accident; if you do not use a condom, you will catch AIDS, and so forth.

There is also an important tradition in the study of how people's state of mind (what a person's affective feelings are) when exposed to advertising communications (watch the news and then commercials; important brands avoid this mediatic espace) influences how we think and appraise social objects (for example, those products, services or ideas that appear in commercials).

It is known, in Social Psychology, that a positive state of mind causes a more creative, innovative way of thinking, but faster, more superficial as well. Common sense tells us one does not stop and think when one feels well, so he emits positive judgements with great haste. On the other hand, a negative state of mind leads to a heavier, more conservative and depressive way of thinking, but more analytic, careful and thoughtful (Kuykendall and Keating, 1990; Mathur and Chattoparhyay, 1991; Petty, Cacioppo, Stratmann and Priester, 1983).

Taking the previous into account, it has been proposed that inducing a positive state of mind (or watching a commercial in an already positive state of mind, for instance, after watching a TV comedy) can be beneficial when what has been said is not very important, relevant, when the reasoning given is weak and easily refutable (why is Burger King better than McDonald's?).

On the other hand, when faced with flawless reasoning, maybe it is better to make people think about the arguments presented, because we are "sure to win", since our product is "the best". In this last case, inducing a positive state of mind, or show an ad when the spectator is in good mood, might be against what we are trying to achieve, since maybe the person might overlook the arguments presented and make a quick decision to send forth a judgement: the good product ends up losing more than the bad product.

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Latest update: October 28, 1996