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Three Ways to Harness the Power of Suggestion in Digital Marketing

How can digital marketers harness the ‘power of suggestion’ to achieve their marketing objectives? We’ve seen that ‘mere exposure’ to marketing material can influence (and be disrupted if we chew!) people independently of any conscious persuasion effect.  So how can marketers use human suggestibility to do better marketing?  Here’s the skinny, based on a talk I’m giving next week at  Psych London with Unique Digital.

Short answer is there are three practical – interrelated and overlapping ways –  that digital marketing can harness the power of suggestion; through agenda-setting, framing and priming…

  • Agenda-setting – marketing that doesn’t tell us what to think, but what to think about (e.g. showing cross-sell/up-sell options next to a chosen product)
  • Framing – marketing that tells us how to think about it (e.g. providing a comparison grid that structures thinking)
  • Priming – marketing that tells us what to feel about something (by activating the salience of positive thoughts/associations – e.g. an ad that makes you smile)

But let’s back up a little – what exactly is ‘suggestion’?  We’re not talking weird hypnosis experiments or dodgy ‘Hidden Persuaders’ claims, but one of the three basic mechanisms of marketing influence – persuasion, coercion, and suggestion

  • Persuasion – influence by argument (“buy this because…”)
  • Coercion – influence by force – real or implied (“buy this or else”)
  • Suggestion – influence by example (“how about this?”)

Power of Suggestion and Digital Marketing

Whilst the vast majority of digital marketing is based on some variation of the standard persuasion model of influence – (communicating reasons to buy, implicitly or explicitly), there has been a recent resurgence of interest in the power of suggestion.  This has a lot to do with Danny Kahneman’s Nobel Prize-winning – Thinking, Fast and Slow – in which he effectively argues for more focus on a suggestion model of influence (via heuristics and biases). But there is also a long tradition of ‘Media Effects’ research into the power of suggestion, including my own PhD on the power of online suggestion on suicidal ideation and behaviour.

In the world of marketing, most recent research on using suggestion – rather than persuasion and coercion – has focused on priming – the influence of example/mere exposure.  In a nutshell, priming refers to the idea that our interpretation of situations is  involuntarily patterned by recent and frequently experienced events.   To take a trivial example, a habitual walk home after seeing a frightening movie may result in an increased level of ‘feeling spooked’ because the themes evoked by the film remain salient in the mind; the spookiness of the movie influences subsequent interpretations of events. More generally, priming suggests that the ways in which situations are interpreted can be influenced by ideas salient in memory that have been the focus of recent and/or frequent attention.

Put simply, we tend use the meanings we have to hand in interpreting situations. Further, because some ideas cue other ideas, this aspect of what is known as social cognition may result in ‘spreading activation’ whereby exposure to ideas cue not only those ideas but also related ideas.

‘Thoughts of which one is consciously aware send out radiating activation along associative pathways, thereby activating other related thoughts. In this way, ideas about aggression that are not identical to those observed in the media may be elicited later. In addition, thoughts are linked, along the same sort of associative lines, not only to other thoughts but also to emotional reactions and behavioural tendencies.’ (Geen and Thomas 1986: 12)

For example, in one experiment it was found that people became more aggressive following exposure to images of weapons, as aggressive ideas around weapons were primed in the mind of the exposed to them (Leyens and Parke 1975). The idea is that when activated by becoming the focus of attention, a concept and related concepts in the semantic network of an individual’s memory are easier to retrieve, that is, the mind is primed with these concepts and will tend to use them to interpret situations (Higgins 1989, Fiske and Taylor 1991, Berkowitz 1984, Jo and Berkowitz 1994).

So what does this mean for digital marketing?  Well, it changes everything.  Rather than seek to persuade or force people into buying, the central role of marketing becomes to simply capture attention and expose people to ideas that bring to mind positive mental associations for the product or purchase.  For example, Three, a UK Mobile operator uses the power of suggestion – through priming – to sell its services in the Moon Walking Pony YouTube clip (below).  No rational persuasion, product benefits or coercive sales, just a moon walking pony designed to make you smile – positive emotional associations, not rational argument.

The Power of Emotional Suggestion; the Moonwalking Pony

To test this power of suggestion, I looked at a rather strange form of marketing – Kurt Cobain’s suicide note that is freely available online and which provides a rationale for his own celebrity suicide, and therefore could potentially influence suicidal individuals exposed to it.  It is a well known phenomenon that after a highly mediatised celebrity suicide, suicide rates jump – and this is attributed to the power of suggestion.  To test the power of suggestion, I simply exposed people to a highly critical annotated version of the suicide note, annotated by his wife, Courtney Love, thereby priming negative thoughts. Post-exposure (suggestion), I asked people the likelihood that they’d consider suicide themselves, and compared this rate to that of people who had seen the original non-annotated note.  Negatively primed people were less likely to consider suicide themselves, , although the small size of the sample (n=61) meant that this exploratory findings were not statistically significant. Nevertheless, the results were entirely consistent with a priming effect, mere exposure to a negatively primed suicide note resulted in less openness to suicide within the sample.

Granted this all seems a little weird, and out of the marketing box – the power of suggestion, Kurt Cobain, suicide and marketing.  But it is relevant and is a big opportunity for digital marketing.  The power of suggestion – priming, framing and agenda setting is a powerful and underused tool of influence in marketing.

  • Jo, E. & Berkowitz, L., (1994). ‘A priming effect analysis of media influences: An update’. In J. Bryant, & D. Zillmann, (eds.). Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Geen, R., and Thomas, S. (1986) ‘The immediate effects of media violence on behavior’. Journal of Social Issues 42 pp. 7-27.
  • Leyens, J. & Parke, R. D., (1975). ‘Aggressive slides can induce a weapons effect’. European Journal of Social Psychology, 5, pp229-239.
  • Higgins, E. T., (1989). ‘Knowledge accessibility and activation: Subjectivity and suffering from unconscious sources’.  In J. S. Uleman & J. A. Bargh, (eds.), Unintended Thought, pp75-123. New York Guildford Press.
  • Fiske, S. T. & Taylor, S. E., (1991). Social Cognition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Berkowitz, L., (1984). ‘Some effects of thoughts on anti- and prosocial influence of media events: A cognitive neoassociationist analysis’. Psychological Bulletin, 95, pp410­-427.
Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.