Monday Mornings with Madison


Did someone describing what they had for dinner suddenly made you feel hungry?  Has simply looking a picture of beautiful beach suddenly made you long for sun, sand and surf?  Has the mere mention of chocolate preceded a strong craving for it?  That is the power of suggestion at work.  How the power of suggestion works exactly is not really well understood in science but there is a lot of evidence that people are influenced by it. 

Suggestion is the psychological process by which one person guides the thoughts, feelings, or behavior of another. Nineteenth century writers on psychology used the words “suggest” and “suggestion” in senses close to those they have in common speech—one idea was said to suggest another when it brought that other idea to mind. Without even delving into the murkier world of hypnosis (trance + suggestion), there is power in waking suggestion… suggestions made when a person is awake and alert in order to produce a desired effect. 

If human beings were unresponsive to suggestion, parents, peers and the media would have no effect. People are, however, immensely responsive to suggestion – a fact which is of enormous importance both in our individual lives and in business. Although the tendency varies greatly in strength from person to person, every one is suggestible to some extent. However, as George Orwell depicted in Animal Farm, some individuals are more ‘suggestible’ than others. 

The psychological basis of suggestibility is simply a tendency in human nature to believe statements repeated a great number of times. This tendency to believe has nothing to do with the ‘truth’ (or otherwise) of the statement. Generally, reasons for believing the statement to be true or false are not taken into account; the statement is believed solely because it is bold, confident and typically repeated many times.

Everyone is SuggestibleAdvertising is directly tied to the power of suggestion.  That is why businesses spend billions on commercials and advertisements to promote products.  However, today merely suggesting that people purchase a product or service may not be enough.  For example, Visa could just say “Use Visa” in their ads, but how effective would that be? It certainly would not differentiate them from Master Card or American Express.  Given the saturation of messaging in the marketplace, subtlety is a major factor in how impactful the suggestion will be.  Being hit over the head with a blatant message is not as effective anymore.  It is not just about the power of suggestion… but about the power of subtle suggestion.  In Visa’s case, their slogan is more subtle:  “Visa… it’s everywhere you want to be.”  They don’t focus on their product:  a credit card.  They focus on how their product opens doors for people to do what they want to do.

The Three Keys to Powerful Subtle SuggestionsFor suggestions to be most effective, they should be:

  • simply expressed,
  • confident in tone, and
  • repeated often.

A single, halting statement is not very persuasive. A confident statement, often repeated, is immensely persuasive. Simplicity in expression, therefore, gives a statement a far better chance of acceptance than complexity. That’s why most advertising is simple, taking the form of ‘slogans’. Slogans are given an air of confidence by being expressed in the imperative. Every day we are ordered to buy something. If ordered to buy every hour of the day, for days and weeks on end, we eventually buy.

Case in point.  Nike’s logo is a check mark and their ads don’t even mention the company’s name or products:  “Just do it.”  Their focus is to suggest that people be active.  The statement is simply expressed, extremely confident in tone and repeated in all of their marketing and sales.  The checkmark implies a task accomplished.  The message subtly means different things to different people.  For a runner, it might mean “Just do the Boston Marathon.”  For a golfer, it may mean playing the back nine at St. Andrews.  For a mountain climber, it might suggest climbing K2 or Everest.  For a couch potato, it might inspire them to get up and start a walking program. 

In some instances, the suggestion does not even have to be repeated that often.  Take, for instance, marketing at grocery stores.  Ten cans of tuna for $10. Six ears of corn for $2. Ten containers of Meow Mix cat food for $5.50.  If the shopper just wanted one each of those items, they would get the same discount in most cases. According to studies on pricing strategies done by Harvard Business School, even though shoppers usually do not have to buy the suggested amount to get the discount, they do anyway. It is all about the power of suggestion. Many people will buy the amount or increments advertised.  If the advertisement is five for $5, buyers will typically buy five of whatever is being sold simply because it is suggested.

Wonder just how many people are influenced by the power of suggestion?  Data from the 2011 Digital Marketer survey done by Experian showed how suggestions made by media, advertising and others influence buying decisions.  The amount indicates the percentage of respondents from the group who felt their decision to purchase a product or service was “highly influenced” by that medium.

  • Word of mouth – 54%
  • Information from a Website – 47%
  • Email sent by someone known – 42%
  • Something read in an online review – 31%
  • Something heard on the radio – 29%
  • Television ad – 27%
  • Something received in the mail – 25%
  • Magazine ad – 23%
  • Newspaper ad – 22%
  • Online ad – 17%
  • Email sent by an advertiser/company – 16%
  • Infomercial – 12%
  • Mobile phone ad – 11%
  • Video game ad – 10%

Anyone in business needs to understand and leverage all the tools at one’s disposal. The psychological art of subtle human suggestibility is one of those tools and it is a powerful one if used effectively. It is an influential tool that can be used not only in marketing, but also in sales, customer service and all communications with customers and potential customers alike. 

“The susceptibility of the average modern person to pictorial suggestion enables advertising to exploit his lessened power of judgment.” Johan Huizinga

© 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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