Persuasion and Technology

Persuasion is as old as our ability to communicate. Our lives and society depend on persuasion. Technology has reached a point where it can persuade – manipulate – you beyond your wildest dreams. This article looks into how our society will change.

Life pre-technology

In the good old days, society functioned along one simple assumption: People are responsible for their own choices.

If I choose to gamble my salary away, my landlord won’t let me miss this month’s rent. I chose to gamble and risk losing everything.

I’m responsible.

If I choose to drive home drunk and run someone over, the police won’t agree with me when I say I didn’t mean to run her over.

I’m responsible.

This is a simple tenet that underpins western society, and it works.

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But what if I make a decision that is not 100% my choice?

Persuasion and advertising

What if I watch the latest James Bond film and decide to buy the Omega watch which Bond wears.

Advertisers are aware that we are influenced by what we see on screen. They pay money to have their own products appear in films and TV shows because they know this is a subtle form of persuasion.

When I got up in the morning I had no intent to buy a watch. Then I watched the film and, two hours later, had this urge to buy an Omega watch.

It’s a form of peer pressure, in a way, because I am trying to emulate the character on screen.

Advertising has long been controlled by various laws because lawmakers are aware of this effect. Advertising claims need to be truthful and, sometimes, backed by scientific fact. (Laws in your country may vary).

This is state-sanctioned manipulation.

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Brands can push us one way or another using adverts in various media in an effort to push us towards a decision that favours them. We call the science of persuading people Marketing.

You may be wondering why I’m stating the obvious here.

Imagine if you had a marketer follow you around? How much more persuasive would that person be?

Fine tuned persuasion

Imagine if you had someone follow you around each day to learn everything about you. In a typical day, this person would discover:

  • You like drinking Nescafe instant coffee, but only take one coffee in the morning. You drink this while you read the day’s headlines, and then you exercise a little.
  • You shower using Rituals shower gel, use Tom Ford after shave and dress in bespoke suits to go to work.
  • You take public transport, but use Google Maps to optimise your commute. While commuting you listen to a comedy podcast.
  • For lunch you eat a salad, or a smoothie except on Fridays when you indulge in a plate of pasta.
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And so on.

These are points which your loved ones know about you.

But advertisers and people in marketing don’t have this level of detail.

If they did, they would know the following about you:

  • You have moderate- to expensive-tastes, which implies a certain disposable income. You don’t care about higher-end coffee.
  • You care about your appearance and are therefore receptive to messages about health, exercise and fashion.
  • You have a predictable routine and don’t waste time, which implies a drive for efficiency.

Expensive. Efficient. Fashionable.

Three messages a marketer can leverage to target an advertising message which will appeal to you.

We’re all happy that marketers don’t live with us, and cannot discover all this about us.

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But we do carry our phones around with us. We use technology in some way or another all day long.

Our technology has all this information.

Does this mean we should worry?

Technological persuasion

Yes, in a manner of speaking.

I’m happy when a targeted message coincides with something I want or need. I also view adverts with disdain because their raison d’etre is to push me in a direction I may not have chosen on my own.

This approach works when the advert is a clear message based on a clear need. If I googled “holidays in the Caribbean” last Saturday, I shouldn’t be surprised by holiday adverts appearing online this week.

But there, the advert is clear, and the reason behind the advert is also clear.

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Some marketers have posited that women feel less attractive on Monday mornings, which means advertising cosmetics to women on Monday mornings is more effective.

This is an insidious way of influencing people because it plays upon a state of mind.

Technology to predict your mood exists, and this means that technology to influence your mood also exists.

In 2014, Facebook carried out a social experiment to influence Facebook users’ moods.

In other words, your mood can change – without you knowing – by using Facebook. So if you’re a woman, and if an advertiser paid enough, then Facebook could first make you feel insecure and less attractive before showing you adverts for cosmetics.

That’s one example.

(One professor involved in that Facebook experiment joked that “probably no one was driven to suicide”. I have no words to express how livid I am at that statement.)

Is this ok?

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Persuading technology

I say it isn’t.

What do our lawmakers and politicians think about this?

Lawmakers and politicians are not focused on what technology is already doing, or will do tomorrow.

The big fights are about forcing technology companies to pay more taxes, or to restrict abusive behaviour online.

But we’re reaching the point where technology can influence us to vote for techno-cretins, to avoid being scrutinised.

References

  1. New Beauty Study Reveals Days, Times And Occasions When U.S. Women Feel Least Attractive; PR NewsWire; 2013-10-03
  2. Facebook Manipulated 689,003 Users’ Emotions For Science; Kashmir Hill; Forbes; 2014-06-28

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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