Persuasion vs. Manipulation: A Very Fine Line

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Companies have long used well researched techniques to sell their products. Are we being persuaded to buy or unknowingly manipulated?

My youngest son recently surprised my wife and me when he announced he was switching his college major to business, and lately we’ve been getting an earful about some of the things he’s learned in the area of marketing. Now marketing is an integral and necessary part of any business. Food companies want us to buy their latest creations, drug companies want us to use their concoctions, and movie producers want us to plunk down big bucks to see their latest blockbuster hopefuls. Marketing strategists have increasingly come to rely on techniques that years of research indicate have the best chance of persuading folks to utilize the services or buy the products their clients want to sell. Some of these techniques sound to me a lot like the kind of manipulation strategies I write about in my book In Sheep’s Clothing. It turns out that when it comes to the art of hard-selling, there’s a very fine line between pure persuasion and outright manipulation.

Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting to persuade. It’s perfectly normal to want to win someone over to your point of view or even to want to pitch a product convincingly. Just how one goes about advancing such agendas is another matter entirely. Sometimes, just laying out sufficient factual information and having the skills to deliver that information in a palatable way is all you need to make a convincing case. Other times, that’s simply not enough. If your ultimate agenda is to get someone to do something — no matter what it takes — that’s when some of the well tested techniques persuasion research has uncovered can aid the cause. Many of these techniques have a very manipulative quality to them, largely because they work best when the person you’re trying to persuade doesn’t fully realize what you’re up to. It’s the covert quality of this kind of persuasion that makes it so akin to outright manipulation.

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One of the principle strategies I mention in In Sheep’s Clothing that skilled manipulators employ is scoping out where the emotional “buttons” of their intended targets lie. For example, if a manipulator knows that someone has a huge sense of duty and would suffer great pangs of guilt if they thought that they had defaulted on an obligation, a relatively sure way to get them to do what the manipulator wants them to do is to convince them they’re being irresponsible in some way by not complying with their wishes. Marketers also make it their business to know their targets well. Persuasion research has shown that most of us have certain core needs, such as the need to feel safe, to feel valuable, to feel loved, etc. So, one tried and true persuasive advertising technique is to focus heavily on one of those needs during a portion of the advertisement — to draw the viewer or listener in — and then link the product or service you’re hawking to securing complete satisfaction of that need. I remember well how the Kodak Company used to do this to sell both their cameras and film. All of us want to savor, capture, and treasure forever special moments in our lives. When a company can show us how accomplishing that aim is as easy as “point, click, and print” using their products, the sale is as good as made.

There are plenty of subtle but effective “tactics” companies use to pitch products, especially when they face heavy competition in the marketplace, and many of these tactics have highly manipulative qualities to them. For example, the label on a bottle of dishwashing detergent might proclaim in big, bold letters: “30% More!”, while the small print in an obscure corner indicates that this is in comparison to “some other, popular brands.” We all want more for our money, so we might be tempted to buy the product, even though it might not necessarily be the better bargain in the long run. Likewise, many of us like to feel like we’re in step with our peers. If a motion picture marketing campaign bombards us with enough positive comments from moviegoers, and the stars of the film are showing up on just about every show we tune into, we might be persuaded that the movie is both popular and good, even if the few reviews we’ve read have tended to be negative.

Perhaps the closest common persuasion techniques close to outright manipulation are the careful word parsing, small distortions, and very calculated omissions involved in some sales pitches. As the adage goes, the “devil” is always “in the details.” This methodical and stealthy type of lying is one of the more insidious manipulation tactics I outline in my book. Pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. got so bad about this kind of thing that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) eventually made them include a list of cautions and disclaimers so long and unnerving in each ad that you almost have to wonder why anyone would even consider asking their doctor about the medicine. To balance things out and retain some hope of selling their drugs, marketers employ just about every known persuasion technique in the remainder of these kinds of ads.

I don’t mind a good sales pitch and there are times when I even want to be persuaded. But I never like to be manipulated or “conned.” So I think it’s important to listen carefully and as objectively as possible whenever we’re the target of someone’s or some company’s marketing effort. If you sense your sentiments are being played upon, or you’re being invited to feel out of step with your friends because you haven’t yet taken the plunge and purchased a popular product, it’s probably a good idea to retain a little skepticism and seek out the facts. Most of us don’t mind being sold. But we do mind being sold a bill of goods.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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