Influential Mad Men

I became a fan of the television series Mad Men a few years ago during the show’s fourth season on AMC. Over the holidays, thanks to Netflix, I went back and watched the first three seasons so I could fill in lots of holes on different characters.

The show revolves around a mysterious character who goes by the name of Don Draper. I say, “goes by the name of” because that’s not his real name. Part of the appeal of the series for me is that it takes place in an advertising agency back in the 1960s. That’s the decade when I was born so I remember many of the products they pitch.

Another reason for the appeal is that at its core, advertising is persuasion. Advertising is all about changing people’s behavior, trying to get them to buy the products being advertised. Throughout Mad Men, you learn that most people don’t respect Don Draper and the rest of the characters they encounter because of what they do. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, advertising was seen as Madison Avenue types trying to get unsuspecting people to buy things they didn’t really need or want.

There’s some truth to that last statement however, because we’re so saturated with ads today the advertising onslaught seems normal to us. In an article titled PermissionMarketing, which was written for the magazine Fast Company, William C. Taylor told readers, “This year, the average consumer will see or hear one million marketing messages – that’s almost 3,000 per day.” Here’s a scary thought – that quote is now 15 years old! If the average American consumer was exposed to a million marketing messages in 1995, how much more are we exposed to today with the explosion of the Internet and cable television? Just think about all the ads you see on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media sites that didn’t exist 15 years ago. It’s overwhelming!

Can you possibly take in all the information from millions of marketing messages, rationally analyze it then make the most informed choice? Nobody can, so to help navigate the tidal wave of information that comes our way we use mental shortcuts. By that, I mean when we hear certain reliable bits of information we sometimes act upon it, nearly to the exclusion of other information, so we can move on to whatever else is competing for our attention.

This is where the Robert Cialdini’s principles of influence come into the decision-making process. These principles describe psychological scenarios where it’s easier for us to say “Yes.” For example, the more you know and like someone the easier it is to say “yes” to them. In advertising we sometimes come to feel as if we know certain spokespeople in commercials. Progressive’s Flo character is a good example. The more people feel they know and like Flo the more likely they are to get a Progressive quote. This is the principle of liking.

The principle of reciprocity clearly shows you’re more likely to help someone who’s first helped you in some way or given you something. This is why you get “freebies” at the grocery store and in the mail. Those “freebies” make it more likely we’ll buy from the company that’s given those “gifts” to us.

In advertising another big way we’re influenced is through the principle of consensus. When we believe something is a best seller, that everyone else is buying the item, we become more likely to purchase it too. An example here would be touting a book that’s made the New York Times’ Best Seller list. Once we hear that single fact it legitimizes that the book is probably pretty good and worth buying. After all, can hundreds of thousands, or millions of readers all be wrong?

Spokespeople are sometimes used in advertising because they convey authority and we’re more likely to listen to so-called experts. If I tell you a certain golf ball added 20 yards to my drive would that be enough for you to buy the ball or do you think a golf pro like CoreyPavin telling people how great the new golf ball is would sell more? Most people would listen to Corey Pavin because he won the U.S. Open and has finished in the top five of the other three major golf championships during his career. This is the principle of authority in action.

Advertisers often tap into the principle of consistency to get us to buy. They tie the virtues of their product into what we’ve said or done in the past or relate the product’s attributes to our deeply held values. For example, most breadwinners want to provide for and protect their families. Advertising that shows how a particular life insurance product will allow a family to continue living in the lifestyle they’re accustomed to should the breadwinner pass away will sell more easily because it ties into the value of family protection.

And finally there’s the principle of scarcity. This principle of influence tells us people want things more when they’re becoming less available. This principle is probably most familiar to us because we see it continually when we’re hit with ads telling us “Sale Ends Sunday,” “While Supplies Last,” or “One Day Only!” This is also the reason gun sales skyrocketed after the Sandy Hook tragedy. People were afraid if they didn’t buy a gun now they might not be able to in the future.

If you take the time to watch Mad Men (season premier is April 7 on AMC) you’ll see the principles employed at every turn as they build out advertising campaigns for clients. Of course, all you need to do is pay attention to regular advertising that comes your way and you’ll see all the same principles at work. When you recognize them simply ask yourself if you’re making the best decision possible or if you’re only acting because of one piece of data at the expense of other, perhaps more relevant information. Do this and you’re sure to make better decisions over the long haul.


Brian, CMCT®
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.

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