How Far Could Persuasion Go?

In my twisted mind, I wonder how much the general public could be persuaded to buy things that they don’t need. Following on from my post about advertising, I’m reminded of an experiment I saw conducted by a local shopkeeper, who was a rather eccentric chap and clearly a free thinker.

We’ve all seen the special offers in shops, such as 50p each or 3 for 1.40. A quick add-up of course reveals a 10p discount for buying the extra items that you may or may not actually want. The shopkkeeper unveiled his own special offer of 80p each or 3 for 2.40. Of course elementary mathematics will tell you that there’s no discount here at all, but he took it one stage further and came up with 60p each, 4 for ONLY 2.50. Yep, this was a new revolutionary use of the ‘anti-discount’, and people actually went for it! I suppose this reveals a combination of the public’s deplorable adding skills, their blind faith in the potential of getting something for nothing and the power of the word ‘only’ in a shopping context.

On this general theme, my friends and I were outside a pub in Italy on St Patrick’s Day this year enjoying a Guinness and musing on the whole idea of paying exorbitant prices for a celebration that has essentially been invented for marketing purposes and bears minimal relation to the actual source of it. We wondered whether it would be possible to invent our own celebration, St Brian’s Day for example, and actually convince people that the man had actually existed and so persuade them to part with their hard-earned cash so as to not be left out of the festivities and branded a ‘killjoy’ or ‘non-believer’. If the local media championed the idea without a trace of irony and a certain number believed it, I think we could pull it off. Or would we even need to pretend it was true?

The previous paragraph seeks to highlight the idea of how the belief of a majority can effectively distort even the most obvious of realities. I read about another interesting experiment done in a school. First of all, would you agree that the school system doesn’t exactly encourage individualism? Basically they did an experiment with a bunch of around thirty 10-11 year olds where they had them at one end in a sports hall and told them that they would be asked a simple question and had to run to the left corner if the answer was A and to the right for B. They were then asked a very simple question such as ‘What’s the capital of England? Is it A) London or B) Moscow, so no chance that they wouldn’t know it. Well, 29 had been told previously to run to the right and only one hadn’t. The one kid started running to the left and then out of embarrassment and fear of being left alone to possible ridicule changed his mind quickly and ran with the others. Afterwards, the experimenter made no reference to which was the right answer and didn’t tell the boy about the experiment, which must have confused him greatly. This may seem quite innocuous but the psychologist writing about it believed that these and other similar kind of experiences train people not to stand out, and people can be easily made to question a very obvious reality and do things they wouldn’t believe were possible, through coercion and fear of ridicule and being left-out. In my humble opinion, this never leaves us and is not something that we simply disregard as we move into this mythical new world of  ‘adulthood’. I urge you to think about that for a moment and how it might play a role in how much or little we question some of the insane things perpetrated in our collective name.