Persuasion lies at the heart of successful advertising and marketing campaigns. In attempting to persuade individuals and groups, advertising agencies and social psychologists face the enormous difficulty of changing attitudes. The following technique achieves attitude change by manipulating the underlying beliefs.
Although consumer attitudes are notoriously resistant to change, this technique achieves it through switching the focus of its attack away from the attitudes themselves and onto the underlying beliefs. This can be done in a variety of ways. The most difficult approach is attempting to change currently held beliefs, as human psychology dictates that even if our beliefs are inaccurate or inconsistent they are always strongly held and resistant to change. In order to influence beliefs, advertisers use images and statistics that appeal either to emotions, such as fear, humor, or guilt, or to the consumer's intellect, through factual evidence and examples. In this way, the technique is able to present the audience with an alternative view of reality - one that is not supported by their currently held beliefs. Many consumers will remain suspicious of these new concepts and will reject the advertiser's information, many others however will amend their beliefs in order to understand and 'fit in with' their new perception of the world.
Another approach adopted by this technique is to change the importance of beliefs, rather than the beliefs themselves. It is easier to strengthen or weaken an existing belief than it is to change it. The most successful method of using this strategy is to strengthen beliefs with which the consumer already agrees, either by supporting them with factual evidence, or by using everyday examples with which the audience can identify. Many advertisers take this technique one stage further and reinforce additional beliefs, which are unlikely to meet with consumer resistance as they do not conflict with existing beliefs. The strategy of manipulating current beliefs, either through reinforcement or undermining, is far easier and more likely to succeed than attempting a wholesale change of basic beliefs, and is therefore the preferred option of advertisers.
The difficulties involved in attempting to change existing beliefs are evidenced by the failure of such apparently sensible and factually supported campaigns as those designed to deter smoking, or to discourage drink driving. Even consumers who are aware of the inaccuracy or incorrectness of their beliefs will tend to become defensive about them if they sense that they are being attacked or criticized.
The techniques used by advertisers are designed to avoid this conflict; either by reinforcing the beliefs of those consumers who already hold a positive view about their product, or by the subtle offering of an alternative set of beliefs to those whom they wish to convert. For example, advertisers of food and drink are aware of the existing consumer belief in the importance of a healthy, balanced diet. They can reinforce this belief, and gain an advantage over their rivals, by emphasizing that their brand contains vitamin x, y, or z, or is sugar free, or any other health related benefit that will build upon the audiences currently held beliefs. This is also an area that is useful for demonstrating how advertisers can change a consumer's beliefs without causing a negative, defensive reaction. For instance, rather than blatantly stating that milk is a healthier option than soda, the advertiser may present images and factual examples of the potential health risks posed by soda, and compare that with equally graphic and persuasive evidence for the health benefits of milk. In this manner, the advertiser avoids a head on conflict with consumers' existing beliefs, and offers them an alternative reality with the opportunity to feel as if they have made up their own minds on the issue. The last point is of vital importance, irrespective of the technique used. However they go about it, and whichever attitudes or beliefs they wish to change, the advertiser must always present their ideas in such a way that the consumer is unaware of any influence or persuasion. The audience must be left thinking that they have made their own decision.
The primary means of ensuring that the consumer remains ignorant of the advertiser's persuasion is to remove the need for cognitive thinking. The following technique achieves this by dividing products into those that require a lot of cognitive thought, and those that require very little.
The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM).
In describing their Elaboration Likelihood Model, Petty and Cacioppo (Communication and persuasion: The central and peripheral routes to attitude change, 1986) suggest that there are two routes to attitude change: the central route and the peripheral route. The central route is concerned with a rational, cognitive approach to attitude change; while the peripheral route is concerned less with cognitive thought and more with the association of pleasant thoughts and positive images. ELM offers advertisers the possibility of changing attitudes through either of the two methods, depending on the type of product they are dealing with. The peripheral route encourages consumers to consciously, or often unconsciously, focus on superficial images and 'cues' in order to influence their attitudes and decisions, without any serious consideration of the advert's message content. In contrast, the central route encourages the audience to employ cognitive activity and to consider the issues and arguments contained within the advertisement before reaching a decision, or making a purchase.
The importance of ELM to advertising agencies and social psychologists lies in the fact that consumers tend to employ a greater level of consideration and cognitive thought in important situations than in unimportant ones. Therefore, when marketing unimportant or trivial everyday products, advertisers can concentrate on using the peripheral route to persuasion. This often involves the use of colorful, pleasant images, humorous or popular subject matter, or the sponsorship of celebrities. However, for products that are either expensive or important for some other reason, such as family health, the advertiser is required to convince the consumer by means of factual evidence and persuasive argument.
ELM is also useful to advertising agencies for the information that it provides them about consumer motivation. Psychological studies have shown that a consumer's motivation tends to be higher when considering products that are of a high personal relevance, either because of cost or importance. In these situations, where a wrong decision could have severe potential consequences, either financial or emotional, the consumer is more likely to base their decisions and attitudes on central routes, carefully considering the arguments and analyzing all the available facts. On the other hand, people are less motivated to process issues that have little or no impact on their lives, and tend to spend very little time or conscious effort examining the facts, relying instead on persuasive suggestions and imagery.
This technique also provides an explanation for why some attitudes persist throughout a consumer's lifetime, while others are less stable and more prone to change. Research has found that attitudes based on central routes endure for a longer period of time, are more resistant to counter-persuasion, and show greater attitude-behavior consistency than attitudes induced by peripheral routes. When people participate in central route processing, they support their decision with mental arguments and constantly seek to reinforce them, thus strengthening their attitude. These findings can be seen easily in real life, where people's attitudes on topics such as religion, politics or abortion, which they have thought about and justified a great deal, are very persistent and resistant to change. At the same time, their attitudes toward the type of soap they use, or the brands of cereal they eat, are relatively indifferent and can be changed easily. This model, therefore, is easily applicable to products and services that have a high personal importance, as well as those that are relatively trivial. For example, agencies that are marketing important or expensive goods, such as cars, home improvements, or child safety equipment, are best served by an advertising campaign that focuses on providing factual evidence and well founded arguments that will convince the consumer that the product is the best and safest choice, based on their cognitive considerations. In addition to gaining the consumer's custom on that particular occasion, the resistance and longevity of attitudes based on the central route of persuasion can ensure that the consumer will return for future purchases. For example, a customer's relationship with Nike will be longer and possibly more profitable to the company if the customer buys Nike shoes based on quality and reliability arguments rather than simply because Michael Jordan wears them. Peripheral routes, however, can still act as positive reinforcement to a message that is expressed centrally, although they are not the initial means through which the message is processed and comprehended. A central message that a consumer agrees with, and facts that support his or her views, will have a stronger impression if an individual who is generally regarded as credible and relevant delivers it. For example, a basket ball player is likely to be effective in endorsing athletic shoes, but not in endorsing…
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