‘Persuasion’ has always been something of a dirty word in marketing circles. From Vance Packard’s coyly-titled 60s classic ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ (and concerns about ‘subliminal advertising’) to mining the dirty tricks departments of advertising agencies… the dividing line between persuading and ‘manipulating’ has always been a fine one. 

Nowadays, we’re told that the ‘people power’ conferred by social media has put an end to persuasion. Consumers cannot now be manipulated. It is they who call the tune. There may be some truth in the notion that the balance of power has changed when it comes to persuading people to buy rubbish. In reality, however, there’s still a lot of marketing activity going on that has the strong smell of persuasion about it.

Big companies, for example, are now throwing vast amounts of money at SEO. Take a closer look at those three little letters: S-E-O. As we all know, they mean Search Engine Optimisation. The words ‘optimisation’ and ‘optimum’ have often been used as polite alternatives to something that is often negative or derisory.

In the case of SEO, it should read ‘Search Engine Manipulation’ – but that doesn’t sound quite so polite. The manipulation of search page rankings is done with one thing in mind: to set the scene for a specific web page to persuade an unwitting online searcher to accept that a particular message, product, service or idea is the best one around.

Until a year or so ago, the conventional wisdom about web page copy was that its sole function was to inform – that online readers cannot be ‘sold to’. Supposedly, this was all to do with the fact that the relationship a reader has with web page content is too personal. It’s a one-to-one scenario where the website owner must show lots of respect for their reader by not trying too hard to close a sale.

Apparently, this has been turned on its head. Web pages now have to have a good stab at ‘selling’ – very much along the lines of ‘direct response’ of yore. Every page now must be written and designed as though it’s a landing page. Maybe this new accountability has come about as a result of recession. ‘Persuade or die’ could be the new mantra for the Age of Austerity.

Before the days of SEO, advertising was the big persuader. It had its variants of course: sales letters, flyers and billboards – even PR in its own more subtle way. How everyone hated advertising – whatever the economic backdrop.

Flashy 1960s admen have recently been lionised and dramatised on our TV screens. The UK Tory party was catapulted to power in the 80s by the alchemy of Saatchi & Saatchi. And advertising over the years has been blamed for just about everything from obesity and bad teeth to promiscuity and growing up too soon!

‘Persuasion’ cannot be effective in a vacuum. There has to be an element of aspiration, for example, in the would-be buyer. Pandering to people’s vanity and greed, or exploiting their insecurities – gnawing away at the frailties of the human condition is all part of the fast-flowing communication channel that is advertising.

Advertising is still all around us. Today, however, there are so many other visual and emotional magnets competing for our attention. Marketing men (and women) are battling away with promotions, e-mails, sponsorship, mobile apps and downloads galore to urge us to visit some website or other.

Is this any less reliant on persuasion than good old-fashioned advertising? Could it in fact be defined as latter-day advertising? And surely there are powerful comparisons to be made between today’s information-rich ‘deluge marketing‘ and the feature-rich approach of traditional business-to-business advertising.

To say there’s nothing new under the sun is perhaps too simplistic an approach to this conundrum. ‘Persuasion’ is a multi-faceted gem that is as timeless as the Seven Deadly Sins. Our ambivalence towards the power of persuasion can be found in the number of alternative words we use to hide our true intent.

None of us likes to think we can be persuaded. Susceptibility to persuasion exposes our vulnerability. It would also highlight our vanity if the truth ever came out. And who really wants to be seen as a greedy, narcissistic snob. No. Persuasion in marketing is dead. Or that’s the comfortable, self-deluding line we would all prefer to believe.

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