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Preface: Manipulation, Seduction, and Persuasion Why I Wrote This Book

Preface: Manipulation, Seduction, and Persuasion
Why I Wrote This Book

I earn my living as a professional persuader. I am what some people call a hired gun. I sell my talents to corporations, governments, and individuals who need help to persuade, sell, or negotiate.

"Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love it. The bigger the challenge, the more the adrenaline runs. Along the way, I've negotiated on billion-dollar deals, aided the launch of some of the world's best products, and even helped politicians win elections.

It's much easier when your clients include companies such as Toyota, BMW, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Unilever. These companies appreciate what it takes to win the battle for hearts and minds against formidable competitors.

The Dark Art of Mysterious Influence

Nevertheless, I never cease to be amazed at how few people understand the art of persuasion. A large group of people – 25 percent, pollsters tell us – believe that persuasion is sorcery, a mysterious black art practiced by wizards who masquerade as politicians, advertisers, and spin doctors.

Vance Packard popularised the notion in his 1957 best-selling book The Hidden Persuaders. "Many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realise, in the patterns of our everyday lives," he wrote. He saw motivational research as comparable to "the chilling world of George Orwell and big brother." According to Packard, advertising agencies were tapping into the research of psychoanalysis to create a new type of suggestive and seductive ad.

A Canadian university professor, William Bryan Key, added to the fears when he claimed there was widespread use of what he called subliminal persuasion. He argued that advertisers were using subliminal messages in advertisements. Key claimed hidden messages urging you to buy were being embedded in pictures and print advertisements. At the movies, messages such as "Buy Coke" were being flashed secretly onto the screen at 1/3000 of a second – far too fast for the conscious mind to detect. Customers were being unconsciously manipulated.

Various governments added to the concern when they overreacted by banning subliminal advertising. However, in the over 200 academic papers that have since been published on the power of subliminal messages, not one has been able to show that subliminal messages influence what we do at all. Nevertheless, the fears haven't disappeared. In 1990, the rock band Judas Priest found themselves in court for allegedly recording the subliminal message "Do it" on one of their tracks in their 1978 album Stained Glass. Two sets of parents had filed suit claiming the message caused their two boys, fanatical Judas Priest fans, to commit suicide.

The band emerged victorious after a Canadian psychologist proved there was no evidence to support Key's ideas, which formed the basis of the accusation. Even so, persuasion for many remains a mysterious, irresistible force that unconsciously shapes their lives. Surveys tell us that 70 percent to 80 percent of people still believe advertisers use subliminal advertising.

Willing Accomplices in Our Own Seduction

The second reason why most people remain ignorant about how persuasion works is that they refuse to admit they are influenced by politicians, salespeople, and advertisers.

It is remarkable how many people believe they are immune to persuasion. They insist that they don't watch ads, that they never listen to politicians, and that they are resistant to all forms of persuasion.

Given that we are bombarded by as many as 1,600 commercial messages a day – that's 100 every waking hour – the claim to immunity is remarkable.

The fact is, none of us is immune to influence (see page xi). Advertisers and other professional persuaders have long known how to get through to those of us who claim to be resistant.

Advertisers, for example, typically flatter those who believe they are too individualistic to fall for a pitch aimed at the mainstream. The simplest trick is to use flattery. The Nike ads or MTV tell the "rebels" they want to win over, "We understand you; you're special. Don't do what everyone else does. Be unique and join us."

There is a moment in Monty Python's The Life of Brian that sums up the approach perfectly. The messiah shouts to the crowd, "Don't follow anyone. Think for yourself. You are all individuals." And the crowd shouts back, in unison, "We are all individuals."[1]

Ironically, because of their naïveté, this "rebel" group is often the easiest to persuade – and in the process, they become willing accomplices in their own seduction.

I wrote this book to show that there is nothing inherently mysterious about persuasion. We can all be skilled persuaders if we are prepared to master the techniques and understand what works, what doesn't work, and why.

Moreover, I passionately believe that the best defense against manipulation, propaganda, and ultimately tyranny is a fundamental knowledge of how persuasion works. You only have to visit the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps to know the human price we pay for naïveté, gullibility, and ignorance.


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