Most people believe they're better-than-average drivers. They also believe that, while many others are taken in by advertising messages, they themselves remain immune to persuasion unless it's with the full consent of their rational and thoughtful selves. Charming delusions. But surely we're not left defenseless, and awareness of the persuasive intentions of advertising must provide some sort of skeptical buffer against the daily onslaught of commercial messages that don't necessarily have our best interests at heart. Enough so, argued the late free marketeer Jack Calfee, that the myth of the vulnerable consumer is just that, and advertising should be regulated as little as possible in order to allow its salutary effects to permeate the economy. In his book Fear of Persuasion, Calfee wrote:
Advertising seeks to persuade, and everyone knows it. The typical ad tries to induce a customer to do one thing—usually, buy a product —instead of a thousand other things. There is nothing obscure about this purpose or what it means for buyers. Consumers obtain immense amounts of information from a process in which the providers of information are blatantly self-interested and the recipients fundamentally skeptical.
The Federal Trade Commission, which is in the business of regulating advertising, happens to agree with Calfee about the protective effects of identifying persuasion for what it is. Which is one reason why it's recently clarified its guidelines on endorsements to require that bloggers and social media users disclose any pecuniary relationship with the makers of the products they're shilling for—even if free stuff is all they're getting for their efforts.
And the issue of whether and when young kids understand the persuasive nature of advertising is relevant to the decision of some European countries (e.g. Sweden, Norway) and one Canadian province (Quebec) to ban or restrict advertising aimed at kids below the ages of 12 or 13.
That seems a tad overprotective. A skeptical view of advertising likely occurs well before that age, all the more so, apparently, if one has older siblings. (Having had some myself, I can attest to the fact that older brothers and sisters routinely engage in communicative acts in which they are blatantly self-interested, offering plenty of practice in the jettisoning of one's gullibility.) Being the offspring of linguist parents who bring their work home too often might also help. My own daughter seemed to have the concept down pat by the age of four, judging from the following exchange with her (older) friend who was trying to get her to swap breakfast cereal with him:
Friend: Here. You should try my cereal. It's much better than your cereal. Let's trade.
Daughter: Naaah. That's just advertising.
But if indeed the mere detection of persuasive intent can arm you against some of advertising's effects, what we obviously want to know is: how? For example, you might assign a lower probability than you normally would that the source is being truthful, or you might peer at the message more carefully, finding the cracks in its arguments. You might notice richer implications on the basis of what's not being said. And so on. These all seem like fairly high-level processes of the sort that we might imagine would emerge fairly late in childhood and that might be computationally slow and vulnerable to processing overload.
And if the defensive effects of persuasion detection occur entirely at this higher level of reasoning and message evaluation, they may well be somewhat limited. What to make of the growing body of results pointing to extremely shallow, often unconscious routes to persuasion? Is awareness of persuasive intent only any good to us when we're engaging in thoughtful deliberation? Are we left nakedly un-armed when we're relying on more "mindless" mental processes?
It would seem not. A recent paper by Juliano Laran et al. (2011) suggests that resistance to persuasion can be triggered in a highly automatic and unconscious manner. The work builds on some interesting results involving commercial brands and implicit priming effects. For example, previous work has shown that subliminally flashing the Apple logo can spur study participants to think more creatively, and that presenting a Walmart logo can encourage frugal behavior whereas presenting a Nordstrom logo leads to greater indulgence. In other words, the brands activate a set of associations that in turn trigger certain cognitive or behavioral goals. Nifty results.
But brand names and logos, argue Laran and colleagues, are different from other commercial messages in that they're not necessarily perceived as inherently persuasive—despite the fact that they're often designed with great care, we may normally take them to be primarily referential, much as any proper name might be. Slogans (or, as they say in the industry, taglines) are transparently persuasive according to the authors. Perhaps people react to these latter messages in knee-jerk reverse-psychology manner by blocking and even countering the typical brand associations.
Laran et al. found that when they had people look at cost-conscious brand names like Walmart in an alleged memory study and then later take part in an imaginary shopping task, they were able to replicate the implicit priming effect: people were willing to spend quite a bit less than if they'd seen luxury-brand logos. But when subjects saw slogans (e.g. Save money. Live better.) instead of the brand names, there was a reverse priming effect: now, the luxury-brand slogans triggered more penny-pinching behavior than the economy-brand slogans.
(No doubt you're wondering whether all of the slogans used the imperative form, an obvious marker of directive speech acts. That was the case for fewer than half of the items. Other slogans included direct assertions (The best deals are always here) or definite descriptions (The good life at a great price). Unfortunately, the authors don't report whether the reverse priming effect was more striking for slogans appearing in the imperative form—would be an interesting question though.)
The reverse-psychology effect does seem to hinge on detecting the persuasive intent of the message rather than being rigidly tied to the type of stimulus. In another version of the study, if people were told to focus on evaluating the creativity of the slogans (presumably making their persuasive intent less salient), the reverse effect evaporated, and they now treated them just as they had the brand names; that is, the economy-brand slogans led to less spending than the slogans for luxury brands. And if the persuasive nature of brands was highlighted, the brand names triggered the reverse priming effect, just as the slogans had previously (It should be noted though, that this particular experiment presented the brand logos rather than just their names. Maybe this matters.)
In a particularly intriguing variation of the study, the researchers tested to see whether the defensive system could be activated via subliminal messaging. They showed subjects sentences such as "Don't waste your money" or "Quality lies above all." After each sentence, either the word "slogan" or the word "sentence" was flashed below perceptual thresholds. When the sentences had been identified neutrally as "sentence," subjects' spending decisions aligned with the content of the sentences. But when they were identified by the word "slogan," they showed a reverse priming effect—the mere activation of the construct of slogan (subliminally, no less) was enough to send them scurrying in the opposite direction.
It would seem then, that just as some of persuasion's effects can be found in streamlined automatic processes, so too can resistance to persuasion. But more generally, the study highlights the possibility that we're creatures for whom it's very important to quickly identify communicative intent, that we try to do so on the basis of whatever rough-and-ready cues there might be on hand, and that we automatically and unconsciously adjust the ways in which we process and respond to information depending on what we perceive that intent to be. The study brings to mind arguments made recently by Gergely Csibra, Gyorgy Gergely and Jozsef Topal to the effect that even very young infants can pick up on certain cues from adults about instructional intent, and that they adopt a particular cognitive stance when it seems to be present. In the pragmatics literature, we're used to talking about inferring communicative intent—but perhaps inference is not always necessary in order to identify intent.
On a more practical note, the study also provides a potential answer to a question that has been in my mind since I first heard about the implicit priming effects with Apple and Walmart logos: could you nudge yourself towards greater creativity or financial prudence by plastering the appropriate logos around your house or workspace or in your wallet? Perhaps not—you'd always be aware of your intent to persuade yourself. Maybe unconscious persuasion tactics are a bit like tickling: it doesn't work if you try to do it on yourself.
[For the record, I receive no payment or even free stuff from any of the companies mentioned in this post. Alas.]