Sold on Language

How advertisers talk to you and what this says about you.

Fiction as stealth persuasion

How advertisers can appear nicer than they are

I don't know many people who stretch out on the beach with a good book or settle in for an evening's movie in happy anticipation of being persuaded—chances are, they're just looking to get swept up in a good, absorbing story. But stories have long been used as instruments of persuasion. Aesop with his fables and Jesus with his parables were clearly on to something when they used stories rather than sermons to nudge people toward a certain moral code. And it's doubtful whether libertarian philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand would have won as many disciples as she did if she'd stuck to writing philosophical tracts and never penned sweeping epic novels such as The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.

The persuasive allure of stories certainly hasn't been lost on advertisers. A vast number of TV commercials, for example, pack miniature stories into the briefest of clips, whether it's Apple's famous dystopian "1984" commercial, or mundane little family sitcoms selling the latest brand of frozen dinners.

Mac vs. PC
Somehow, the fictional words and actions of entirely made-up characters who have never drawn a breath in the real world can impact our attitudes and behavior more powerfully than the pleas or arguments of real flesh-and-blood people talking to us about real things in the actual world. But why should this be?

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Fiction doesn't feel persuasive. Even when it's been created with that goal, it's easy to lose sight of its agenda and simply sink into the experience of being entertained. Which makes it an extremely effective persuasive weapon. In a recent post, I talked about experimental results by Juliano Laran and colleagues suggesting that people automatically activate a defensive system when they detect that a message has persuasive intent. Miniature fiction is probably among the best radar-scramblers when it comes to masking the true persuasive nature of advertising.

But it goes further than that. Commercials using fictional characters can get away with trash-talking the competition in ways that would seem outrageous or indefensible coming straight out of the mouths of a company spokesperson. It's as if the characters had diplomatic immunity from accusations of nastiness. And in a way they do. Our experience with how fictional worlds work leads us to treat them as Vegas-style universes: what happens in the fictional world stays in the fictional world. So, at the end of the play, no one shows up to arrest Macbeth for murder.

And for that matter, no one shows up to arrest Shakespeare either. We don't hold him accountable for the actions of his creations. We automatically grant some authorial distance between the creator of fiction and whatever happens within his made-up world.

I've never seen any company leverage this authorial distance with greater brilliance or greater aggressiveness than Apple in the famous "Get a Mac" ad campaign featuring the dorky PC and the hipsterish Mac.

Here's an interaction between the two characters in a highly typical ad pulled from this campaign:

Mac: Hello, I'm a Mac...
PC: ... and I'm a PC, and here at PC Innovations Lab...
Mac: Wait, wait, wait. PC Innovations Lab?
PC: Well, you know how you have your patented MagSafe cord that pops out anytime someone trips over it?
Mac: Sure, sure.
PC: Well, we're protecting PCs with this new air cushioned enclosure.
Mac: That's bubble wrap.
PC: And you know how you have your revolutionary new battery that lasts almost an entire work day?
Mac: Mm.
PC: Well, we are offering this new extremely long cord. (Points to assistant wearing an orange construction-style extension cord looped over his shoulder.)
Mac: PC, shouldn't innovations make people's lives easier?
PC: Well that's exactly why we've developed these. (A man walks by wearing cup holders with paper coffee cups attached to his sleeves. PC lifts a cup out of its holder). Cheers. To innovation.

Imagine Steve Jobs sneering onscreen about the pathetic, dinosaur-age attempts at innovation by competing companies. Most people would be turned off. They'd think he was going too far, being unfair to his competition. But enact the same idea with the help of a couple of fictional characters and people laugh.

In the end, which approach is more unfair: to say disparaging things about the competition in a way that transparently reveals your intentions, or to do so in a way that diffuses responsibility for your message? Objectively, we'd have to say the latter. But it sure doesn't feel that way.

 

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Copyright © 2011 Julie Sedivy, All Rights Reserved

 

Julie Sedivy, Ph.D., teaches at the University of Calgary. She is the lead author of the forthcoming book Sold on Language.

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