Authority – trust me, I’m a doctor
For the next couple of weeks we’re going to be presenting a series of articles on Cialdini’s Six Principles of Persuasion as they relate to marketing, with a dash of the social science behind them. So, let’s ask someone who looks like they know what they’re talking about to teach us about authority.
The principle of authority has somewhat of a dark past in social psychology. Cialdini cites the controversial Milgram experiments as examples which demonstrate our tendency to do objectionable things simply because we are asked to by an authority figure. In Milgram’s experiments, naive participants were persuaded to give an unseen ‘partner’ (in reality, an actor) a potentially dangerous electric shock as part of a ‘learning experiment’ when urged to by an experimenter in a white coat. Although participants came from a range of backgrounds and all expressed concern for the well-being of their ‘partner’, ultimately most (65%) gave the highest shock when prodded – a shock of 450 volts which was labelled “danger – severe shock”.
Milgram conducted many variations of the experiment to see what factors specifically influenced obedience rates. One bizarre finding was that simply wearing a uniform (a lab coat, in this case) was enough to increase obedience – when not wearing a uniform, obedience dropped to just 20%. Obedience also dropped if the location was changed to some run-down offices as opposed to a university. Cialdini recognised that different factors changed people’s response to authority, and broke them down into titles (like Dr., Professor or Reverend), clothing (usually a uniform like a lab coat) and accessories (such as an expensive car or a police badge). These factors have been used extensively in marketing – it’s why toothpaste and over-the-counter medicine adverts feature healthy, confident, middle-aged people in lab coats as opposed to a nervous teenager in jeans.
Conveying authority using clothing and setting is relatively easy, especially in visual marketing and for fields which are associated with a particular uniform. Using titles is a lot more difficult, especially as many titles are protected – you can’t call just anyone an architect or a dietitian. The key here is to think creatively, and Apple managed to do just that by giving their customer support staff a made-up title that conveys authority with humour to match their brand – hence, the Apple Geniuses.
In other areas, increasingly, authority in marketing has evolved out of popularity. This is why social media influencers are excellent at marketing products to their fans – they are fashion, food, makeup, or health (and so on) authorities because of who they are, and their follower count only adds to their authenticity. If you’re selling a product or service that could be associated with a huge blogger or influencer, it is well worth reaching out to them to give your brand their seal of approval, while introducing it to thousands of fans to boot.
The principle of authority is an easy one to use to inject some credibility into your marketing. It’s especially useful when talking about technical or medical products or services – anything a layperson wouldn’t immediately understand themselves. But it’s also great to utilise social media influencers as sources of authority for areas where a lab coat and nice title isn’t going to cut it.
If you’d like to know more about Cialdini’s Six Principles of Persuasion, stay tuned for our next article.