Influence with Robert Cialdini


[Image courtesy of]

Most of you will know the advertising campaign for Dos Equis featuring The Most Interesting Man in the World.

It is brilliant on many levels. The man is not a 28-year-old model, but a cross between Papa Hemingway and Luis Bassat. The executions both long and short are usually magnificent.

But there is an extra level of genius here, without which the campaign would merely be very good, rather than great.

“I do not always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Dos Equis.”

Not, I suspect what the client would at first have wanted. “I have drunk many beers of the world and Dos Equis is the best” or “I always drink beer – and insist on Dos Equis”.

But there are a few reasons which make this so vital.

First of all, it is a much better fit with the character. It is unlikely that the world’s most interesting man would confine himself to only one alcoholic drink — he would have a wide repertoire.

It is also important, I think, to the positioning of the beer. This is not a beer for people who only drink beer. The ad is targeting the wine drinker, not the drinker of rival beers, and so, acknowledging the value of other drinks is vital to this approach.

But there is a third reason why this little surprising acknowledgment is so potent in the ad. It is a little admission of weakness, a small symbolic concession to reality, just before the narrative delivers the product’s strength.

When we were privileged to welcome Professor Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, to speak at Ogilvy London, he was a great supporter of this technique. The idea of delivering a little concessionary downside before you deliver the big reason for a sale. It works in the salesroom and it works in an ad.

Robert Cialdini, it should be remembered, was an academic who spent several years undercover working as a salesman for various organizations. He was trained to sell a variety of products and services, from cars to financial products, and in some cases the advice he was given .—- and the lessons he learned — were highly specific to the category. But in the course of his researches, he identified six principles of influence and persuasion which applied almost universally.

You’ll find the list here:

It is a useful list to scan whenever you are looking at improving a path to sale. — as you might do in direct or digital marketing — or where you are looking to develop an interesting vehicle for an advertising campaign. It is also useful when you want to justify to others the often-counterintuitive vehicles and devices employed by most of the best creative advertising.

“Quite frankly, the American Express Card is not for everyone” — is an appeal to scarcity — a device which almost always works on our subconscious mind: fifty years later it is being used on websites which declare “only three seats remaining at this price”. (What’s odd about this, is that it still works on me, even though, at a conscious, level I know it may well be a marketing ruse. And it can be used very powerfully to ill effect: Bernie Madoff was a very clever user of scarcity bias.)

The interesting thing about the “I don’t always drink beer approach” – which you will find in very many examples of effective advertising, is that it is a small, symbolic act of reciprocity through the use of candor. Consider “Reassuringly expensive”; or “Fresh Cream Cakes — Naughty but Nice” (written by the then-. Ogilvy copywriter Salman Rushdie); or “It’s the most irresponsible thing you’ll ever do” for Harley Davidson; or even, implicitly, l’Oreal’s “Because You’re Worth It”. All contain this same device. “Yes, there’s a downside…. but!”

The reason for the potency of this approach.— which Bob Cialdini says is almost infallible — needs further investigation.

But what seems inarguable is that, contrary to most people’s instincts, a constant stream of boasts, or an enumeration of product strengths, is not the most effective way to sell something. “Yes, but” is a better argument than simply “Why.”

I say contrary to most people’s instincts, but I’m not even sure I mean real people here. Real people do, I think, understand that a list of boasts is unappealing — most people out on a date — even, I suspect, in New York — might try to work a few small admissions of failure into their life story to avoid seeming like a prat.

But the thing to understand here is that the human brain is not really a calculator — it is a game theorist. In an mild admission of weakness, we actually perceive strength. Only the most confident brands (and people) can afford the luxury of mild self-deprecation. But it also recognizes another psychological trick. The brain does not view any action as an unalloyed good — every decision is a trade-off of some kind or other, and so the brain is actively looking for “the downside.” If you tell people what the downside is, they can write it off against the benefits. If they don’t know a specific downside, they will start imagining many of their own.

If you want to defuse worry, tell people what to worry about. A specific problem is easier to resolve than a vague sense of unease.