Pre-Suasion and Meaning-Making in Marketing

Think about the last time you made a big purchase that you felt really good about. What was your state of mind? What were you thinking about right before you said yes?

According to Robert Cialdini who wrote the book Pre-Suasion, whatever factor is at the top of consciousness right before you make a decision is the most important moment in the marketing. And yes, marketers can manipulate that.

Unlike traditional persuasion, pre-suasion gets at the moment right before people actually make their decisions. In this PBS News Hour video, Cialdini shares some examples for how marketers can effectively create a framework for successful and effective buying decisions:

To summarize, marketers can use pre-suasion tactics to re-route attention to something by capitalizing on an aspect they’re already subconsciously tuned into. In other words, “a communicator can get us to be agreeable to a message that we haven’t yet heard by going to the moment before they deliver that message and putting us in a frame of mind that is aligned with the central element of that message.”

Enter: Martin Heidegger

To more deeply understand the roots of this concept, there’s no better starting point than the philosopher Martin Heidegger. If you’re not familiar with Heidegger, below is an excellent lecture I came across from Wesley Cecil, Ph.D. at Peninsula College. The lecture is not only entertaining, but accessible, and provides a wonderful introduction to the philosophies of Heidegger:

Or, if you’re already familiar with Heidegger, then you will really enjoy this podcast featuring Stanford professor of religious studies, Dr. Thomas Sheehan, which takes a deep dive into Heidegger’s thinking. Because I love Heidegger, I strongly recommend you listen to both! (And when you’re done, I’ll be more than happy to share with you my copy of “Religion, Ideology, and Heidegger’s Concept of Falling” by Greg Tropea.)

So – what do we need to know?

Heidegger was a German philosopher who is perhaps best known for his book, Being and Time, which is one of the central philosophical works of the 20th century. According to Heidegger, the central determination of human being (Dasein) is being in the world, being in meaning. Existence is the need, the obligation of being thrown into making sense of things. Being is our state of existence in the world, and time is what frames our context. As a consequence of being in the world, we come into contact with phenomena. As such we are forced to make sense of phenomena; our state of existence is phenomenological.

According to Stratten, phenomenology is about the meaning of things in our world or the significance of things to us in general. It’s precisely meaning that changes “things out there” into “phenomena”—that is to say things that meaningfully appear to us, that we can engage with. Phenomena is about presence to you in a meaningful way. Heidegger liked to focus on this interface, the correlation of phenomena with human being, and human beings’ correlation with meaning. From the podcast:

Things appear to us in ways that are accessible. That can be in the realm of visibility, in the realm of intelligibility, in the realm of practicality (the practical use) or any number of modes, and I think that the word meaning doesn’t encompass the full array of possibilities of how things are given over to us as phenomena.

In other words, when you walk into a room, there are things you’ll notice that the person standing next to you never will. For example, the person who is attracted to the material might notice jewelry, handbags, or accessories first. For the person who just lost a loved one, the first thing they might notice is a kind gesture. For the person feeling sick to their stomach, the smells in the room might be the first thing that stands out. And so on.

Because meaning is construed by context, and context is what gives rise to interpretation, it is the job of the marketer to catch the attention, create the context, and provide individuals with not only a reference point, but a funnel for decision-making. It is in this moment that marketing can step in, by helping to create context that leads to a desired interpretation, and hence PRE-SUADED action.

While there was certainly a lot to digest there, the basic idea that Cialdini’s concept of pre-suasion and Heidegger’s Being in Time have in common is that in order to understand influence, we must first understand the concept of meaning-making. And to manipulate the meaning-making structure is to achieve the power of influence and pre-suasion in the post-industrial marketplace.

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