Benjamin Franklin Wants You To Read This

by , Jul 9, 2012, 7:00 AM
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Hey, do me a favor and read this.

It's just a leftover from Cannes, a little nugget destined for Chapter 8 of my new book (which is still untitled and unfinished but will totally change your life, like atomic energy and cup holders). But you should do this because the subject is fascinating in its own right.

It's about how to get people to like you. Without, you know, bribing them. 

As counterintuitive as this may sound, but a fact long since enshrined in the literature of psychology, is that human beings will identify with those they have been called upon to assist. This is called The Ben Franklin Effect, named after the inventor/publisher/diplomat/lothario/C-note star who first described it. As the story goes, Franklin had a fraught relationship with a rival legislator -- basically, the guy refused to even acknowledge him -- and this our famously fraternal founding father found frustrating. So, as he related in his autobiography, and as I cribbed from Wikipedia, Franklin forged a plan:

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return'd it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

What Franklin had exploited was the psychological reaction to cognitive dissonance. His rival felt antipathy toward him, yet being a gentleman, fulfilled Franklin's request. This caused conflicting, or dissonant, emotions for the guy; he had just helped the man he loathed. And so, to reconcile the inner conflict, he had to cease loathing him. No more cognitive dissonance. Lifelong friendship.

"I'm quite convinced it all boils down to minimization of cognitive dissonance," says Adam Ferrier, consumer psychologist and cofounder of the Australian agency Naked Communications, who raised the subject in a Cannes forum.

It was one of those remnants from Psych 101 that sounded, coming from Ferrier's mouth, freshly relevant. After all, for most of advertising's history, marketers burned ad fuel to persuade, persuade, persuade. Or at least to impress, impress, impress -- which, as my book eventually will prove once and for all, is unsustainable.

"Actually changing behavior through rational or emotional persuasion is quite cumbersome and not particularly effective," Ferrier agrees. “And the effect is often very short-term. Hence, if you don't keep persuading, people don't keep buying.”

On the other hand, seeking help from your various audiences obliges them to align their thoughts, feelings and actions along Ben Franklin lines. "Getting them to act is going to be a more effective way to change their attitudes toward their brand, and to change their behavior," Ferrier says. “You can have the relationship start by asking someone to do you a favor and invest something of themselves into you. If they want ownership, give them more ownership. Get them into your brand and your business as much as possible. Let them become co-producers of your brand and they become more loyal.”

Of course, as the man astutely observes, “Unilever can't call you and say, ‘Mate, would you help me move my flat?’”

 There are other ways to get positive action from the public. Naked won an Australian Effie with an initiative for Jarrah, which is a brand of flavored instant coffees that was struggling against the category leader Twinings. Everybody in the category sampled like crazy. You couldn’t open your mailbox without instant coffee packets tumbling out. So Naked persuaded Jarrah to tell the public no dice. If you want a sample, you have to go a Web site, fill out a form and choose your own damn flavor. Then, and only then, would they send it to you. They were so inundated with requests they had to discontinue the offer early. Sales went up 11%. And stayed there.

Hmm. It’s an impressive result, but the underlying psychology also sounds a bit manipulative -- in exactly the sort of way that consumers have long thought advertising to be, even though it’s frequently too impotent to nudge market share up a single freakin’ point. Is this, then, the smoking gun -- a case wherein understanding the human response to cognitive dissonance is exploitive, like the barroom pick-up artist’s trick of getting the women to buy a drink for him? Unsurprisingly, Ferrier says no.

“It’s not in anyone’s interest to hoodwink the consumer. If you don’t return that favor, your newfound relationship isn’t going to last very long. Just like any relationship, there has to be reciprocity and a positive and continual value exchange between both parties.”

In which case, thanks for reading to this point. My turn to reciprocate. Next spring, when that book my co-author and I are slaving over finally materializes, there will be plenty of other cool stuff to contemplate. So do me another favor?

Read that, too.

5 comments on "Benjamin Franklin Wants You To Read This".

  1. Steve Schildwachter from rVue
    commented on: July 9, 2012 at 10:46 a.m.
    So -- we should adamantly admit advertising asks us to buy something? http://twitter.com/SteveS1
  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited
    commented on: July 9, 2012 at 11:21 a.m.
    The best cold callers know this. Ask the receptionist, the assistant for a favor to get to who handles the account. People are more pleasing when you ask them to talk about themselves, ask them for their expertise and make them feel good with what they are doing. Don't forget to thank them and mean it. (Proselytizers have used this technique throughout the centuries, too.)
  3. Jim Gilmartin from Coming of Age
    commented on: July 9, 2012 at 11:49 a.m.
    Bob's comments remind me of the adage "If you have sight you are blessed. If you have insight you are a thousand times blessed." In my opinion, the positive result of asking someone for help goes beyond positive dissonance. Although there are exceptions, most members of the human species will lend a hand when asked because your request gives them the message that you respect their intellect and/or skills enough to reach out. However, if you're not sincere, most will see through you charade. Typically honesty, authenticity and reciprocity are the keys to an ongoing positive relationship. In Bob’s June 18, 2012 post “Name This Book” there was sixty-two comments/suggestions for his upcoming book title.
  4. Laurie Tema-lyn from Practical Imagination Enterprises
    commented on: July 9, 2012 at 1:50 p.m.
    Thanks for the history lesson. Wasn't aware of the Ben Franklin story...though I've long used the phrase "People support what they help to create" as a way to involve the "right" people in an innovation process that will enhance stakeholder support and alignment! And of a future note--our Winter issue of QRCA VIEWS Magazine will have an excellent article: Back to the Future: The Legacy of Dichter and the Depth Boys. You might want to check it out at www.qrca.org
  5. Vox Usi from The Voice of the User
    commented on: July 9, 2012 at 7:27 p.m.
    The trouble is, the story relies on Franklin's friend being "a gentleman", i.e. feeling a moral obligation to grant Franklin's request. What will "make" consumers oblige? ... Nothing, so they won't... By the way, 62 suggestions and still no title? At least let them know what you think! Looks like the "reciprocity and a positive and continual value exchange between both parties" is not happening in this case, uh?

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