Infomercial Bondage: Stuck Inside of Kansas With the Saggy Butt Blues Again

I’m in a hotel room in Overland Park, Kansas, strapped to the bed, writhing and struggling, unable to move. The TV is showing infomercials: the Magic Sleeper bed cover, the Steam Shark home cleaning system, and Winsor Pilates exercises videos. My open wallet lies just out of reach. The phone, likewise. Finally, it’s over. I push the clicker’s Off button with my teeth, and the straps release. I’ve done my homework without buying $400 worth of useless junk. Now I can report my findings to you.

Lessons from Infomercials

What does this have to do with your business? For my money, infomercials are the most advanced marketing texts of our time.

I’ll bet you have someone in your life with a closet full of infomercial gadgets – exercise equipment, cool tools, kitchen gadgets. Maybe they’re mildly ashamed of their helplessness in the face of "but wait, there’s more" and "if you order in the next 18 minutes, you also get…" and the earnest stories of people just like them whose lives were changed forever by the item that you can get "for just three easy payments of $19.95, if you act now."

Maybe you’re a little ashamed for them. How can such an otherwise rational and sensible person be such a sucker after 11 pm? Maybe you’re that person!

Infomercials work by pushing every button of human psychology. It’s crucial to understand these buttons, whether we want to push them in our prospects or resist salespeople who try to push ours.

The best book on the subject, Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, is absolutely required reading for every human being on this planet. If you don’t understand the six simple yet profound principles Cialdini has identified, you’re a helpless consumer and a toothless marketer.

And you’ll end up with a closet full of electric carrot peelers and recumbent treadmills.

Because you have to get and study the book, I’m not going to give you all six principles here. I don’t want you thinking you can avoid this homework assignment. (By the way, if you buy it from amazon via the above link, I donate my affiliate commissions to The Miracle League, a non-profit that builds handicapped-accessible parks and sports fields, and sets up programs that buddies mainstream kids with kids who are institutionalized or homebound because of physical limitations. I got hooked on this organization after watching their infomercial, which shows that these principles can be used for good or ill.)

Instead, I’m going to give you two principles (one this issue and one some time in the future) and talk about how they were used in the Windsor Pilates video that so tested my willpower in Kansas.

Principle #1: Social Proof

Summary:

If lots of people are doing something, there must be a good reason.

As in, 80 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.

Of course, this thinking is utter nonsense. The history of the 20th century should make it clear that lots of people can all be horribly wrong together, racing to punish the innocent or buy bad ideas or chase phantoms instead of real problems. Yet one of the most powerful instruments of persuasion is to show your prospect how lots of other people have already made the decision you’re asking them to make.

Why it’s hardwired:

As shortcuts for thinking go, it’s a pretty good one. I don’t have time to evaluate every decision I must make every day. If I’m waiting at New York Penn Station for the Northeast Corridor train to Princeton Junction and I see a wave of commuters surge toward gate 11 west, I follow the crowd. Chances are, they’re going to lead me to the train, and if I elbow enough people out of the way, I might get a seat.

Because social proof is hardwired into us (like the other five principles), it can be powerfully engaged by persuaders who understand its power and its triggers.

Examples:

    * The Winsor Pilates infomercial mentioned several times that four million copies of the product have already been sold worldwide (yes, they showed a world map).
      
    * It had about two dozen testimonials from "ordinary" women  who were using the exercise video and amazing their friends with their beautiful, toned, flexible bodies (be still, my beating heart). One of them, Katherine Leis, reveals, "my butt is actually a bit higher." (I had an image of a Winnie the Pooh growth chart taped to the doorframe, with pencil lines indicating her rising butt over time.)
      
    * It portrayed Pilates as the hottest trend in exercise by showing footage of extremely crowded classes at fitness centers. (It used these images to "sell against" crowded classes, juxtaposing the peace, convenience, and privacy of popping a video in the machine and having Mari Windsor all to yourself.)
      
    * It featured celebrities like Danny Glover, Minnie Driver, and someone named Daisy Fuentes (whom I’m far too old to care about, except in a vague, lecherous sort of way) praising the instructor, Mari Windsor, to high heavens. The "Pilates trainer to the stars" concept engages social proof in a powerful way. We still believe celebrities know something we don’t, and that if we only knew it, we’d be as rich and famous as they are. (If any celebrities are reading this letter, is it true?)

Morals of the Story:

Very few of your prospects want to be trailblazers or guinea pigs. We’ve all been burned too many times to trust our own opinions. You must convince your market that your product is proven safe and effective. The quickest way to do this is to engage social proof – that many other people whose opinions matter to them already use your product and endorse it.

As a consumer, become aware of when and how social proof is used to make you buy. Ask yourself if the argument is persuasive based on its merits, or if it’s simply trying to engage your fear of being "left out." Like all psychological principles, social proof can be used ethically and can be misused.

I’ve gotta go. I’ve been typing too long – I think my butt just sagged. Now where is that phone number?

Quotes

We seem to assume that if a lot of people are doing the same thing, they must know something we don’t. Especially when we are uncertain, we are willing to place an enormous amount of trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd.
– Robert Cialdini

We see the people. We see them marching down.
Do we join the parade, or do we try and turn around?
-Harry Chapin

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I…
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost

The conventional view serves to protect us
from the painful job of thinking.
– John Kenneth Galbraith

Marketing Motivators on Social Proof

1. First, watch some infomercials. Jot down notes on all the ways social proof is used to make you feel OK about ordering.

2. Think back to the objections you hear about your product or service. Which ones are really social proof concerns in disguise?

3. What social proof can you offer your prospects? Years in business? Client lists? Examples of your work? Testimonials? If you haven’t been collecting these things systematically, realize that they’re the most powerful parts of your marketing arsenal. You won’t find a higher paying use of your time than fortifying your social proof.

If you’re just starting out and don’t have a proven track record or lots of testimonials, you have to be more creative. Promote the general category. Create a "users group" with big discounts in exchange for feedback (and hopefully praise). Give a bold guarantee huge enough to overcome the lack of social proof.

Bonus Quotes

There was a power outage at a department store yesterday. Twenty people were trapped on the escalators.
– Steven Wright

Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.
– Mignon McLaughlin

As a matter of principle, I never attend the first annual anything.
– George Carlin

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