flattery

Many people buy into the old axiom, “Flattery will get you nowhere.” Neuromarketing readers, though, are an exceptionally bright and discerning group, and have no doubt already anticipated what comes next: new research shows that even when people perceive that flattery is insincere, that flattery can still leave a lasting and positive impression of the flatterer.

Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology published their research in the Journal of Marketing Research, concluding:

In addition to their theoretical value, these findings possess practical applicability. From the marketer’s perspective, the results suggest that insincere flattery can exercise a persuasive influence on consumers’ automatic reactions even when they correct for the underlying ulterior motive in their deliberative judgments. In addition, this implicit reaction may actually be more influential in some ways than the corrected judgment—both with regard to delayed effects and in terms of withstanding an attack—thus offering further room for optimism to marketing agents interested in using flattery as a persuasion device (while simultaneously being a cause for concern from the consumers’ viewpoint). The former result carries particular significance given that marketers are often concerned with the long-term effects of any persuasion tactic. [Emphasis Added. From Journal of Marketing Research – Insincere Flattery Actually Works: A Dual Attitudes Perspective (summary).]

So, what Chan and Sengupta found was that even when we realize we are being flattered, and “correct” for that when we think about the flatterer, there is still an underlying positive impression that can be strong and long-lasting. This subconscious positive impression – the researchers call it “implicit” – was found to influence behavior even when the subjects consciously realized that the flattery was insincere.

It’s scary that we can be manipulated this easily, and that our own defenses against such manipulation are ineffective even when we realize what is happening. But is there a way that ethical marketers can apply this knowledge? The answer is, “Yes!”

Ethical Flattery

The key to using flattery in a non-manipulative way is to be honest. Particularly in a direct sales environment where the interaction is customized to the individual, the salesperson can praise some action or characteristic of the customer and do so in a way that is not dishonest in any way.

In a more general marketing situation, honesty can still be maintained with targeted pitches. For example, “When you purchased one of our Platinum Class suits, you demonstrated that you are an individual who recognizes and appreciates both sophisticated styling and superb quality…”

These customized approaches are not only more honest but are likely far more effective than, say, a mass mailing that makes an obviously bogus flattering statement about the recipient. Even though the study suggests that the latter approach might actually work, a statement that is actually grounded in truth will cause less cognitive dissonance and create a favorable impression of the firm or brand at both implicit and explicit levels.

I knew that my most motivated and intelligent readers would get to the end of the post. Clearly, you are one of them – thanks for reading! And, of course, feel free to share your own experiences with flattery in marketing!

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