The art of subtle influence

As a kid I remember reading some books and hearing some stories about “subliminal advertising” (and of course demonic speach in LPs played backwards). I was always fascinated with how the brain (mind?) can be influenced even when it doesn’t know it is being influenced.

Driving to the Newark airport yesterday (for what turned out to be a cancelled flight), I heard an interview (listen here in RealAudio) with Martin Lindstrom on WNYC‘s Leonard Lopate show discussing Lindstrom’s new book, Brand Sense : Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound. One of the key things that came out in the interview is the (sometimes not so) subtle way the senses can be used to influence decisions, with the sense of smell being the sense with the most impact. One of the examples they discuss is the famous “new car smell.” Very interesting.

When I went back to the airport today (to actually fly), I was walking by the bookstore on the concourse and Malcolm Gladwell‘s (of The Tipping Point fame) new book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking caught my eye in the display. I had heard an interview with Gladwell concerning the book (again on the Leonard Lopate show) and was intrigued, so I picked the book up to read on my trip.

I am glad I did. I got through about half the book on the 3 hour flight, with a little bit of time taken off to work on the laptop ’til the battery died. The three tasks of the book, as explained by Gladwell:

  1. Convince you of a simple fact; decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately
  2. Answer the question, “When should we trust our instincts, and when should we be wary of them?”
  3. Convince you that our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled.

But what, you may ask, does that have to with “subtle influence”? What really caught my eye (ear!) in the interview was Gladwell’s description of how an individual’s performance can be influenced by “priming” them with subtle, sometimes subliminal input.

For instance, studies show that asking African-Americans to indicate their race before taking a test has a measurable negative affect on their performance on the test. (The study mentioned in the book uses a sample of questions from a GRE test.) On the positive side, you can use the same type of approach to improve performance by getting yourself (or someone else) into a “smart” frame of mind. An example I came across recently was Tom Peters Cirque du Soleil standard, watching a CdS DVD for the last 30 minutes or so before a presentation.

Lots of implications from both not only on how companies can influence customers (the branding/marketing side), but also how leaders can “influence” the success of their employees. I’ve not had a chance to read Brand Sense, but can heartily recommend Blink.