Before most of today’s heavy users of social media were born, persuasion researchers were exploring what it takes to not be suckered by mass media messages. Early on, they found that when people are distracted, they are less capable of formulating counterarguments against media persuasion. In other words, they are more likely to be tricked into believing messages they would otherwise reject.

Apply this kind of thinking to today’s social media environment and not only do we find distractions occurring all around us in the physical world, but also nearly anything we read on social media is accompanied by unsolicited commercial messages. While we create and respond to Facebook messages or formulate blog responses, for example, advertisers repeatedly expose us to products and encourage immediate purchases. The more distracted we are, the easier it is for such messages to influence our thinking, including on a subconscious level.

Some positive attributes of social media include opportunities for connectedness among people physically distant from each other, the capacity for charitable organizations to reach greater audiences, and enhanced organizational productivity. So while social media is certainly not all bad, the amount of unsolicited advertising has become excessive. The hazards of being inadvertently persuaded increase not only with greater numbers and repetitions of messages, but also to the extent that uncritical consumers fail to arm themselves with counterarguments against unsolicited messages.

When my children were small and a television commercial showed them items they didn’t need (and wouldn’t want for long even if they did receive them), I’d occasionally make a comment such as, “They’re trying to get us to want that toy,” or, “Do you think that man on the TV is a real doctor?” Years of research on mass media influence indicates that alerting children to persuasive content of media messages teaches them to think more critically about them.   

What we can do for ourselves as adults is similar and increasingly important as the amount of information and interruptions we encounter on our communication devices amplify. When we see or hear ads difficult to ignore, we can shift to a more critical mode and become accountable to ourselves for using media responsibly. In this way, we avoid becoming suckers by taking the initiative to think critically about messages designed to influence us to do things we would, in a less distracted state, refuse.

How is such a critical mode of thinking developed? First, begin consciously examining what techniques are being used to dupe you into a frivolous purchase or into voting for some political candidate. Make a game of identifying how you’re supposedly being managed or manipulated. Persuasion research shows three types of rational influence appeals are typical: those of appropriateness, consistency and effectiveness, or what I call the "ACE" technique. Appeals by appropriateness try to convince us that something is right to do because others we admire or to whom we relate are doing it (“No one is missing this movie!”). Consistency appeals advocate actions in line with what we’ve done previously or with treasured views of ourselves (“Smart people use SXYZ financial services!”). Effectiveness appeals tell us that buying or doing something will result in a good outcome (“Buy now and you’ll get 50% more free”).

The next time you see an unsolicited message, and that won’t be long from now, try this ACE technique for assessing how the advertiser hopes to influence your beliefs, attitudes or behavior. Consider emotional appeals as well. See if you’re capable of counterargument in the midst of multiple messages.  It’s like learning to ride a bicycle—awkward at first, but in a short time you’ll automatically think more critically. With practice, you’ll no longer be at the mercy of persuasive tactics you wouldn’t even have noticed before.


Photo: PHOTOCREO Michael Bednarek