Why You Can’t Resist Persuasive Techniques (Even When You Spot Them)

image of woman with an orange

I am such a sucker.

Every year around the same time, the catalog comes in the mail. And every year, I think “maybe I’ll skip ordering this year. Maybe I’ll take a break.”

And then, I make the fatal mistake. I decide to take a peek inside.

And before I know it, I’m placing an order for the most expensive oranges I’ll eat all year. I cannot resist.

Even though I understand full well all the persuasion techniques they employ to make their product irresistible, I cave.

Robert Cialdini would be proud, because they follow the concepts in his classic book, Influence, to the letter.

Here’s what makes HoneyBell oranges so irresistible (besides the taste):

1. Liking: we buy from people we find agreeable

When you peel back the catalog cover, you’re met with a headline that introduces an engaging story about how this particular strain of orange was discovered.

It’s descriptive, folksy, and uses humor. It sounds like you’re hearing a story told by a likable friend.

2. Authority: we respect and respond to those in charge

The story gives you the impression that the HoneyBell was discovered by the company sending the catalog. Is that true?

Who knows, but they tell the story best and quickly establish that their authority with this fruit goes back to 1945.

3. Reciprocity: we’re driven to pay back “debts”

If you’ve ordered from them before, the HoneyBell folks make sure you get your catalog in plenty of time so you won’t miss the ordering window for the next year.

They also send a free plastic “bib” with every order to protect your clothing from the overflow of juice.

And sometimes they even include a “juice straw” that you can use to pierce the fruit and draw the juice out directly.

All these free gifts make you feel grateful — and slightly indebted to them — which motivates you to place your order year after year.

4. Commitment: we strive to make our actions and decisions consistent

Sorting through the mailer, you find an order form that is pre-filled with the names, addresses, and items you purchased last year.

Want to delight your family members with HoneyBells again? (Better yet, want to upgrade your order?) They make it easy. Last year’s orders beckon like a voice from the past, “You did this once. Do it again. It’s easy!”

5. Social proof: we feel safer about buying something others have tried

Just in case you’re not convinced, the HoneyBell catalog is sprinkled with testimonials in every available nook and cranny.

Customers send candid shots of themselves eating their oranges, bibs on.

The latest catalog features a photo of a black Labrador Retriever in a bib, with a straw in its mouth that’s stuck in an orange. Who can resist that?

6. Scarcity: we want things more when their availability is limited

Here’s the clincher: Florida HoneyBells are only available once a year for a few weeks.

This might be the most persuasive technique of all: if you don’t order now for next year, you’ll have to wait two years before you can have these oranges again.

Making oranges out of lemons

When I come across a campaign I admire, I imagine what it must have been like to plan and implement that campaign.

Here’s what I think happened at the meeting with the ad agency that produced the HoneyBell campaign.

Client: “We have these oranges that are so juicy they make a mess when you eat them. But they’re not round and pretty -β€” they have a weird bulge on one end. And they’re only available once a year. Oh, and we can’t ship them until after the major year-end holidays are over.”

Ad agency: “No problem. We’ll send out plastic bibs with every order, call them “bells,” and we’ll tell people that their holiday gift will be appreciated even more because it will arrive after the holiday rush.”

Sometimes legendary campaigns are born out of necessity.

How about you?

Are you ever influenced by these persuasive techniques, even though you understand what’s happening?

Do you find yourself picking apart campaigns, trying to figure out which elements came together to make them work? (If not, try it; it’s a great way to learn.)

As for me, it’s now the second week in January … so if it takes me a while to respond to your comments below, come looking for me. I’ll be the one with the orange juice dribbling down my chin. :-)

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Reader Comments (43)

  1. says

    Pamela, great idea of picking apart a campaign like the Honeybell oranges and their persuasive techniques and applying it to our own campaigns! And by the way, you’ve persuaded me to check out these oranges! I had never heard of them. :-)

    • says

      Karleen, I may have spoiled you for all other oranges. πŸ˜‰

      When I picked apart the campaign, I was amazed at how easy it was to spot the persuasion techniques.

      They’re all there … and yet I still fall for them!

  2. says

    Yes – isn’t it strange how we worship our own deception?

    I used to work in the casino industry. (What can I say, I just wanted to give something back.)

    Gamblers would often explain with excitement how casinos manipulate them. No clocks. Messy layouts. Busy carpet so your eye bounces back to the equipment.

    I don’t know why, but people love the spells cast on them. Especially when they work.

  3. says

    Pamela – I know what you mean. I totally fall for marketing – and it feels like waayyyy to often! And of course, I know exactly what they’re doing, but it doesn’t matter.

    Of course that’s incentive for me to continue to work to implement tried and true marketing techniques. Because they work – even on the well informed!!!

    • says

      There’s a reason they’re called “tried and true!”

      I’m glad we have a place like Copyblogger to talk about these techniques and figure out how to apply them to our own businesses.

  4. says

    For such an evolved species its incredible how much our “lizard brain” still drives our decisions and motivations.

    That goes some way to explaining the burgeoning fields of behavioural economics and purpose-driven marketing.

    Delightful post and you’ve certainly synthesized some key motivators – or what Richard Thaler – calls “nudges” in the book of the same name. HT Pamela.

    • says

      What amazes me is that even when we know we’re being driven by our lizard brain we still place that order.

      One would think that awareness=self-control. I guess it does sometimes, but not for me in this situation.

      Thanks for the comment, Hilton.

  5. says

    So true. I attended a webinar yesterday, knowing the charming hostess would end with a sales pitch, and determined to keep my credit card safely inside my wallet.

    And yet it was exactly what I needed – eBook Evolution Premium. How could I resist?

  6. says

    I was just chatting with a friend the other day about the “flu bug” campaign they run every year on the radio. That nasty jingle gets stuck in my head worse than the flu. It kind of hit me over the head when he said, “It worked, didn’t it?” I think I need to pull apart that campaign.

  7. says

    “…One taste and you help but wonder how Blue Bell got so many good things in a carton that size.”

    Heard this jingle on the radio for months. It would get stuck in my head for hours.

    One day I happen to walk down the ice cream isle…

    I remember thinking to myself, “It actually worked!”

  8. says

    Raise your hand if this post made you consider (or act on) buying some HoneyBells.

    (raises hand)

    I think an important factor, which Pamela touched on, is the thing being sold needs to be something that’s actually good. That’s a big part of what keeps Pamela coming back year after year. All of the persuasion just gives her the needed nudge to act on that impulse.

    • TIM says

      Yeah, the post made me curious enough that I thought about trying one, but I doubt they sell them individually.

      Then I did some searching and found their website. They look like tangelos, and according to Wikipedia, there’s a variety of Florida tangelo called Honeybell (“A true Honeybell Tangelo is a hybrid-cross between Thompson tangerine and a pomelo”)…

      Frankly, I’d rather have my tangerines/mandarins and grapefruit straight, not mixed. And I wasn’t particularly impressed by a pomelo I tried some years back.

      I’ve tried tangelos, and they’re OK (can’t figure out why people rave about them), but I only buy them if they’re cheaper than oranges or tangerines.

      Then the obscene price of the Honeybell Oranges stopped me in my tracks. Even if they’re as juicy and delicious as claimed, there’s no way I’d ever pay that much.

      So the post worked as far as raising my curiosity, but the website did nothing to increase that curiosity – especially after checking prices.

      Maybe penny-pinchers and Scrooges are more immune to persuasion? πŸ˜‰

      Thanks for the post, Pamela. You raised some interesting points!

  9. says

    I couldn’t believe my eyes firstly! If somebody would tell me that selling oranges online can be successful, I would never-ever believe. But after reading your article I started googling “honeybell” and almost ready to buy them. lol

    I would like to add 1 more technique they use imho. The colors. What can be more juicy, positive and sunny than the green-and-orange colors?

    Thank you for the article, Sonia. This one is a masterpiece.

  10. says

    I think it depends on the individual. I don’t feel persuaded to buy anything a brand throws at me, no matter how persuasive they think they’re being. I don’t read adverts or watch any – if they come on the TV, the mute buttons goes on, or the radio is switched off. It’s about being a rational adult and deciding what is good for you, not being indoctrinated by propaganda some brand has thought up. It’s far better to do autonomous searching for new products then kowtow to manipulative advertising schemes.

    I dislike advertising in this sense, it’s a world of falsities and spurious sentiments. Interesting article, though, but I prefer authenticity from products. Business spiel is not to be trusted.

  11. dhp says

    Something to be said for good marketing. There is a lot of bad marketing out there; annoying everyone with their buzzwords and disruptive advertising. But, some marketers and companies really get it. They provide value and communicate it well, and they deserve to be rewarded with success.

  12. says

    I’ve seen those oranges being sold on the TV and they look so good.

    Oranges are a tempting fruit that I always fall for when I see them (plus they’re healthy to eat).

    When you give your reader or customer a satisfying feeling, they are almost always going to come back for more (plus more recommendations from them to their friends).

    When you offer or sell a product, appeal to their senses and have them feel “good” about what you offer and the product/service itself.

    That is the best form of marketing or business any brand can follow through with.

    Appeal more to senses and give them a hope to their problems.

    Thanks for writing the article Pamela!

    – Sam

  13. says

    One reason we get carried along by persuasive techniques even when we know what’s going on is that, done well, they make taking action simple and often enjoyable. If taking action is a good experience we will do it more often.

    Simple strategy. Big reward for those who can make the persuasive process a pleasant one.

  14. says

    I do this quite often – pick campaigns and what not apart. :) I am an MBA student so I am marketing and business minded for the most part. I annoy my non-marketing/business friends and family with my observations for promotions, ads, commercials, color marketing and so on, haha. Great post!

    • says

      It’s a great way to learn, Shawn.

      Once you can see and understand what good marketers do, it’s easier to use those same techniques for your own business.

  15. says

    Heh- my local Hy-vee here has these Minneolas for .99/lb. right now. Compare that to the $35 price tag on an 8-lb. box of the HoneyBells. It’s $8 of fruit and $27 of hype. Well-played…

  16. says

    Where I work, we print catalogs. I’m totally aware that they’re marketing tools used to influence my behavior. I see what’s involved in making them from a production standpoint every step of the way from design to mailing.

    And yet I can’t resist. Even if I don’t buy anything, I leave them on my coffee table so they’ll cast a spell on my guests.

  17. says

    One reason we get carried along by persuasive techniques even when we know what’s going on is that, done well, they make taking action simple and often enjoyable. If taking action is a good experience we will do it more often.

  18. says

    Interesting post, Pamela. I definitely agree with points 1 and 5 – we both from those we like and trust through social proof.

  19. says

    I’m with Simone – just as well I’m in the UK and so resisted the temptation to buy (particularly as I don’t care for oranges – just too much faff!).

    Plenty to learn form the post (and the comments) , as always…

  20. todd sledzik says

    First, I’m interested in how Mr.Morris separates “falsities” from “authenticity”. Send that might be a blurred line in most cases. And as Brian mentions, if you work in marketing or business communications, you certainly can’t function from an island. What we do, with our strategy, messaging and tactics, is as much a reaction to the landscape as it is anything else.

  21. says

    It happens to me especially during all those IM product launches! That is my my Achilles Heel! I’m such a sucker for product launches! Smh lol.

  22. says

    This is persuasiveness done right – no in-your-face punches, no obtrusion. Just splendid presentation and result is here. But Honeybell example is not all about persuasiveness – it’s a coolhunter commodity due to its limited availability and being tight to distinct season. And that changes rules of the game a bit. Still great clues in the article and nice job done, Pamela.
    P.S. Aren’t they going to include pomelos in their product line?))) I’d definitely buy one).

  23. says

    One area of persuasion I’m trying to work on is scarcity. What are some creative ways to sell products that don’t expire like oranges? Or scarcity strategies that don’t require price discounting?

  24. says

    I have a degree in marketing, I’ve worked in marketing for most of my life in one way or another, including in market research where we’d study the effects (or lack thereof) of various ad campaigns before they were launched, so I know exactly what’s going on but I still fall for the good ones… every single time.

    And yes, that’s pretty much how a meeting would go. Then they’d come to us and we’d run focus group discussions to see how people would respond to the campaign. I remember doing one for Kent cigarettes for billboards a long while back and all it took for them to change the entire concept was for one of the respondents to say that the filter looked like a tampon. I think the ad agency hated that guy for quite a while LOL…

    As someone said earlier, it’s our “lizard brains” that function on instinct. And my lizard brain is screaming that it wants oranges right now :)

  25. says

    I’ve recently finished Robert Cialdini’s book, and it’s amazing to read a case study illustrating its practical applications (and limitations). As your post illustrates, being aware of these techniques isn’t actually enough to resist them – and if anything, it’s sometimes in our interests to succumb to them.

    Wanting to resist the allure of successful marketing doesn’t change the fact that it is, fundamentally, alluring. Even when we can see the machinations behind marketing, we can still desire the product. If anything, we’ll enjoy it more, because we don’t feel suckered by a promotion. We can see the strategy, and we can still desire the product.

    Robert talks of resisting the ‘click, whirrr’ of marketing, but his practical recommendations for doing so would leave a person overly cynical and exhausted. Being aware of the strategies at work is enough – and it’s good to succumb sometimes. In other words, regardless of the marketing hype employed, those oranges still taste delicious!

  26. says

    But you’re not a ‘sucker’ for this campaign.

    You’re actually buying something you like, right?

    Or did I miss the point. You make it sound almost like you’ve been persuaded to buy something that is either overpriced or something you don’t actually want but then you go on to describe how great they are.

    Give yourself a break and have another orange.

  27. says

    I’ve seen many sales coaches use story telling to make themselves likeable (as part of their sales strategy). Being liked is the one component of securing a new sale, as you say… if you people like you, people will buy from you. Simple.

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