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Home arrow Marketing arrow The Neuroscience of Multimodal Persuasive Messages: Persuading the Brain


As I mentioned in the previous chapter, studies have shown that people are attracted to others with whom they assimilate; people who are like them in some way. Political advertisers understand this and try to integrate certain dress in certain messages. If the politician is speaking about education policy, they may wear a professional dress, as teachers may dress. If the appeal is directed at the general public, their dress may be less formal. If the message pertains to business policy, they will dress as business professionals. However, assimilation is effective with certain messages but not others. In some cases the audience is persuaded by someone who is not like them but represents some expertise they lack but recognize as valuable to them for a particular situation—such as the attorney’s expertise with litigation when considering a lawsuit.

If someone dressed as a doctor tells the general public that smoking is bad for their health it carries more persuasive weight than if someone dressed casually—perhaps looking like a member of the general public—makes the same statement. The difference is that the person dressed as a doctor is representing him or herself as a member of a community that has expertise in healthy lifestyles, while the other speaker is not. The audience would find the statement more valuable coming from the health expert. What if the doctor were not dressed as a doctor but as a member of the general public? He or she would need to make a statement about their status as a doctor in order for the message to have the same effect.

Much of the dress code-related rhetoric is derived from the dynamics of neural plasticity—how neurons develop and react to certain stimuli over time. It is through conversations and experience that people learn to react certain ways to others and some stimuli, including dress. If I grow up in a small community where no one wears formal outfits, even to work at local stores, I may not understand what to do or how to react when someone wearing a suit come to my town. As such the mere wearing of the suit invokes fear in me, and I perceive the person as someone I need to avoid.

I present an example of how dress and plasticity could affect the rhetoric in a classroom setting. As such the notion of social presence, described briefly in Chapter 4, is the highest it can be; while various media facilitate some degree of social presence face-to-face contact with someone in the same physical proximity not facilitated via any form of technology is recognized as the highest level of social presence. So, the rhetoric is somewhat affected by that heightened social presence.

In a classroom setting, there may be a group of students who are often disruptive, talking in class while the professor is lecturing or showing an illustration of something; and they respond differently to approaches from the professor to quiet them. If another student quieted them, a number of attributes of neuroscientific dynamics and multimodal persuasion may be at play, and I discuss each.

Pretend that a small group of disruptive students sits together at one of the main corners of the class room. They often talk amongst themselves, usually about class-related topics but sometimes about other topics. Some of these are loud enough for all of the students to hear. When the conversation gets to that level, the professor, like many instructors would probably do, generally gives them a look or short reminder to quiet down, letting them know they were loud and disrupting class to some degree, and to persuade them to tone their conversation down so as not to disturb other students’ learning. When the professor gives the look, they quiet down for the rest of the class period; but the same disruptions occur throughout the semester. Indeed, this happens more than a handful of times during the course of the semester.

Professors wear various styles of dress. Some often dress casually while others usually wear professional clothes; a male, for example, may wear a dress shirt, tie and suit or sport coat and dress pants along with dark socks and dress shoes. One may assume that students would respect the instructor’s position, and clothing could re-enforce that position as well as model professionalism. It would be troubling to most professors that this group of students would repeat the disruptive behavior in spite of the professor having warned them on a few occasions. Perhaps they just did not realize that they were talking as loudly as they were, or, perhaps, they did not care. Nevertheless, the other students seem to understand the effort to quiet the group, but the disruptive group persists with their disruptive behavior anyway. What happens when different people in that classroom attempt to quiet the disruptive group?

In one particular class period near the end of the semester, the group becomes loud again. One student, male or female, gets up when the group becomes loud, walks over to the group and says in an assertive voice, “I’m trying to learn. Please be quiet.” The group seems to react to their message immediately and are quiet the rest of the semester.

The message is, in essence, the same as that offered by the professor; “Please be quiet so other students can hear what I’m saying and can learn.” Yet, it isn’t the professor who makes the statement. While it occurred briefly and explicitly, several dynamics may be at work in this example, depending on the student’s gender and dress, among other attributes. Most students respect authority and will pay attention to their teacher, recognizing the teacher as holding a position of authority within the classroom. However, there are students who have trouble with authority figures and exhibit rebellious behavior as a means to counter authority. Most students respond to authority, but some do not. Such students may not care who the authority figure is. Some students respond to actions of peers with more respect than they do to the actions of other adults. It may be that the group was shocked that one of their own peers would challenge their behavior and that they understood that this person represented others in the class. Their mirror neurons were challenged with regard to what they expected of their peers. They expected, perhaps, that their classmates were okay with them challenging the professor’s authority; and, until a classmate told them otherwise, they continued.

As a student, the one who confronted the group may be wearing an outfit typical of any college student. That would further engage mirror neurons of those in the disruptive group, re-enforcing that the challenger is a peer. Again, this may contribute to their confusion and their being startled by the student’s action. The student may dress nicely, beyond the normal casual or sporty-casual wear most students usually wear. This does not change the mirror dynamic much, because any student may dress just as nicely at any given time during the semester. What if the student dresses in an unusual way? That may change the mirror dynamics and affect other dynamics as well.

Some students participate in leadership training programs (a business leadership program or Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), for example) and occasionally wear clothing related to that training to class—a business suit, for example. ROTC provides tuition assistance; so, a student may use the program as a form of financial aid. In this example, pretend that the student was participating in an ROTC program and wore their ROTC officer outfit to class the day the incident happened. Now, not only does the peer dynamic affect the reaction of the group, but dress may affect it as well.

The dress uniform may affect the rhetoric in this situation, because the ROTC dress uniform may be perceived not only as “official” but, also, as intimidating. It is a military outfit, representing defense and aggressive action. Given the general fear most people have when involved in an aggressive encounter, dynamics related to the amygdala and hippocampus are involved.

Again, the amygdala is concerned with basic needs, including survival, and reacts with fear to any situation it does not know how to manage. Further, the hippocampus helps recall memories so that we understand how we reacted to a given situation in the past; however, if that situation was a negative experience, we recall that negativity.

Finally, the student’s leadership training in the ROTC program would contribute to their comfort with taking a stand in this case. Whether male or female, the student may have acted more assertively than they otherwise would have because they were addressing peers and felt confident in their ability to manage the situation. They may not have realized that their uniform contributed to the rhetorical impact the entire encounter had; nevertheless, the combination had the desired effect.

These dynamics would have engaged mirror neurons as well as amyg- dala/hippocampus, as stated above, more than any other neural activity. Several attributes of the model can be applied. However, it introduces another phenomenon to the model’s concept of medium used and how it may affect other attributes of the model—physical proximity. Connection to prior experience has been mentioned already; that the message occurred in the same location as the audience could affect intermodal redundancy, temporal synchronicity, modal filtering and visual dominance.

64 Dress and Natural [Neural] Codes Real-time, Same Proximity as Medium

Technology can serve as a buffer between speaker and audience; as such the audience feels safe even when threatened. One cannot possibly hurt me through television, computer, telephone, or any other medium; because they cannot immediately touch me and I can change my interaction with it. However, when the speaker is face-to-face with the audience, as may happen in an office setting or classroom or public place, the message may have a very different impact just because of that proximity. This is part of the medium used to facilitate communication, and it facilitates additional modes of representation such as smell and feel, which are not possible to include in a digital medium or print.

I alluded to the concept of social presence before; how technology can create the perception of close physical proximity between communicants. The more visual and real-time interaction the technology can facilitate, the higher the level of social presence. Face-to-face is considered the highest level of social presence; so, if the speaker and audience are in the same physical location at the time the message is presented, it is the highest level of social presence. Generally, studies find that there is a greater response to persuasive messages within higher social presence contexts; so, it is relevant to include it among the dynamics affecting persuasion. In a situation in which one wants to persuade a single person or small group, it is likely most effective to do it in-person.

The audience experiences intermodal redundancy of the speech as well as dress and facial expression of the speaker. The visual experience is immediate and real; the audience sees the person in its presence. Further, the temporal synchronicity of the message—and response—is immediate. Consequently, this illustrates the effect that changing the medium has on the other attributes of the model. The audience also experiences the smells of the setting, be it an outdoor space that includes floral scents or an inner-city space that includes industrial smells.

Further, the touch of a speaker may contribute to his or her rhetoric. One may provide a condolence message via letter or e-mail, but the message is different when the speaker offers a calming touch of the shoulder or hug, which can only occur in-person. Even the threat of touch, as in the example described above, could impact a message more persuasively than if the message had been conveyed via video.

In a professional setting, consider the role of the presentation or meeting whether a written report accompanies it or not. Proposals that include a presentation allow for interactivity among the communicants as well as additional sensory experiences. A presentation from an attractive person may be received better than one delivered by an unattractive person. A presentation delivered from an attractive person wearing a nice-smelling fragrance—perfume or cologne—may be better received than one from someone who is not wearing cologne or perfume.

Studies have found that even if the environment includes a nice floral smell, it elicits a certain kind of action on the part of the audience. Several studies, in fact, have found that customers are more likely to purchase items in a store that includes floral smells. Cartwright (2014) reported that, “Nike discovered that they could increase the intent to purchase by 80% through the introduction of scent into their stores. Another survey at a petrol station with a mini-mart reported that the aroma of coffee helped boost sales of the beverage by a whopping 300%” (paragraph 7). He also notes that, according to another study by the Smell & Taste Research Foundation, “[m]any of the subjects in the study reported that they were willing to pay $10 more for Nike sneakers placed in scented rooms, than those placed in an unscented one” (paragraph 10).

Floral scents elicit pleasant memories and images in our mind. The hippocampus is involved with memory; and it stores several attributes of experiences, including odors associated with experiences. One may associate a certain smell with an unpleasant experience, and he or she will recall that experience and related feelings about when they encounter that smell.

Smell can be associated with a given product as well. One needs only to review a fashion magazine—men’s or women’s fashion—to experience marketers’ efforts to use scent to engage an audience with a product. Fashion magazines are loaded with advertisements of fragrances that include the scent of the product. Oftentimes, an attractive model accompanies the advertisement as well. This combines the smell and appearance (visual) effects associated with the model. One’s hippocampus may be activated by the scent while mirror neurons or reward neurons are activated by the model, depending on the product’s target audience. These tactics are involved in face-to-face settings when fragrance models attend store functions that include fragrance sales. Visitors to department stores sometimes encounter a model who appears to be squirting anyone who passes with a perfume or fragrance she is holding. Again, the effect carries over into that encounter and may even include the other stimuli associated with the store or people with the shopper.

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