Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Why are music stars so successful?

Consider the most successful music stars of today; the likes of Drake, Rihanna and Justin Bieber. What makes these artists so successful and how are they persuading a large amount of the general public to listen to their music?

Agenda Setting Theory

This states that news influences the perceived importance of issues by repeating and emphasizing them. News coverage of Selena Gomez receiving a kidney transplant or Taylor Swift making her comeback with a new single and her album Reputation influences public perception by making such topics appear more important to each individual. Although we may not pay much attention to an average person undergoing a kidney transplant, the fact that news outlets frequently mention and emphasize that Selena Gomez underwent one means this must be important and so with this agenda, this can attract more people to her music.

One study showed that there was a high correlation between people’s rankings of countries with ‘high interest’ to the U.S. and the frequency and valency of big TV network newscasts (Wanta, Golan, & Lee, 2004). Effectively, the more media coverage a nation received, the more likely respondents were to think the nation was vitally important to U.S. interests, supporting the Agenda Setting Theory.

This can be applicable to music critics. Albums with the most detailed coverage with many reviewers generally attract many listeners. Consider the Kendrick Lamar album To Pimp A Butterfly, widely considered as one of the best hip hop albums of all time. This album has 44 reviews on Metacritic and has been covered on Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and numerous newspaper publications. This has helped to contribute to the public’s perception of Kendrick Lamar as it has cemented his importance in the music industry and so this agenda has contributed to the success of him as an artist. 

Mere exposure

With this phenomenon, people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. The more we are exposed to something, the more we end up liking it. We often hear about songs which are considered ‘ear-worms’ and generally catchy – the song may even be annoying on first listen but over time there comes a point where you can’t stop listening to it.. The success of these songs are aided by radioplay and play in clubs/bars – many of us have experienced having a song stuck in our heads on the way home from the club or after having just turned off the radio. 

Evidence for this effect comes from Zajonc (1968) who studied differential exposure to Chinese characters. Participants displayed a higher rating for ‘goodness’ of meaning in the Chinese characters which were presented with high frequency as opposed to low frequency, as seen below.

As we can see, the mere exposure effect works even for foreign characters and objects - as long as it is presented more frequently people are likely to end up rating it more highly. Remember the song Despacito? This 2017 hit by Luis Fonsi was predominantly sung in Spanish yet it eventually became the highest selling song of the summer, regardless of the fact many people didn’t even understand the lyrics. 

Marketing Techniques

As you may know, there is careful planning and judgement when it comes to marketing music singles and albums in terms of image and timing of release dates. Different persuasion techniques are involved in order to achieve high first-week sales of an album and contribute to the overall success of the music project. One of these is the foot-in-the-door technique. 

This is a compliance tactic that involves setting up a person getting a person to agree to a larger request by first setting them up to agree to a smaller request. One study showed that when people were first asked to wear a lapel pin publicizing the American Cancer Society, they were 2x more likely to give a donation the next day compared to those who had not been asked to wear the lapel (Pliner, Hart, Kohl, & Saari, 1974).

In music, one common promotional technique is to release one or two of an album’s singles before the album is released. If someone listens to the promotional single(s), they have made a minor commitment to listening to those songs only. However, when the album drops, they are more likely to listen to the whole album and make a larger commitment of their time compared to if they had not listened to any of the artist’s songs prior.  For example, the Drake hit singles Hotline Bling and One Dance were released before the album Views was released, charting at #2 and #1 respectively. Subsequently, the album went on to become the highest-selling album of 2016. Despite the album being relatively poorly received by critics, many people had already committed to listen to the album anyway which is partly a result of the promotional singles’ huge successes.  

Overall, the message is: the most successful music artists have songs which are catchy to the point that constant airplay will lead to the general public liking the song, have news outlets and critics setting an agenda that leads to consumers buying more of their music and have music labels and promoters that use marketing techniques such as using the foot-in-the-door technique to persuade people buy their music. 


Pliner, P., Hart, H., Kohl, J., & Saari, D. (1974). Compliance without pressure: Some further data on the foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 10(1), 17-22.

Wanta, W., Golan, G., & Lee, C. (2004). Agenda setting and international news: Media influence on public perceptions of foreign nations. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 81(2), 364-377.

Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2p2), 1.

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