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.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Double Trouble

It’s a Valentine’s Day evening. Your girlfriend wants to see a romantic comedy while you’d rather watch a police crime drama. You think there’s nothing more irritating than this. Well, probably there is! The commercials that keep interrupting the movie you enjoy watching.

Knowing that you, like any other human being, don’t process advertisements in depth and tend to rely on quick automatic evaluations, advertisers use various persuasion techniques in commercials (Cialdini, 2001). In addition to this, the content of the advertisements, which disturb your favourite TV show screening, are sometimes chosen purposefully to go in line with the program.  But more surprisingly, different programs induce different emotions and these may influence how you view the commercials.

One commonly used tactic is “social proof”. The tactic relies on simple and universal human desire to fit in with other human beings. In other, “scarcity”, tactic, the appeal is opposite: the desire to be unique and individualistic, to sand out in the crowd. Although both tactics are known to be persuasive, they work for different reasons and at different times. For instance, when someone feels threatened, they may find themselves seeking out for the company of others and wanting to blend in with them. It makes sense from the evolutionary approach point of view. Humans, very much like sheep, gather in a herd to seek safety and comfort from predators. This increases their chances in surviving and passing on their genes. On the other hand, when someone wants to mate, they need to be noticed. They no longer want to fit in the crowd; they have to be seen as unique individuals. Think about peacocks that display their fabulous tails in order to attract mates. Both opposing desires – to fit in and to sand out – are well known to everyone of us.

Griskevicius and colleagues (2009) researched this area and found that different persuasion techniques worked better in some contexts than in other contexts. In the study, some people watched a scary movie and then saw either a social proof advertisement or a scarcity advertisement. Another group of people watched a romantic movie, and then were shown the same two advertisements. The researchers found that the group who were shown the scary movie was affected by the social proof ad but wasn’t persuaded by the scarcity ad. As hypothesized, the people who saw the romantic movie showed opposite pattern of results: they were influenced by the scarcity ad but not by the social proof ad.

So, next time you’re watching an emotionally engaging movie or TV show, beware of their “side effects”. In particular, if they’re followed by an advertisement. There’re great chances that you’re especially drawn towards some advertisements just because a mixture of both: the persuasive tactics used in advertisements and the emotions stimulated by the movie.


Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Griskevicius, V., Goldstein, N.J., Mortensen, C.R., Sundie, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., & Kenrick, D.T. (2009). Fear and loving in Las Vegas: Evolution, emotion, and persuasion. Journal of Marketing Research, 46, 384–395.

Justina Pakulnyte (3rd Blog)

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