This advert was part of a campaign for Snickers, a peanut and chocolate bar, which features an actor called Mr T in the role of an army Sergeant character from a TV series called ‘The A-Team’. Mr T crashes onto a football pitch – in a tank which shoots Snickers bars – to confront an over-dramatic football player, and throws a Snickers bar at him.
This is a good example of a persuasive technique called the ‘authority-agent altercast’; a concept proposing that individuals are more likely to comply to a request if the person making said request is in a position of authority over them. It has been implemented in this particular advert by the use of a strong army character, depicted by Mr T’s outfit and the giant green tank he drives. The viewer watching the advert is driven to buy a Snickers bar because an army Sergeant, a figure of authority (albeit a fake one), is instructing them to do so… and, well, also because he’s aiming a tank gun at the football player’s face.
Bickman (1974) carried out a study which provides evidence of the success of this technique – it also shows that the authoritative figure does not even have to be legitimate for the altercast to have effect. Researchers set out to investigate whether someone has more power to influence people when wearing an authoritative uniform than when they wear low-authority uniform. In the experiment, an experimenter approached participants on the street dressed as either a guard, a milkman, or wearing normal attire (referred to as ‘civilian’). The experimenter then created one of three situations; they asked passers-by to pick up a bag, asked them to give a man a dime for a parking meter, or asked them not to stand at a bus stop.
Results showed that the outfit worn by the experimenter had a significant effect on the obedience of participants (p < .001). There was no significant difference between obedience to the civilian and obedience to the milkman. However, the guard received an average of 29% more compliance than the milkman and 46% more than the civilian (a significant result, p < .05 and p < .01, respectively) across all three of the constructed scenarios, proving the influence of the authority-agent altercast. These results are illustrated in percentages in the table below.
As you can see, these results that show more obedience to the guard support the authority-agent altercast concept, and suggest that having Mr T dress and act as an authoritative figure in the Snickers advert should indeed be more persuasive in getting people to purchase the product.
Bickman, L. (1974). The Social Power of a Uniform. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 4(1), 47-61.