Artful, unfair, insidious

Picking up the discussion from yesterday about persuasion vs. manipulation:

Subscriber Frank writes:

  1. Manipulate: to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage.

  2. Persuade: to move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action.

I am convinced 80% of what marketing does isn't persuasion, it's manipulation. That manipulation may be justified in the mind of the marketer because the marketer/company/person has decided what is good for the recipient and how to get them to “take advantage of the offer”. I think a similar case could be made for design and it's use of type, color, images to manipulate a desired response from the view/user.

Going by the dictionary definitions, it's easy to say “manipulation bad, persuasion good.”

In practice though the lines get pretty blurry.

What's “unfair” in one person's perspective wouldn't bother someone else in the least.

I've seen plenty of cases where a person reacts to receiving an email like you've just put them in an arm lock and slammed them on the sidewalk—while another recipient falls all over themselves thanking you for reaching out.

What about telling a story? Does that constitute an “entreaty” or “unfair and insidious means”?

Stories are after all just about the most powerful tools for changing minds and behavior. Sounds kinda unfair, doesn't it?

The reality is that ANY attempt at persuasion can be construed as manipulation.

Even if you're relying purely on “logical” argument, you're still trying to construct a framework that shapes the other person's viewpoint in your favor.

Effective copy (and effective rhetoric, for that matter) is always going push emotional hot buttons.

The real question is, what's the intent behind this?

And what's the long-term outcome?

Ultimately this comes down to whose best interest you are putting first—is it yours, or your customer's?

If your customers are better off after working with you, then by all means push some emotional hot buttons and tell them what they need to hear (within the bounds of the truth) to get them to take the action that will benefit them.

If you're just trying to run as many credit cards through your shopping cart as possible before your payment processing account gets shut down… well, that's a different story.

The person who decides whether something was ultimately good for the customer is… the customer.

Did they get the benefits they wanted?

Will they recommend you to their family members a year from now?

Copy provides a powerful set of tools for spurring others to take action.

Whether these tools become weapons of deceit or instruments of healing is in your hands.