The dark art

I find that, by coincidence, three of my grandchildren are currently employed by marketing companies. I give them no advice beyond suggesting that common sense may prove a valuable commodity. But perhaps the time will come when they will have need of uncommon sense; it lies at the heart of marketing.

Uncommon sense is a dark art, founded on the quirks and weaknesses of human nature. I cannot in a column provide you with a full guide, but some examples may illustrate what I mean.

It is well established that the fear of loss is a stronger motivation than the opportunity of gain. As one proponent put it: “If you woke me up in the night to tell me how I might get £100, I would be annoyed. But if you did so to tell me how I might avoid losing £100 I would take action immediately.”

Fear of loss is a solid component of special offers. These will emphasise that speed is essential because stocks are low or the time limited. A pensions salesman once told me that he approached his clients in the days before their birthday. By pointing out that the rate was about to change, an immediate, favourable decision would be made. Special offers have another important element. By showing the normal price, we are invited to make a comparison, and comparisons are at the heart of our decisions. Rational judgment may tell us that the price that matters is the one we have to pay; irrational judgment tells us that we can secure an advantage which must not be missed.

Are we independent people? Most of us are strongly influenced by what others are doing: safety within the herd is the motto. Once a commodity is popular we all know that it is worth having. My pensions salesman would tell his customer that the level of savings he suggested was the one that his others customers in a similar position to his would choose. And, of course, they often did. Facebook, I understand, has a system whereby you can show your approval for some commercial item. Multiply your approval by a few thousand other approvals, and there’s a bestseller. Ask Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook – and he will smile, while his pocket clinks with dollars. If you read a highly favourable review of a book on the internet, ask yourself whether this is a disinterested opinion or the author in disguise.

Imagination is a powerful weapon. Twenty studies demonstrating a truth scientifically do not carry as much persuasive weight as a single instance of real life. Any salesman worth his salt will carry a fund of stories to illustrate real individuals who have benefited from his wares. The stories may be true, but the salesman will be skilled in the telling – so that you know they are true. A photograph of a celebrity on an advertisement, no matter how unconnected with the product, will increase returns (and the celebrity’s bank balance).

Here’s an interesting question: suppose that you are putting an advertisement into a magazine – would you choose the left-hand page or the right-hand page? Unless your magazine is aimed at left-handers, you should choose the right-hand page. Asked our preference, we routinely choose the item – whether product or person – on the side corresponding to our dominant hand. This propensity has been noticed from the age of five. Similarly, we find that the words with more letters on the right-hand side of a keyboard convey more positive emotions to us. It’s called the QWERTY effect. So, if you are taking part in a beauty competition, make sure that your nearest competitor appears, in the judge’s eyes, on your left. And, while you are about it, if you are female, check that your hip-waist ratio accords to the one we instinctively recognise as good for child bearing.

You might think that the people vulnerable to such ploys would be mainly the unaware or the simple-minded. Then you may like to consider that accountants and investment advisers can choose or reject a stock according to whether or not they have recently read a report of another successful risk investment. And emotions of fear, greed, optimism or pessimism will skew investment decisions by the most objective of experts.

But that’s not too different from the doctor whose diagnoses favour his own speciality or the experienced manager who refuses to accept that a face-to-face selection interview yields results that are no better than chance.

Here are contrasting examples. If you are buying a car privately, have a friend telephone the seller just before your appointment. He will make a really low offer; it will be refused. But your offer – only a little better – will then be welcomed. If you are selling a car privately, give a couple of prospective buyers the same appointment time. When the second and third buyers appear, ask them to wait while you are negotiating with your first caller. A satisfactory sale will be made instantly.

Many will argue that using such devices capitalise on the weaknesses of human nature. Through devious methods they ambush and deceive the human mind. Others would say that neither deceit nor dishonesty need be involved; there is no compulsion, and the buyer’s choices remain free. They might even point to my grandson who, at the age of four – having discovered that “I want” got him nowhere – switched to power language: “Granny, I need a Ghostbuster gun.” A little marketing executive in the making? Either way, the dark art of uncommon sense makes the world go round.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to The dark art

  1. Peter D. Wilson says:

    I confess having resorted to a dark art on at least one occasion some thirty years ago. On holiday with my then fiancee, I realised that she was in a cantankerous mood. Accordingly, on any day when there was one particular thing I did NOT want to do, I would suggest it knowing that she would instantly raise objections to which I would defer. There was of course an element of deception (though I have sometimes wondered if she was on to my ploy); justifiable or not?

    Incidentally, we are still close friends.

  2. Vincent says:

    Here is an example which has occurred to me. We naturally try to teach children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. The reason, we explain, is that the use of these words will make others more willing to help us, or to continue to give the favours for which we express gratitude. But I cannot remember telling a child that we, for example, should express gratitude because gratitude is due. So have I been teaching children how to manipulate others in order to encourage the benefits they may continue to receive generosity?
    And do I continue to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ today for the same questionable motive?

  3. claret says:

    Interestingly, as an aside to Vincent’s comments, I understand that is some countries the pleasantries of ‘please;’ and’ thank you’ when shopping are not observed. Why should we thank a shop assistant who is taking our money ?
    Perhaps we are often overly polite and it can lose its meaning.

    • Peter D. Wilson says:

      Claret – We thank, not for the taking of money, but for the service rendered.

      Many years ago, on one of my rare visits to London, at the end of a Tube journey, I handed in my ticket with a “Good morning; thank you” as would have been a normal courtesy in my home area but evidently not there. The joy on that girl’s face, at being recognised for once as a human being, lit up my whole day. Wasn’t that worthwhile?

  4. John Candido says:

    Commerce is saturated with these techniques. It is the nature of the beast. I think that it would be well worth their time if consumer organisations were to offer a ‘buyers beware’ booklet or a regular section of their websites dedicated to informing the public of these techniques. It pays to know what is going on during a commercial transaction.

    If a sales person were very persuasive and likeable to me, I am usually put-off by such tactics. Occasionally, it would be extraordinarily difficult to tell manipulation and genuine naturalness apart. I believe the best sales people are non-sales people. Honest with their customers, down to earth, with a good capacity to connect with other people from all walks of life.

    In any event, the dichotomies and multiple meanings in commercial transactions are both inevitable and part and parcel of life in general. There will always be elements of the rational and the irrational, kindness and selfishness, when it involves commercial activity.

  5. Mike Horsnall says:

    “… So have I been teaching children how to manipulate others in order to encourage the benefits they may continue to receive generosity?
    And do I continue to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ today for the same questionable motive?…”

    I have long been fascinated by the lethal use of ‘politeness and manners’ particularly as a weapon of social class and management. How it is that ‘self control’ in demeanour and language is so highly prized in the English culture and is also the most useful weapon around when you can’t actually hit someone..! Many years ago I had a boss about whom it was said…”If he’s being polite to you its because you are for the axe”
    On the other hand we can say ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ as if we were addressing God and partaking in the wonder: creation’s great joy in its being created.

  6. claret says:

    Why is it that every innocuous comment on this blog has to be dissected, challenged and ridiculed?
    I am going to live in future by wearing a hair vest and whipping myself every night with pyjama cord.

  7. Quentin says:

    I spend a good deal of time walking on Wimbledon Common and, for some months now, I have taken to smiling “Good afternoon” to those I pass. My hit rate is not 100% — but it’s not far off either. I get some lovely smiles in return and, when opportunity favours, a little conversation. I hope it cheers people up (can we really respond to a smile without feeling a mite better about everything?) and it certainly makes me feel happy. Of course age is on my side — I don’t pose a threat. And the worst reaction I am likely to get is “silly old fool!”
    Social class counts for nothing on Wimbledon Common; it’s too beautiful for that.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Quentin…yes its great. I practice the smile too when I walk my neighbourhood each day..its a good way to bring a bit of light in and you feel much better for it!!

  8. Singalong says:

    Quentin, of course it will cheer people up, as I find walking along the river nearby, especially with the friendly well behaved dog we used to have. And perhaps it is your walks on the Common that are giving rise to rumours that the Wombles are back, with additions to their number, and more company for Great Uncle Bulgaria?

    • Quentin says:

      I look forward to the return of the Wombles. In their heyday Wimbledon Common was better known for them rather than for the tennis. They do however have the habit of always being around the next corner. They scuttle, you know.

  9. Horace says:

    We seem to be discussing the morality of ‘Persuasion’.
    I find in Wiki that “Systematic persuasion is the process through which attitudes or beliefs are changed by appeals to logic and reason. Heuristic persuasion on the other hand is the process through which attitudes or beliefs are changed because of appeals to habit or emotion [i.e. psychological or physiological influences].”

    The examples that Quentin quotes are all of the latter (Heuristic) variety – herd instinct, fear of loss, imagination; and we wonder if the use of such methods of persuasion may be undesirable, perhaps actually immoral.

    This is particularly relevant in view of the current emphasis on ‘Evangelisation’ . There can be nothing wrong with appeals to logic and reason but what of the use of, what Quentin calls, “The Dark Art”?

    • Quentin says:

      I appreciate the distinction, though I am not sure that the word heuristic is appropriate; it relates to finding or discovery.
      In practice the borderlines are very fuzzy. Even choosing the clothes one wears every day is an exercise in self-presentation — which appeals to emotion and psychological habit. And our interpretation of what we see, hear or smell will to some extent be influenced by our personal view. You can’t escape!

    • mike Horsnall says:

      We used to do loads of it in the evangelism/outreach teams of Lichfield diocese-conversion by party tactic! Its only a kind of well meaniningness in the end and people pretty soon see through things if that’s all there is on offer….on the other hand I have seen some profound conversions occur around the hotdogs and the picnic tables.

  10. John Candido says:

    Businesses are now tracking you throughout shopping complexes. They know where you go to, and how long you linger in any store or shop window. They know all of this information; are you aware that they are doing this to you, your family and friends? Is this an illegal invasion of your privacy, or is it innocuous data gathering? What do governments, consumer organisations, the public, and sections of the media think of these issues?

  11. Iona says:

    There are so many CCTV cameras around that we can already be tracked a lot of the time; tracking people’s mobile phones just adds to it. Whether or not it’s innocuous depends on who’s doing it, and what use they’re going to make of the information. But I do dislike the idea that it could be done without our being aware of it.

  12. John Nolan says:

    Since the middle of August they have been running a TV commercial showing people partying in the sun around a barbecue. The soundtrack is “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”. There is a shot of an old geezer in red with a long beard. In another shot a man holds a sprig of something over a woman’s head as he kisses her. You’ve guessed it – the advertisers are softening us up for Christmas already. It’s creepy.

  13. Michael Horsnall says:

    “…This is particularly relevant in view of the current emphasis on ‘Evangelisation’ . There can be nothing wrong with appeals to logic and reason but what of the use of, what Quentin calls, “The Dark Art”?…”

    Been thinking about this a bit. Logic and reason are not, for many people, a principal driving force. Isaiah speaks of God and Man sitting down to ‘reason together’ while Ezekiel speaks definitively of the new heart that is given, a living heart not a stone one. The first commandment is not to reason but to love. It is true I think that for the ancients the ‘heart’ was also the seat of wisdom but there is the strong vibrant affective thread that marks the beating heat of Christ within the frame of say a saint or Religious. This means that there will be a strong overlap between the Gospel of Christ in its fullness-mercy, freedom for captives, forgiveness, acceptance, celebration, thankfulness…..etc …and between what are termed here ‘the dark arts’. The difference being that one is genuine and the other manipulative. With the one, the appeal to the heart is false and based in power or greed but the other is genuine and true for its own sake.

  14. Quentin says:

    You may be wondering why we have had no recent messages from St Joseph. The reason is that she has been off sick, and has been through an angiogram — which was tough going for her. I have not heard yet of any verdict on the outcome. Anyhow, I promised on all your behalf that prayers would be forthcoming. I am sure she will start blogging again as soon as she feels that she can.
    And please don’t forget Nektarios. He is halfway through his radiotherapy.. This is good, but it has left him exhausted.

  15. Iona says:

    I thought St. Joseph was quiet, and wondered if she was away somewhere. As Singalong says, – please assure her of our prayers.

  16. John Candido says:

    I fully concur with the above sentiments. Please pray for a complete recovery for St.Joseph & Nektarios.

  17. Singalong says:

    This article which I read has already been posted on numerous blogs surely has some relevance to Sales Speak.

  18. Horace says:

    I note with interest in this week’s Catholic Herald :-
    “Benedictines in Italy evangelise through beer.
    Benedictine monks in the Italian birthplace of St Benedict are brewing beer to reach out to people who are “turned off by religion”. . . .”
    Persuasion indeed!

    • Vincent says:

      It would seem that, over the centuries, evangelisation through covert bribery has often been the rule. But how would you treat the sort of advice that says: Don’t be too direct with your evangelisation, behave in a loving way but be ready to explain your inspiration. Is that manipulation?

      We do of course find ready examples. We might apply the question: what does the speaker really mean? to politicians (see Singalong’s splendid link above). And try Cameron, Obama, Putin and Asad on the Syrian nerve gas issue. And any other politician on any other issue.

  19. Michael Horsnall says:

    ” …Don’t be too direct with your evangelisation, behave in a loving way but be ready to explain your inspiration. Is that manipulation?..”

    Sounds more like an amalgam of St Francis and the Apostle Paul. I am reminded of a lady who came to one of our picnic barbecues many years ago and got roped into church life. She came to house groups and some church meetings etc. After a few months she stopped coming and since I was the person who first invited her along it fell to me to nip round and see the lady. We chatted over a cup of tea and she said after a while that she had stopped coming because she had realised that the real reason she came was not for our God but for the company-and she felt that was dishonest of her.
    Personally I think we are far to sniffy about cuddly evangelism, people are not in the end fools and if they need to be held for awhile until they can make a real choice based on experience that’s fine. When the day comes that putting on outreach barbecues , inviting friends for an afternoon picnic and that sort of thing becomes normal for our parishes then I will believe we are more serious about evangelism than we profess at the moment.

  20. Ignatius says:

    speaking of dark arts I’m going to start using my given name on here instead of Mike Horsnall.

    • Singalong says:

      If Ignatius is your “given name” you almost certainly had Catholic parents, so perhaps we are going to have some further explanation , a mini episode of Who Do You Think You Are perhaps?

      • Vincent says:

        Singalong, bearing in mind Quentin’s remarks of ‘presentation’ below, do different names produce a different reaction in you? Does an “Ignatius” bring up one personality, or Gary, or Tom, or Ferdinand another? Indeed, even Vincent?

      • Singalong says:

        Not especially, Vincent, but ask my husband about Darren and Tracy . . .

        Ignatius, pass.
        Perhaps Gary is quite up to date, good at fixing computers, likes a few drinks, knows the latest pop music.
        Tom is good at fixing things, very dependable and affable.
        Ferdinand, Indian origin, professional, rather distant.
        Vincent, devout, always kind and ready to help, probably in the teaching profession.

        All rather tongue in cheek, and definitely subject to revision, or complete reversal on further acquaintance, though I think there is some truth in the idea that we often have some preconceptions about people based on their names.

        Incidentally, none of these names are included in the 10 we have for my husband and 4 sons.

      • Ignatius says:


        No, my parents are atheists! I chose Ignatius when I became a Catholic, perhaps ‘given name ‘ was wrong!

  21. St.Joseph says:

    Thank you for all your prayers.I am not so breathless now,but will still need to take things easy,and hopefully no more chest pains.Thank God.
    I wanted to make this comment as Quentin’s mention of his young grandson’s way of dealing with what he wanted.made me remember my sons-want- want- want -my husband and I used to say ‘he who wants never gets. So he changed it to ‘But I need it!’ My husband then would question him on his needs,but his immediate reply would be to join his hands together and look up all innocently and say Oh please-please please-then when his dad said ‘yes all right then’,my son would give us a big hug and say ‘thanks mum thanks dad!. He is now a marketing executive!!
    Just a small thought that ‘please’ and ‘thanks’ do not go amiss.Something my mother taught me from a very young age that is ‘Always thank God’ even though you don’t get what you ask for-He always knows best’! And always think before you ask-you may get ! Then regret it!

    • John Candido says:

      Be careful for what you wish for.

      • St.Joseph says:

        John. Yes that is the saying, but I meant ‘ask’, one has more chance of asking for something than wishing. Example. One may ask for a car from their parents-then end up in a ditch. Or-give me a pen knife-then cut their hands-Or please let me go out-then get attacked.. And so on. Parents know best!!! Without be over protective of course!!

  22. Singalong says:

    As well as the scientifically proven advertising techniques, which Quentin has listed, I think that many sales are made through the personal characteristics of the salesman, his charm, his air of sincerity and concern, his real or apparent knowledge, which have far more influence on the customer`s decision.

    This operates in many other spheres of life as well, encouraging us to follow one path or another, even careers and life choices about religion. If it is really genuine this can be very positive. I expect we can all remember at least one particular teacher, whose enthusiasm and knowledge has inspired many pupils to develop a real, often lifelong, interest in his subject, and activities, and to whom we can be very grateful as a result.

    On the whole though, I think it is preferable if choices are made and paths followed more on the basis of their inherent worth and interest, or at least 50/50, because the persuasion of an individual who has great charisma can also be very dangerous, as history illustrates, and we all know, sometimes to our cost.

    People with exceptional charisma must have particularly highly developped neurological characteristics which have probably been extensively researched, and i wonder if any practical conclusions have been reached about encouraging the best way to use them, or for more ordinary folk to respond.

    I also wonder about Christ, Our Lord, and how much of His greatness was revealed to the people He lived with. He obviously didn`t want to overwhelm them with a power they were not able to resist, like a Zvengali figure, but there must have been something very special, for those given the grace to see it perhaps?

    • Quentin says:

      By coincidence I was reminded by a wireless programme today of Erving Goffman’s book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which I first read many years ago. It is of course a classic in the world of psychology. His theme is that we continually, and usually unconsciously, present ourselves in different ways according to our social circumstances. For example, in the presence of my grandchildren I present myself as a person of impenetrable wisdom but incompetent in practical matters. Thus they listen to me (which they probably shouldn’t) and do all sorts of things for me (which in fact I am quite capable of doing myself). We are all happy. On this blog I imagine that the personality with which I am credited bears a relationship to only an aspect of myself. When I serve Mass (oh so reverently) you may see another aspect.

      I can retail this without shame because, as Goffman claims, we all do this. It is not a deception — these performances show a true aspect — but only an aspect — of ourselves. I think that shall write a column on this one day.

      • Ignatius says:

        The interesting thing about all this is that we do not chose these persona’s, we only think we do.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Quentin. you say ‘present’ ourselves in different ways, made me think about last week staying with my daughter when I came out of hospital. My daughter and her husband were out and I went into the kitchen to rinse my plate.My 9 year old grandson came in and indignantly asked me ‘ what are you doing’? in a very abrupt voice. I said’ just rinsing’ my plate’to which he replied quite abruptly again ‘ You know you have not to do that-Go and sit down please! Another time I would have told him off, but he was looking after me, so I did as I was told!!!!

    • Ignatius says:

      As Peter said:
      “Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man”
      Here on earth we tend to shoot the righteous because we cannot bear them among us.

      • John Nolan says:

        “We tend to shoot the righteous”. The overwhelming majority of us has never shot anyone. Can you explain this gnomic utterance?

  23. Ignatius says:

    Ghandi…. Martin Luther King…John PaulII….. I know it wasn’t you John or indeed Mr Candido.

  24. Ignatius says:

    PS……….Never made a gnomic utterance before, should I be in for an award -a golden gnome for example?

    • John Nolan says:

      Ghandi – the greatest humbug of the 20th century.
      King – a serial adulterer.
      The only one in your triumvirate who might be called righteous was JP II and he survived.

      • Ignatius says:

        Not keen on the first two then??!! JPII had to be shot in order to survive though!! Point being that people ‘perceived’ as righteous and becoming prominent in the public eye don’t always receive acclaim-Jesus didn’t either. This was a consideration about how the ‘greatness’ of Jesus that Singalong mentioned might have been seen at the time given that the point would not have been his ‘greatness’ but the rest of our sinfulness. Anyway, why do you think Ghandi was such a humbug John…just interested to know.

  25. John Nolan says:

    Well, Ignatius, it’s interesting that King had a great admiration for Ghandi, believing that he brought down the British Empire by passive resistance and civil disobedience. Historically nonsensical of course. For the humbuggery of Ghandi see Michael Edwardes ‘The Myth of the Mahatma: Ghandi, the British and the Raj ‘ (1986).

  26. Tanisha says:

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