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The Influencers

The Principles Of Persuasion

INFLUENCER: Leland Music's Codie Childs explores Robert Cialdini's 'six universal principles' and how they relate to the world of music

The Principles Of Persuasion

We’re all guided by unseen hands: our preferences, tastes, beliefs, even our favourite foods are the result of a combination of influences impressed upon us by various factors in our environment. That might sound a bit ominous but we know this intuitively: in some way or another we’ve all been swayed by the people around us and the media we consume. For better or worse this mechanism is how we end up on a webcam, choking on cinnamon or dumping buckets of ice over our heads. So what is it that compels us to act in these ways? And how do these behaviours manifest in the world of music? 

Follow the Herd

There are some good evolutionary reasons for this kind of behaviour, of course: herding is a great way to keep us all alive. Everyone is eating that kind of berry, and nobody’s died, so I’m going to eat that berry. In the case of the above examples of online challenges, it perhaps casts some doubt on exactly who we should be following to prolong our survival as a species, but the old trope “safety in numbers” is generally a sound one.

We’re social animals and we not only rely upon others for our survival, but also for our emotional wellbeing. We like to feel part of a group and it’s often the things that unite us that most strongly shape our identities.

That being said, we’re all individuals too: we like the idea of being unique. We recognise that hierarchies exist in society and feel a need to assert our status and authority, often through our tastes. “Oh, you haven’t heard of neo-Gothic surfwave?” *plumps plumage*

These are examples of what Robert Cialdini calls the “six universal principles” of the psychology of persuasion (Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion [1984]). Cialdini discusses the need for our brains to find efficiencies in our decision making. These are “automatic behaviours”: shortcuts based on our previous experiences that we use to deal with increasingly complicated stimuli in our environment.

Automatic behaviours help to bypass the endless analysis and interpretation required to process the many events, people and objects that we encounter every day. Marketing folk and advertisers will be well-versed in these concepts, no doubt, but for the sake of context Cialdini’s principles are:

1.  Reciprocity
2.  Commitment and consistency
3.  Authority
4.  Social proof
5.  Liking
6.  Scarcity

These psychological behaviours are at play in so many of our daily interactions.

Reciprocity causes me to buy the cheese that the lady kindly offered me as a sample, because I’m socially obliged to respond to a gift with a kindness in return.

Commitment and consistency (whereby people tend to make choices like those they’ve made in the past), will result in me signing up to that monthly charity donation after I’ve bought the badge, because I’ve come to personally identify as a “charitable person”.

Authority is a simple one: we tend to obey people in positions of authority. Why else do actors wear lab coats in toothpaste ads?

We’re also quite simply persuaded by people and things that we like (the principle of “liking”).

Social proof is the modern version of that herding principle I mentioned: people are more likely to do what other people are doing.

Finally, to return to the notion of us all longing to be unique little snowflakes, it’s the principle of scarcity that drives us to differentiate ourselves from the pack. If something is rare and expensive, or difficult to obtain, it is scarce. “Limited edition”, “limited time only” – we’re familiar with this well-worn technique.

It’s through applying any number of these principles, or deliberately subverting them, that brands can motivate consumers to fulfil an intended behaviour (i.e. buy that product, pay for that service, donate to that cause etc.)

(There’s No Map To) Human Behaviour?

I first came across these persuasion principles when working at FCB New Zealand as a TV producer. DT (AKA David Thomason) was, and still is, the Head of Planning there. He shared these principles with the agency to help us better understand the mechanisms at play in advertising. Thomason was quoted in a recent article about the added psychological baggage attached to a product or brand, and how it effects a consumer’s choices:

“Our perception of, and reaction to, reality is subjective. How you feel about products, or even about your life, is at least as important, and probably much more important, than the product or your life’s objective characteristics.”

“You don’t just buy the physical item," he states. "You buy what’s attached to it and it genuinely adds enjoyment to it and neuroscience proves that’s correct. If it’s got a Coke label on, you’re actually getting more excited, it’s not just the chemical interaction on your taste buds.”

To bring this all back to a context closest to our hearts, these principles often underpin many of our interactions with music products and producers. Our musical taste can form a big part of our identity, going as far as informing the way we each dress and speak. Music creators understand this and have, for a long time, employed many of Cialdini’s principles to attract new fans and reward existing followers.

An example would be scarcity: an artist may produce limited edition versions of their releases, or special, fan-only packages and sneak previews. Radiohead did just that earlier this year with a deluxe case-bound vinyl edition of Moon Shaped Pool. Reciprocity plays a part here too. Prior to the release of the band’s latest album, fans were posted a cryptic leaflet that we now know revealed the title of the album’s first single, “Burn The Witch”. These fans were gifted an exclusive insight that few were privy to. As a result, they might be more willing to purchase the premium merchandise offered later down the line.

A recent and perhaps more controversial example of scarcity is of course the phenomenon of Tidal or Apple Music exclusives. This is where an artist releases a new album to a single provider for a period before releasing it to other distribution outlets. It works in the interest of the streaming service of course, as they gain large numbers of subscribers ahead of major releases, but can backfire when those users cancel their subscription and move on.

Audio, Video, Disco

To return to the use of these principles in advertising and marketing, let’s consider how music is employed in these areas, and which of Cialdini’s principles may be applied. A major one is music used to soundtrack a TV ad.

Music can play several roles in this context, both explicitly and implicitly. The direct lyrical and narrative messages can help to tell the story of the spot, while the implicit signifiers (e.g. tempo, key signature, arrangement) can convey any number of moods.

Music can also serve as a disruptor: a way to grab the attention of the viewer. Where the ad break can often be the time when viewers go away and make a cup of tea, the music soundtrack can help to hold them back.

If the music is familiar to the listener/viewer then a connection is already established, and if they’re a fan of the music, by association they may very well look favourably on the brand advertised. This is through the principle of “liking” – the band/artist are effectively endorsing the brand or product by aligning themselves with it.

A recent example of this is the Beats Wireless spot which features a myriad of celebs, athletes and stars singing and dancing along to Pinocchio’s “I’ve Got No Strings”.

The Disney classic speaks directly to the technical features of the range of headphones created by Beats: they are, quite literally, free of strings due to the wireless capabilities of their products. Musically, it’s playful, which marries well with the fun tone of the film.

It’s not just about the music here but also the musicians (and other famous folk) that are helping to persuade us to act. We see authority playing a role here: if music professionals like DJ Khaled, Nikki Minaj and Pharrell are using Beats headphones, then maybe I should too…? It’s a tried and tested method of employing brand “ambassadors” to add further credibility to a product and brand.

But, to be honest, the deciding factor for me will always be Steve Buscemi.


Ultimately, for advertisers and marketers, tapping into the cognitive functions that we once used to stay alive and procreate allows them to motivate a person to act in the most efficient way possible. It’s our “safety in numbers” instincts, or our instinct to have the brightest and shiniest plumage that compels us to comply. Thomason says “It’s about making decisions easy…authority is a shortcut, ads are a shortcut, what that brand says about me is sort of a shortcut” – behaviour change via the path of least resistance.

Now you’ve read this article I wonder if I can persuade you to change your behaviour? Perhaps the smattering of weak gags throughout this piece caused you to smile, even slightly, enough to make you like me…? Or maybe the references and quotations I included endowed me with an air of authority? But what should I get you to do?

Maybe I could use these powers for good and convince you to donate a pound or two to Nordoff Robbins this Christmas to support life changing music therapies. Go on, all the cool kids are doing it.

Codie Childs is Senior Music Researcher at Leland Music. Find out more about their work at

Genre: Music & Sound Design , Strategy/Insight