The topic of “authority” and obedience have been matters for the scientific study of persuasion over a fair length of time.
As a kid, I remember the long-running toothbrush ad for Oral-B that was endorsed by a dentist without showing his face … “because we can’t show you his face on television” — he stood with his back to the camera, brushing his teeth, and then after prompting by the voice over, held up the toothbrush brand of preference.
As an adult, reading Dr Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, I learned more about obedience testing such as the widely known Stanley Milgram experiments (if you don’t have Influence — and you should! — you could start with Wikipedia for more information on Milgram’s work, if you believe that to be an accurate reference!), on how far participants will continue to do something they don’t like just to obey an authority figure.
(Even “darker” experiments, such as the 1971 Stanford University prison experiment, delves more into the power of authority, and obedience to it).
It’s also about seeing authority figures in their persuasive garb — doctors and scientists in white coats, police in uniform — and how these added visual references to authority and expertise help add credibility — and persuasiveness — to a point of view.
So much so that — without directly referencing any specific examples — I can think of many times reading how criminals and con artists would don such garb themselves in attempts to create instant credibility — impersonating a figure of authority for devious means.
I remember from university years (yes, that time of my life where I happily left without completing a degree) that some of the more “practical jokes” played during competitive — but not overly legal — contents included such things as putting out road work sign on a busy road to divert traffic … the sign itself was enough of an authority object to get drivers to comply.
And in one of Derren Brown’s experiments during one of his television series, Derren placed a wallet on the ground on a busy London street corner, with a little money visible (not too much) — and then circled a line of chalk around the wallet.
With time lapse photography, the camera showed that the wallet stayed untouched for the entire day.
Again, an influential object — the chalk line (what does that make you think of? A crime scene?) — persuaded everyone not to touch the wallet.
(Cialdini also had an experiment with a wallet in Influence — about how likely you are to return it, depending on the perceived similarities between the person finding the wallet and the person who was returning it to its rightful owner).
We are quite often a conforming, obedient lot!
So you can see how, in copy the use of an authority figure can make your message more influential and persuasive!
3 Ways To Put Authority Into Action
(1) The ideal way to do this would be to have an authority figure directly endorse your product or service.
Here’s a tip: the authority figure doesn’t necessarily have to be a doctor, dentist or scientist … that’s ideal, but the main thing is they need to be an authority figure to your target audience.
Sometimes that’s just someone in an industry who is widely regarded … for example, if a marketing “guru” who my prospects take notice of says I’ve “mastered marketing” — which has happened to me — would that be more influential than having someone say it that the audience doesn’t know?
It could also be a local authority figure. It just has to be someone who is seen as an authority figure to your target market.
(2) The second way to use authority is to reference quotes or data in your proof that are the results of work by authority figures. Can you find a relevant case study or data to help back up your claims?
Adding that to your message gives you more credence. For example, if you can show data from a university experiment that backs up your message, then you’ll be more believable. Maybe there’s even government statistics you can refer to. For example, I did that recently to help sell an import export product (by referring to recent statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics). It adds to the credibility of the rest of the message.
Just like the road sign and the chalk circle, the stats you refer to become “authority objects” that help influence your market.
(3) Another way to use authority would be to publicise your own expertise, experience and background.
You’re an award-winning business or have been personally recognised in some way for what you do? Use that in your message. You’ll be boosting your level of persuasiveness by increasing the perception that you’re recognised as an expert.
You’ve been a speaker in your industry or written a book? Then you’re definitely perceived as being more of an authority figure on your topic.
Even being in business for a long time can help build your level of “authority” — because you have first-hand experience that prospects perceive to be valuable. For example, we do a lot of work with travel agents. We create marketing material that shows all the places they’ve travelled to … rightly making them an expert travel professional in the eyes of their prospects and customers.
So — if you have certificates, diplomas, awards … put them on DISPLAY! Let prospects and customers see them. Build trust in your status as an expert.
Here’s one reason why I’d do it … one Cialdini experiment got a 34 per cent jump in compliance in patients doing what they were asked to do when this was done!
And 3 Ways to use Celebrities as authority figures
The use of a celebrity connected to your product or service can also be influential to your target market.
Proof? Look at how much Tiger Woods gets paid to endorse brands such as Nike. Do you think Nike would pay me that much? Not without being a world-class athlete — and celebrity — like Tiger.
More proof? Look at how famous actors can get behind a cause and help get it attention. Or how an actor can endorse a brand and be paid millions (for example, Andie MacDowell and L’Oréal).
Again, it doesn’t have to be someone with world-wide name recognition. You could have a local person be involved with you as a celebrity.
There are also ways to connect to celebrities without having their direct endorsement or involvement.
It’s like the number (2) example above — you can use studies, data, and news relating to celebrities that help associate that celebrity with your message.
For example … if you know Tiger Woods has several coaches and mentors, you could use that in your message to reinforce why your prospects should also have coaches and mentors to enjoy success just like Tiger Woods — it’s an ethical way to link to a celebrity and have that person connected to your message.
“Hmmmm, Tiger Woods has 3 coaches, and he’s the number one golfer in the world, maybe I should have a coach too.”
Or you could CREATE a celebrity — for example, your pet dog, cat or fish … all could be used as celebrities.
Are they necessarily authority figures? Probably not the ones you create. But they’re useful because they help build relationships, they boost the personality of your message and help people to like you.
So from this article you now have six ways to use authority and celebrities to help you create influential messages … make sure you use them!