Parallels Between Hypnotic Suggestion and Persuasive Marketing Communications: Insights For New Directions in Consumer Communications Research

Stephen J. Gould, Rutgers University
ABSTRACT - Hypnotic phenomena, especially suggestions and related waking state phenomena in everyday life, offer significant parallels to the effects of persuasive marketing communications. These parallels are developed in terms of consumers' states, roles and a stimulus-state-response model. Research implications are offered and finally a conclusion regarding the relative position of consumer research to hypnosis research is discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Stephen J. Gould (1992) ,"Parallels Between Hypnotic Suggestion and Persuasive Marketing Communications: Insights For New Directions in Consumer Communications Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 56-61.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 56-61


Stephen J. Gould, Rutgers University


Hypnotic phenomena, especially suggestions and related waking state phenomena in everyday life, offer significant parallels to the effects of persuasive marketing communications. These parallels are developed in terms of consumers' states, roles and a stimulus-state-response model. Research implications are offered and finally a conclusion regarding the relative position of consumer research to hypnosis research is discussed.

A number of writers have presented views (either their own or others) which find in comparing the reputed powers of persuasive marketing communications, particularly advertising, to hypnotic suggestion that they are similar in effect (Fromm 1976; Packard 1957; Pollay 1986). But is this point of view valid and if so, in what ways do these two communications phenomena function similarly? This paper seeks to explore these questions by discussing the parallels as well as the dissimilarities between the two phenomena and to provide a framework for assessing them.


In comparing the effects of persuasive marketing communications to hypnosis, it is appropriate to consider hypnotic-like states which reflect the fact according to Hilgard (1965, p. 312) that "there are many continuities between experiences outside hypnosis and those inside." Both hypnotic and hypnotic-like states involve the relative dissolution of everyday cognitive reality and a particularly focused orientation on a small range of preoccupations (Shor 1960). Similarly, persuasive marketing communications may be said to be 'hypnotic-like' in that they are said to involve focused absorbing states and/or heightened suggestibility (Hirschman 1985; Shor 1960). Persuasive marketing communications and hypnotic phenomena may also be viewed as part of a larger hierarchy of states involving variations in focus along a continuum which ranges from total absorption in a particular focus to being completely awake and aware of one's surroundings. Moreover, hypnotic-states have been found to involve conformity, role-playing, and impulsivity, i.e. in playing the hypnotic subject (Hilgard 1965; Sarbin and Coe 1972; Shor 1960), characteristics also found in relation to persuasive marketing communications and other consumer behavior phenomena (see Venkatesan (1966), MacInnis and Jaworski (1989), and Stern (1964), respectively). Thus, I expect that the consideration of hypnotic suggestive communications will inform our understanding of persuasive marketing communications processes and models in several aspects by: (1) focusing on the consumer exposed to a persuasive marketing stimulus as experiencing transformed hypnotic-like states which may render him or her more susceptible to its message, (2) considering him or her as a conscious role player in such exposure, i.e. the consumer reception role, in which s/he has certain personally and socially derived expectations about how to react and behave, and (3) focusing on the relative importance and effect of these two on persuasion, i.e. states versus roles.

From a social psychological perspective, hypnotic-like phenomena may be viewed according to the degree of involvement they reflect with a situation (Sarbin and Coe 1972). For example, Sarbin and Coe note that a supermarket consumer would be at a very low level of involvement relative to a hypnotic subject. In this regard, persuasive marketing communications induced states might be seen as similar to waking states used in hypnotic persuasion experiments to contrast with actual hypnotic states. In one such study which may serve as a potential bridge between persuasive marketing communications and hypnotic phenomena, Malott, Bourg and Crawford (1989) found that that highly hypnotizable subjects generated more favorable thoughts and agreed more with a persuasive message than did less hypnotizable subjects, no matter whether they were in a waking or hypnotic state. Based on this study, it can be hypothesized that high hypnotizability should be positively related to advertising response, other things being equal (cf. Snodgrass and Lynn 1989 for a related discussion and study). It seems likely that an analogue to hypnotizability may exist, i.e. susceptibility to advertising which reflects an individual's capacity or likelihood of becoming absorbed in advertising. This analogue may actually be an intermediate variable between hypnotizability and response to persuasive marketing communications with highly hypnotizable individuals being being more susceptible to such persuasion than less hypnotizable individuals. There also may be more specific hypnotic-like susceptibilities such as susceptibility to ads with sexy models or emotive appeals or susceptibility to particular types of advertising such as television commercials.


So far we have considered persuasive marketing communications as a type of waking state phenomena which nonetheless may possess some hypnotic-like characteristics. Moreover, highly hypnotizable individuals may be more responsive to such communications than less hypnotizable individuals. These ideas lead us to consider the possibility that marketing communications are most related to hypnotic phenomena in terms of waking state suggestions. Suggestions in general are said to be suggestive because the resulting effects are not thought to be voluntary acts (Weitzenhoffer 1980). Suggestion is the end product of hypnotic processes. A suggestion is a communication (or sequence of communications) delivered to a subject with the intent of bringing about some action (Weitzenhoffer 1989). It provides perhaps the most important link between various hypnotic-like and hypnotic experiences in terms of persuasive marketing communications since the results of hypnotic suggestion have been related to waking state or non-hypnotic suggestions (Weitzenhoffer 1989). For instance, the process of suggestion has been directly identified in the dynamics of the sales situation which may likened to the effect of asking leading questions to provide particular answers sought by the salesperson and to exclude those not sought (Gheorghiu 1989). As Gheorghiu (pp. 101-102) observes:

The influential process initiated by suggestion, if indeed it is effective, preconceives a confrontation with the rival alternatives... If a suggestion does prevail, then the person concerned does not realize - at least not while responding - that at the same time other possible reactions have been eliminated... Suggestions always offer answers or solutions, so to speak, even when they create (suggest) the problem in the first place. They implicate proffered solutions as the only valid ones. Finally, the suggestions can be considered effective when they are able to eliminate rival alternatives whilst being unnoticed. The directedness which is put into effect in the suggestive situation turns into an unambiguous directedness within the subjects' own cognitive reality.

Weitzenhoffer (1980) further notes that there are waking state suggestions which occur when there is no formal hypnotic process occurring. Thus for instance persuasive advertising communications which affect consumers, especially under conditions of low elaboration and/or involvement (Petty, Cacioppo and Schumann 1983) may be seen as a form of waking state suggestion in which a thought or or non-verbal cue is planted in the consumer's mind eventually resulting in purchase or other behavior later or also as a form of 'suggestive communication' in which the receiver of a message must 'read between the lines' or make inferences from the message's context (Fiedler 1989).

However, the degree of involuntariness of a response has been an important issue in suggestion research and the limits and boundaries of persuasion in that process remain problematic (Weitzenhoffer 1989). Weitzenhoffer (1980) notes some individuals will view their responses to suggestions as involuntary while others will take the view that their responses are more voluntary. Moreover, many people will probably be unwilling to admit that they made an involuntary response to persuasive marketing communications or even be able to articulate or comprehend how they could make such a response. Furthermore, they might build elaboration around involuntary responses which obscure their real response. For example, Janiszewski (1988) found that a person would respond more favorably to a product if an ad for it was placed on one side of a magazine as opposed to another. Yet, if we were to ask that person why s/he (dis)liked the product, it is very unlikely that s/he would make such an attribution. Thus, suggestions made in advertising and other persuasive marketing communications stem from myriads of possible executional factors (Stewart and Koslow 1989) which may result in some or all of the following on the part of the message receiving consumer: central and peripheral cue processing (Petty, Cacioppo, and Schumann 1983), automatic behavior (Cialdini 1984), unconscious processing (Pratakanis and Greenwald 1988); classically conditioned learning (Allen and Madden 1985), and possibly even subliminal processing (Moore 1988). Regarding subliminal stimulation, it should be noted that its effects are not necessary for advertising suggestion to occur and thus the general consensus regarding its lack of positive marketing effects do not detract from our argument here. It is likely, in fact, that most, if not all, advertising suggestibility effects occur in response to directly perceivable phenomena, such as a central message point or a peripheral cue, processed more or less consciously, rather than in response to some covert cue deliberately embedded by an advertiser.

However, the concept of automatic behavior bears more discussion in that there are many tacit or scripted rules which consumers act upon and which those who understand them may use to manipulate others (Cialdini 1984). There are certain mechanistic, ritualistic patterns which comprise what Cialdini calls a "trigger feature." Likewise suggestion has been called the "potential trigger of responses." Thus trigger features in advertising and other marketing contexts as well (e.g. the sales situation) may be seen as suggestive mechanisms. Triggers are usually peripheral cues (e.g. a sexy model) which stimulate favorable responses to ads. However, even central cues may serve as trigger features. For instance, the acceptance of a central message may in turn trigger greater receptivity to peripheral cues and lead in turn to a favorable response to an ad.


Another important issue concerns whether hypnotic states are distinctive psychophysiological or altered states of consciousness or whether they are social psychological phenomena in which people engage in role playing, i.e. taking on the hypnotic subject role (Sarbin and Coe 1972). A compromise position on these views has been offered which suggests that some people respond to hypnotic suggestion by taking an active role while others respond more passively, i.e. allowing things to happen to them (Coe 1978). Hilgard (1985) provides another view which, involving the idea of dissociation, he believes can account for differences in both hypnotic induction and "waking hypnosis." Such dissociation he finds to be amnesic in that there are various gradations of memory which occur in the hypnotic process and which can be explained without resorting to some altered state of consciousness model. Relatedly, it has been suggested that response to hypnotic suggestion involves two potentially dissociative parameters which need to be considered: (1) a respondent's skill or capacity for employing imagination, and (2) the believability or credibility a respondent has concerning the hypnotic situation and applies to any particular suggestion (Sarbin and Coe 1972). In a similar fashion, McGuire (1989) suggests that susceptibility to social influence involves a compensatory tradeoff between two compliance mediators: (1) comprehension (equivalent to imagination) and (2) agreement with the message (equivalent to believability). Assuming as he does that both are the function of a personality trait, such as intelligence or self-esteem, persuasion and/or behavioral compliance will vary negatively with agreement, since a variable such as intelligence reduces gullibility, and vary positively with comprehension, since intelligence facilitates comprehension. With respect to marketing communications, we can hypothesize that individual difference variables (e.g. demographics, beliefs toward advertising in general (Andrews 1989)) along with situational variables (e.g. attitude toward any particular ad, being in the market for a product) parallel the social psychological role-taking perspective on hypnotic effects. Indeed we should consider framing advertising response issues in terms of the dual model of imaginative capacity and credibility.

At the same time, altered state effects as indicated by distinct psychophysiological reactions cannot be ignored. For example, research in both the fields of hypnosis (e.g. Pagano, Akots and Wall 1988) and advertising (e.g. Rothschild, Hyun, Reeves, Thorson and Goldstein 1988) have investigated and turned up some brain laterality effects. Perhaps most intriguing was the recent study of Olson and Ray (1989) which found brain wave response to television commercials involved correlated alpha and beta waves, a finding which contradicted previous beliefs that the two had a reciprocal relationship. This finding suggests in consonance with hypnosis research in which both attention and relaxation occur together (Edmonston 1981) that there may be psychophysiological state parallels between response to at least some marketing communications and hypnotic ones. However, to my knowledge, no one has yet attempted to actually demonstrate such a parallel and thus the issue remains for future research. At the same time to hypothesize parallels should not be misconstrued as hypothesizing identical reactions. It seems more likely that families of states will be found which integrate persuasive marketing and hypnotic phenomena into a hierarchy or patterns of related but distinctive states.


Hypnotic suggestibility involves the mechanisms involved in the formation of suggestive focus and its transformation into responses based on this focus (Gheorghiu 1989). In terms of the state processes and the actors involved, both hypnotic suggestibility and persuasive marketing suggestibility may be seen as fitting within the traditional sender-receiver model of communications. Hypnosis involves the communication of a persuasive message by a hypnotist to a hypnotized receiver through a trance. Suggestive response either during the hypnotic session or post-hypnotically represents feedback to the hypnotist and also to the hypnotized receiver if the response is shared by the hypnotist with the subject. Similarly, in persuasive marketing communications, the marketer communicates a persuasive message to a target audience through some medium with feedback coming in the form of attitude change, purchase and the like as in various hierarchy of effects models. Here, we might reformulate the persuasive marketing communications model in the following way:

(1) Persuasive Marketing Communication Stimulus. This stimulus includes the source and medium as constituting what has been called the intended suggestion by Weitzenhoffer (1989) to distinguish it from the effective suggestion, i.e. the former is what the marketer intends the consumer to do while the latter involves the consumer actually doing it. The message and its medium should be viewed as equivalent to the hypnotist as source and medium in the hypnosis process.

With respect to the message, we might consider the notion of direct suggestions which are explicitly made and those which are indirect and alluded to or made by association (Weitzenhoffer 1989). Relatedly Fiedler (1989) has advanced the idea of suggestive communication which involves things inferred from textual cues rather than explicitly stated by the communicator. Such concepts parallel the idea of central (direct) versus peripheral (indirect) routes to persuasion (Petty, Cacioppo and Schumann 1983).

(2) Consumer State. In reaction to seeing and/or hearing a persuasive marketing communication (i.e. receiving and decoding the message), the consumer has some affective cognitive reaction. This state is equivalent to the psychic-somatic effect resulting in hypnosis, most especially perhaps waking hypnosis (Wells 1965) in terms of process-specific somatic responses and the attenuation of external stimuli (Chertok 1986).

(3) Consumer's Behavioral Response. The consumer may also make a behavioral response to the persuasive marketing communication (e.g. making a purchase may be seen as a form of effective suggestion as well as representing feedback to the marketer). Such a response may be seen as equivalent to one of two hypnotic responses: (a) the consumer encounters a persuasive marketing communication, has a reaction defined in terms of his/her state, and engages in purchase behavior which may be likened to posthypnotic suggestion -- the suggestion to be acted upon by a subject after s/he awakens from an hypnotic induction (Weitzenhoffer 1989) (e.g. being persuaded by a commercial to buy a product and then later doing so sometimes with the aid of various processes such as sleeper [Hannah and Sternthal 1984], delayed [Burke and Edell 1986] and inoculation effects [Lessne and Didow 1987]), or (b) the person makes an immediate purchase while under the influence of a persuasive communication (e.g. responding to point-of-purchase display) which may likened to an action taken by a hypnotic subject in response to a hypnotist while the subject remains in trance. An especially interesting case of immediate purchase concerns what Stern (1964) calls "suggestion impulse buying" which occurs when a person sees a product for the first time, visualizes a need for it, and purchases it. While we need not limit ourselves to first time impulse purchases as he did, we might consider nonetheless that Stern points out how the product itself as stimulus along with its packaging serve to communicate in a suggestible manner.


In summary, the process of hypnotic suggestion seems most parallel to the marketing communications process in terms of waking state suggestions which follow a stimulus, state and response model. On the other hand, hypnotic suggestions based on formal trance states probably differ from suggestions induced by persuasive marketing communications in terms of the nature of the reception state and role. However, the degrees of parallel and even possible equivalency between the two methods of inducing persuasive suggestion remains for future research to explore. Thus, the most important general implication of this paper is that consumer researchers should investigate the literature of hypnosis and related suggestive processes to identify phenomena which might help to explain consumer communication and persuasion processes. In support of that point and based on the previous discussion, the following research implications are offered:

1. The most basic level of research involving hypnotic-like effects in marketing communications will involve identifying, assessing and measuring the parallel effects, if any, between various forms of suggestion and those which seem implicated in marketing communications. Such research will involve looking both at potential stimulus, state and behavioral parallels, both psychophysiological and social psychological.

2. A subagenda to the first point would involve looking at various waking state phenomena for suggestibility parallels. For example, how can we model and investigate opinion leadership, sales and service exchange-interactions, and advertising in terms of suggestion as well as looking at non-marketing communications phenomena such as those involved in relationship formation. Moreover, within the various categories of persuasive marketing communications we might expect to find differences in conditions prompting suggestion effectiveness (e.g. central (direct) versus peripheral (indirect) suggestive cues; high versus low involvement situations; various media effects).

3. Consistent with Gheorghiu (1989), we need to discover the dialogical structure consistent with suggestion in advertising, sales etc. so as to better understand the depth of consumers' responses to cues. This suggests theoretical development and related experimental studies in which the language of leading questions is investigated and manipulated so as to be able to discover the tacit rules, if any, which exist. In doing so we can discover what sorts of people best deliver such suggestions, under what conditions and how consumers resist such persuasion.

4. Moderators of the suggestive process should be studied directly in relation to suggestibility as possible segmentation variables. These might include such variables as hypnotizability, trust, credibility, gullibility, intelligence, self-monitoring, self-consciousness, comprehension, style of processing, and absorptive capacities among others (Gould 1991; McGuire 1989).

5. Consistent with MacInnis and Jaworski (1989), research should be conducted which considers the six different levels of brand processing for different effects of suggestion and quite probably the different forms of suggestion which are related to each level. For example, their highest level of processing involves self-generated persuasions which parallel auto-suggestion and which are very different from mood generated affect which may be present in their lowest level of persuasion. In particular we need to describe the underlying suggestive processes functioning at each level as well as the particular cues which prompt, invite, and stimulate these processes.

6. Apart from establishing parallels, future research will need to assess the effects on the public of the perception of advertising and other persuasive marketing phenomena as being 'hypnotic' since such research ala our experience with subliminal persuasion has a way of attracting public attention. The full implications of this issue are troubling and vexing as discussed in the next section.


In this paper, we have considered the issues involved in assessing suggestive phenomena in relation to persuasive marketing communications and have provided a framework for future theory development and empirical research. Nonetheless deciding whether and how persuasive marketing communications are in any way hypnotic or provide waking state suggestions to consumers seems to pose a difficult although challenging focus of research attention for consumer researchers. However, there remains another issue to deal with which is just as fundamental and perhaps as vexing as the basic research problem. The social implications of linking advertising and other marketing communications with the concept of suggestion and the process of hypnosis is a disturbing prospect when we consider the fact that the popular imagination has already linked advertising with subliminal factors. Moreover marketers are not likely to be happy having their work so linked and we may conjecture that there may be legal, social and ethical ramifications. However, as researchers we cannot ignore this issue. For instance, as a consumer researcher, I was asked by a researcher in the field of hypnotic suggestibility to contribute a chapter on advertising and suggestibility to a book on human suggestibility (Gould 1991). In researching and writing the chapter, I discovered not only that many people had linked advertising and other marketing phenomena with the process of suggestion but also that a plausible case existed for doing so in terms of research in the field of hypnosis research. Given such studies in the hypnosis field which have compared the effects of communications under waking and hypnotic states, and also the interest shown in my contributing an advertising chapter to a book on human suggestibility, it seems inevitable that research will be conducted regarding the relationship of suggestion and persuasive marketing communications. However, if consumer researchers do not engage in such research and involve themselves with the topic, then the framing of the central issues and the social agenda concerning such communications will be set by others.


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