Special Session Summary Influence Professionals

Harish Sujan, Penn State University
[ to cite ]:
Harish Sujan (1997) ,"Special Session Summary Influence Professionals", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 334-335.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 334-335



Harish Sujan, Penn State University

In his presidential address, Peter Wright (1986) suggested that consumers think not only about marketing messages but also the people behind these messages. A useful complement to examining consumers’ cognitive and affective responses to persuasive messages would be studying their speculations on the intentions of the creators of the message. A helpful theoretical perspective for this line of inquiry is Robert Cialdini’s work on influence. In his work, Cialdini, a psychologist, has identified persuasion strategies and principles that guide influencers’ use of persuasion strategies. This special session, aimed at furthering consumer researchers’ interest in studying the people who create persuasive communications, comprised of presentations by Peter Wright and Marian Friestad on the thinking of advertising professionals, Robert Cialdini on the ethics of influence professionals, and by Subramanian Sivaramakrishnan (Subbu) and Harish Sujan on consumers’ perceptions of salespeople.

Robert Cialdini’s Talk

Speaking first, to about 50 ACR participants, Robert Cialdini provided some background on his work on influence and then raised propositions on the consequences to marketing and advertising organizations of employing influence professionals with high rather than low ethical standards. He was given 50 minutes for his presentation.

Robert Cialdini, who had not spoken at ACR earlier said that while his book on influence (1985) had had greater impact than he imagined, in his wildest dreams, the correspondence he received on this book suggested that consumerresearchers were affected by it considerably less than advertising researchers and marketing research professionals. Expressing his happiness at being at ACR, he admitted that his hope was that his talk would significantly increase consumer researchers’ interest in his work and serve to correct the imbalance. He said that an important motivation he had while writing his book was to help consumers protect themselves better against illegitimate influence attempts: he had observed that influence professionals could successfully persuade even while violating acceptable social norms.

As background for his propositions on the ethics of influence, he explained his earlier work and findings. Over a period of three years he conducted participant-observer investigations of professional influence, infiltrating into training programs and interviewing, in depth, a variety of influence agents. Through this he discovered six basic principles of influence: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, liking/friendship, social validation and commitment/consistency. Each principle, or strategy, could be used ethically or in a manner that was normatively objectionable. He classified people who use these influence principles into bunglers (incompetent use, either ethically or unethically), smugglers (competent but unethical use) and sleuths (competent and ethical use). Illustrating the smuggler, he alluded to an actor who was known primarily for the role he played as a doctor on a popular television serialCthis actor used his fame illegitimately by serving as a spokesperson in an advertisement for a medical product.

He proposed that organizations employing sleuths are significantly better off than organizations employing smugglers. Smugglers, he suggested, increase short-term profit relative to sleuths, but harm long-term profit. This is because smugglers damage brand equity while sleuths enhance it. Alluding to Charles O’Reilly’s (1991) work on value-matching, he suggested that smugglers self-select themselves into smuggling organizations, and sleuths into sleuthing organizations. A mis-match, for example a sleuth in a predominantly smuggler organization, fosters low organizational commitment, job dissatisfaction, turnover, absenteeism and stress. Even in homogeneous smuggler organizations, he suggested, because of a real fear of pilferages, kickbacks, and inventory shrinkage, the necessity of sophisticated control systems drive operating costs to be well beyond those for sleuth organizations. Consequently, in the long run, these organizations have greater problems surviving.

Robert Cialdini’s propositions suggest two new directions for consumer research: a focus on the influencer rather than the influencee and a shift from the psychology of the individual to organizational psychology. They also suggest that research that helps consumers develop an ability to protect themselves against illegitimate influence attempts is socially valuable.

Subbu’s Talk

Following Robert Cialdini, Subramanian Sivaramakrishnan (Subbu) described a study he has conducted with Harish Sujan on consumers’ stereotypes of salespeople. Consumers, he pointed out, hold negative stereotypes of many categories of salespeople; their first impressions of salespeople are consequently often negative. Unless they subsequently correct these first impressions, they transfer to their evaluations of the product the salesperson advocates. This mis-judgment has a cost, it leads to opportunity losses for the customerCe.g., wasted time in unnecessary search and purchasing a poorer quality product from a more likable salesperson. So, Subbu argued, it is of importance to understand when consumers’ correct their first impressions of salespeople and when they do not.

Following Yacob Trope’s (1986) model for person perception, Subbu envisaged that consumers first categorize salespeople, drawing upon their stereotypes, then characterize how they will behave and finally correct for this characterization based on their actual behavior. Reasoning from Dan Gilbert s (1989) work on cognitive busyness he hypothesized that correction, because it unlike categorization and characterization depends on controlled processing, does not always occur. In particular, when consumers are cognitively busy with tasks such as memorizing details of the salesperson’s presentation or preparing questions to ask the salesperson, as a result of a reduced capacity to indulge in controlled processing they cannot correct their characterization.

Subbu reported two experiments where he empirically tested this hypothesis. In the first, consumers were exposed to a negatively stereotyped used car salesperson, by means of a written description, and either asked to formulate two questions while reading about the salesperson’s behavior during this encounter or to simply observe the behavior. The salesperson’s behavior was customer-oriented; i.e., positive. Subjects in the first condition, formulating questions while listening, he found, did not correct their initially negative impression of the salesperson while subjects in the second, non-busy condition did. In both conditions subjects recalled the salesperson’s behavior equally well, attesting to the busyness manipulation’s being distinct from distraction.

In the second experiment, consumers were exposed to a neutral rather than a negative used car salesperson, by means of an audio-visual description. Again they were either asked to formulate two questions while observing the salesperson’s behavior which was customer oriented or to simply observe this behavior. Once again, Subbu showed, the subjects who were thinking of questions were unable to correct their first impressions while subjects who were not busy corrected their initially neutral impressions to more positive evaluations.

In both studies Subbu showed that salesperson evaluations transferred to the product.

He laid out his plan for future research investigations of consumers’ perceptions of salespeople; included was identifying how consumers could rectify the ill-effects of cognitive busyness.

Peter Wright’s Talk

Marian Friestad and Peter Wright (1995) have investigated consumers’ schemas for advertising professionals’ influence tactics. Shifting ground they have begun investigating advertising professionals’ schemas of the psychology of persuasion. Marian spent six weeks at a major advertising agency interviewing in depth influence professionals there. Included in the interviews were questions aimed at understanding who chooses to become an advertising influence professional and why they believe particular styles of influence are better than others. Complementing this, Marian and Peter are examining popular writings of influence professionals, over the decade, for their views on advertising and sales practices. They are also examining mass media for the tactics used in marketing and political campaigns. They expect this research to complement the work they have done, and continue to do, on lay consumers’ views of persuasion tactics used in marketing.


Serving, in addition, as the synthesizer for the session, Peter Wright elicited questions and comments from the audience. Most questions and comments were directed at Robert Cialdini and concerned his propositions. As an example, Chris Puto observed that the propositions he had developed (in keeping with the reactions of different interest groups to his book) were concerned with organizational consequencesCpropositions relating to consequences to consumers needed to be developed. As another example, Mita Sujan argued that unethical influence methods, even when it was clear the consequences were socially beneficial, were not desirable. Intervening in this debate, Peter Wright suggested, in support of Mita Sujan’s position, that the methods used were as important as the consequences, since persuasion methods affected the relationship consumers and the influence professionals developd and since this relationship often is more important than the outcome.

Judging by the fact that most participants stayed till the end, that many asked questions and made comments, and that auidence-presenter discussions caused the session to run over by about ten minutes, interest was high. Hopefully, the session leads to important publications in marketing journals on the relationship between consumers and influence professionals.


Cialdini, Robert B., Influence: Science and Practice, Scott, Foreman & Co.: Clearview, FL.

Friestad, Marian and Peter Wright (1995), "Persuasion Knowledge: Lay People’s and Researchers’ Beliefs About the Psychology of Advertising," Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (June), 62-74.

Gilbert, Daniel T. (1989), "Thinking Lightly About Others: Automatic Components of the Social Inference Process," In Unintended Thoughts (J. Uleman & J.A. Bargh, eds.), Guilford Press: New York, 189-211.

O’Reilly, Charles A., Jennifer Chatman and David F. Caldwell (1991), "People and Organizational Culture: A Profile Comparison Approach to Assessing Person-Organization Fit," Academy of Management Journal, 34 (September), 487-516.

Trope, Yacob (1986), "Identification and Inferential Processes in Dispositional Attribution," Psychological Review, 93 (July), 239-257.

Wright, Peter (1986), "Schemer Schema: Consumers’ Intuitive Theories About Marketers’ Influence Tactics," In Advances in Consumer Research (ed. Richard J. Lutes), 13, 1-3.