Marketing and Moral Persuasion

As the first installment of our “March of Minds” retrospective, we look back at a video we produced for the TEDx Hogeschool Utrecht event from back in 2011. Age old philosophical discussions of free will have been brought to relevance due to our information rich digital advertising landscape. Is the art of persuasion, especially in the context of targeted social media marketing, overtaking our ability to think freely and rationally? Further, could this world of persuasion be justifiable if marketers are persuading people toward more positive initiatives?

Please watch this video below to explore these topics, and feel free to share it for some heavy discussion around the water cooler! Transcript is below.


Persuasion is all around us. From the wheedling request of a child, to the aggressive marketing campaign selling that new smartphone. People have become increasingly impatient with a world where they experience blatant persuasion at multiple levels.

Younger people barely watch TV any more – partly to get away from the ads… And there are a lot of sponsored tweets, branded Facebook pages, all designed to capture and change the opinions of those who don’t use “old media.” Persuasion could be seen as a negative force, but provides us with positive opportunities, too.

What seems a complex problem in science is probably an even more complex moral dilemma. For instance, when is one behavior-changing “nudge” justified by social benefit, while another is considered unacceptable? Recent developments in behavioral science shed light on how persuasion influences people’s behavior.

So these are exciting times if you are a philosopher. Should we be persuading people to stop warming the planet or forcing women to wear a burqa?

On the one end of the spectrum we could envision a world where every request and suggestion to change behavior is ‘clean’, or free of an intention-based agenda. Here, persuasion is transparent, visible, and based on shared rules. What would this world look like? Would we have to present our requests in a social vacuum? Would all communication have to be technology-mediated, to get rid of interpersonal influence? Would any previous request have to be disregarded to avoid effects of commitment and consistency? An illusion? Maybe…

On the other end of the spectrum, we can see a persuasion-driven world. Everything we see or touch is designed to influence our behavior. To get us to do things, or maybe even to NOT do things. To influence our attitudes, so we’ll shop more, or fight for favors.

Beyond selling products, certain types of behavior are being flagged as “cool” or “uncool” by celebrities and sports folk and repeated in TV reality shows, in the school playground, and in the workplace too. What music we listen to, clothes we wear, and so forth.

At the whacky end, whether the 1969 moon landings or the Holocaust really took place. Whether Elvis is still alive and whether 2012 will be the end of the (Mayan) world.

A world in which everything we see is thought-out, predefined and persuasion-profiled. Is that dystopia already with us? But let’s not be too negative: persuasion or behavioral change could very well be a way to create a better society.

There is now a whole school of thought about delivering social benefit through “benign suggestion” which is called the “Nudge Theory.” Nudge Theory holds that it is possible to influence social behavior for the good (increasing blood donation, organ transplant volunteer numbers) by making quite simple suggestions or using “peer leaders” or influential “ambassadors.”

We can’t take persuasion out of our societies: but we can harness it and move persuasion towards the benign end of the spectrum. That’s why and how we have controls on advertising for liquor, cigarettes, salty/fatty/sugar foods for children. 

Of course, the world is not black and white, persuasion versus free will. So the question that remains: How can we get ourselves and those around us to use persuasion in a morally justifiable manner?