For more than 40 years, if you were in the Los Angeles area and you needed a new car, you’d go to Cal Worthington’s Ford dealership. Cal was an institution, as LA as the palm trees around the Hollywood sign.
And he knew every trick in the book to get you to part with your cash.
Hearing this ad reminds me of my childhood, sitting in my grandparents’ Southern Californian home. Cal, his cowboy hat and his dog Spot - which more often than not was an elephant or grizzly bear or ostrich - would crop up in between my cartoons and try to sell me a car. Of all the product-pushers, the archetypal professional persuasion-ist has to be the car salesman. I say this with great affection; my grandfather was one of his rivals.
But despite car salesmen being ranked “low on ethical standards” by 95% of the American population according to a 2005 Gallup poll, they still manage to convince us to buy that lemon thinking we’re getting the gold standard. How? Why?
I could never persuade my granddad to part with his knowledge; learning the tricks of the trade from a car salesman is like asking a magician to spill the beans on what happens behind the doors of the magic circle. But here, now, I am prepared to divulge what those who’ve cracked that nut discovered behind the scenes.
In this episode of the N of Us, allow us to persuade you that there are two ways to get you to do something: the one that matters, and the one that car salesmen use to get us to do what under normal circumstances, we’d never do in a million years.
The year is 1986. Tom Cruise persuades Kelly McGillis into bed, Prince Andrew persuades Sarah Fergueson to marry him, Nigel Lawson persuades the London Stock Exchange to deregulate and Gary Lineker persuades FC Barcelona to make him the most expensive footballer in history.
It was a big year for persuasion. And psychology was on hand to give us a glimpse into exactly how it was done.
Enter Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo, fathers of the snappily - but actually appropriately descriptive - Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. Less a theory and more a framework. Or a typology. An ontology even.
Now, I’m not going to try to persuade you that the ELM (as it’s colloquially known) is one of the most enduring persuasion propositions in the history of psychology, but if I was, I’d try one of two approaches. Because that is what the ELM is all about. Two approaches. First,
The Central Route
Now, if you knew something about persuasion already, i’d appeal to your intellectual, critical faculties and would create a compelling, thoughtful and hermetically-sealed argument about the merits of the information I’m presenting that would address your existing knowledge, and extend it in a clear, logical fashion. My objective here would be to totally change your attitude. To change your cognitive structure completely.
The key to this route is ‘Elaboration’ -
the extent to which a person thinks about the issue-relevant arguments contained in a message.
So in your case, the information I’m proposing to you is relevant to your life. You’re not distracted and you’re motivated to process it. You actually have an opinion about it. You are are compelled and able to mentally elaborate, chew it over, and decide if what I say is something you should sign up for or reject completely. And whatever decision you make, that’ll define your behaviour.
It’s that black and white.
But if you didn’t really care much about persuasion theories, or Petty and Cacioppo, or even psychology, I’d try a different tactic: I’d play car salesman.
The Peripheral Route
I’d use an arsenal of tricks to convince you to buy in because, you know what - you’re not really going to spend the time to figure out whether what I say is true.
We all lead busy lives. We have places to go, people to see, stuff to do. We have only so much time to really process the countless messages that come our ways every day. And frankly, most of them aren’t important, so we may as well simply sift through all this stimulation using as little brain power as we possibly can. Petty and Cacioppo’s model would be able to
distinguish persuasion that is primarily a result of issue-relevant argumentation from persuasion that is primarily a result of some cue in the persuasion context that permits attitude change without argument scrutiny.
In other words, you might be persuaded, even if you don’t care. but it’s more likely because of some other factor than the content of what was being said.
And at the end of this route, whatever attitude shift you might experience is pretty flimsy. It certainly won’t be hard-baked into your mental state. But it might - might - pique your interest enough to process the message, and then we’re back in the
So , the ELM is more of a flow chart. [pause] Well, it’s actually exactly a flow chart, there, on page 126 of volume 19 of Advances in Experimental Psychology. And in their 48 page proposition, they outline everything from the complicated relationship between attitudes and behaviour, our psychological compulsion to seek correctness and how the likelihood of elaboration changes over the lifespan.
But remember, you’re not interested in that. You just want to know how Cal Worthington got me, a 6 year old, to want to buy a Ford.
Go see Cal
In the ELM, arguments are viewed as bits of information contained in a communication that are relevant to a person’s subjective determination of the true merits of an advocated position.
But in a nutshell, this was a situation in which my subjective determination wasn’t veering in the direction of the persuasive message. I wasn’t on the market for a car. I didn’t know how to drive. And I certainly didn’t have the money - regardless of the rock-bottom prices Cal was offering in his once-in-a-lifetime deals.
I wasn’t going down the central route here.
According to the Elaboration LIkelihood Model, one way to influence attitudes is by varying the quality of the arguments in a persuasive message.
You know, I had no valuable opinion about whether the cars Cal was selling were good or bad, or where his deals stood on the “you can’t miss this” spectrum.
Another possibility, however, is that a simple cue in the persuasion context affects attitudes in the absence of argument processing. Some ques will do this because they trigger relatively primitive affective states that become associated with the attitude object.
And in this case, I liked Cal. He had a nice hat. I liked the weird and unexpected animals on the screen. I liked his ads. I liked that they were on heavy rotation during Punky Brewster and Care Bears.
It was, frankly, all about Cal.
CHAPTER X: SOURCE CHARACTERISTICS
And in fact, a person who wasn’t really invested in the argument would be swayed by the source. And in 2005, psychology Professor Robert Levine spent a week as a car salesman, to pull back the curtain for his book, The Power of Persuasion. He found out their tricks.
If a customer shows a preference for a blue Chevy, the smart salesman compliments the choice; if the customer leans toward a green Oldsmobile, the salesman finds reason to applaud that one. As long as the customer keeps making choices, the salesman will eventually be right,
he wrote in his chapter about expertise. This applies equally to the car salesman in his example, to doctors in a surgery and even to homemaker Betty who’s trying to offload Tupperware to her friends.
What Levine describes in 250+ pages is the characteristics of sources whom we’re more likely to be persuaded by. One of the things that clinches a deal is if we think the person is an expert. Cal knew cars. I knew he knew cars because he’d been on tv since before I was born selling people cars. It turns out, he actually was from a family who knew cars. He was credible. So, y’know, he’s more persuasive.
The salesman then sells the dealership. “I want you to know you’ve made a wise choice in coming to my dealership. The company has been here for twenty-seven years. The owner has a good name in the community.” Another approach at this step is to bring up social proof: One dealer I studied with would say, “I know your neighbours like us because we’re growing twenty-five percent a year.” These early steps ask the customer for very small commitments - essentially to acknowledge the credibility of the agency.
But what if, sometime in my past, someone I knew or heard about had said he wasn’t a trustworthy person. Well, that’d make it harder for Ol’ Cal
because moral trustworthiness is perceived as relatively unwavering, a little of it goes a long way. This is particularly true for negative reputations. If you’re labeled as untrustworthy, good luck in reversing the appraisal. Almost anything you do, no matter how well-meaning, will be read as dishonest manipulation or shameless ingratiation.
So that Gallup Poll - the one that said car salesmen were “low on ethical standards” was a strike against him.
But in his favour was that he spoke with what is controversially called a General American Accent. By dint of his birthplace, Oklahoma, his nasal m’s and his fricative f’s form an accent that was identified in 1996 as more persuasive than most by researchers Oscar W. DeShields Jr., Ali Kara and Erdener Kaynak.
A study was conducted to examine the impact of salesperson ... accent on receiver purchase intentions. Twenty-four broadcast commercials were produced by manipulating … accent factors. Participating in the study were 963 subjects who evaluated the product/service being advertised. ...Study findings indicate that salespersons with a standard accent or dialect were perceived more favorably and created higher purchase intentions than foreign-accented salespersons.
But vocally, it wasn’t just Cal’s accent that has the persuasive power. It was also the pitch he spoke. Here’s what I mean.
In Study 1, we manipulated voice pitch of recordings of US presidents and asked participants to attribute personality traits to the voices and to choose the voice they preferred to vote for. We found that lower-pitched voices were associated with favorable personality traits more often than were higher-pitched voices and that people preferred to vote for politicians with lower-pitched rather than higher-pitched voices.
Of course, I wasn’t voting for Cal for President. But, as Cara C. Tigue and her colleagues wrote in 2010, voting decisions result from a complex interaction of factors,
mate-choice relevant factors can influence voting behavior.
I think you know what I’m getting at here. The ELM’s peripheral route has as many potential persuasive cues as there are people in this world.
But back to Bob Levine, and the most important thing in car salesmanship:
avoid questions that may result in the answer “No.” This is particularly true in the early stages of the process. A dangerous meet-and-greet question, for example, is, “May I help you?” The invariable response is, “No, I’m just looking,” which stops the salesman cold. Instead, one manager I worked for instructed I was to hold out my hand and say, “I’m Bob Levine. And you are…?” Virtually every customer will return the handshake...Avoiding “no” answers discourages the chain of commitments from being broken.
Bob learned that an offered handshake was rarely turned down, and indeed the handshake itself may well have been persuasive. It’s hard to demonstrate this on radio, but here’s another one: if I’m nodding my head and you’re trying to convince me of something, I’m more likely to be persuaded, so a salesman’s trick would be to induce you nod your head and whilst doing that, say something they want you to agree with. It could even be done by mirroring.
Seriously, this stuff gets deep.
The ELM isn’t a trick to persuade someone to do something, but rather a model of how many different things go into the process of being persuaded. And although Cal himself most likely never read Petty and Cacioppo’s paper, every stage that they described in both their central and peripheral route to persuasion would have been practiced by him and his salesmen.
When Cal Worthington died in 2013, leaving behind his menagerie of Spots, he’d become the most the most well-known television car dealer pitchman in history, and the most successful dealer on the West coast of America.
Next time on the N of Us, we’re getting superstitious.