I'd like to hear your opinion on what I'm going to talk about today. Do you think this technique is ethical?

Over at Persuasion Theory this morning, Matt Fox wrote:

In research, students went door-to-door selling note cards for charity. In the some households they said a packet of 8 cards was "three dollars; it's a bargain!" This approach sold 35% of the households. Some households were told they're, "300 pennies; it's a bargain!" This disruption, the change from "three dollars" to "300 pennies" almost doubled sales to 65%.

They also tried other versions of the phrase with "it's a bargain at 300 pennies" and simply "they're 300 pennies." These sold in the 30% to 35% range, the same as the control phrase "three dollars; it's a bargain!"

When the students disrupted the customer's thought with "300 pennies," it allowed the sales message "it's a bargain!" to bypass the resistance. It creates a brief state of confusion allowing the message to be accepted.

I've heard of this technique before. If you're going to make a controversial assertion, doing something to slightly confuse your listeners or readers immediately before will increase acceptance of it.

At first glance, the idea seems underhanded. And it definitely has the potential to be used unethically. If the assertion you're making is false, anything done to lead people to believe it is unethical.

But what if the assertion is true?

I'm a firm believer that "fooling people for their own good" is unethical, because what it really means is that the seller's judgement is being substituted for the buyer's. Clearly, there's a conflict of interests there. Persuade, yes. Fool, no.

But is this "fooling people"? Or is it simply interrupting old thought patterns to enable prospects to consider what you're saying on it's own merits, rather than based on preconceived notions?

Reader Comment:
Antone Roundy said:
Jake, Thanks for your comment. I'm all for bumping people out of their trances to get them to consider your message. My concern is that it seems to me that the confuse-and-assert technique does NOT do that -- that instead, its purpose is essent...
(join the conversation below)

My sense, based on what Matt wrote, is that this particular technique works by enabling the assertion to bypass critical thinking. That makes it off-limits in my book.

Later in the article, Matt cites several famous headlines as examples of this technique:

"Amazing Secret Discovered By One-Legged Golfer Adds 50 Yards To Your Drives, Eliminates Hooks And Slices...And Can Slash Up To 10 Strokes From Your Game Almost Overnight!" "“ John Carlton

How I Made A Fortune With A "Fool" Idea

At 60 Miles Per Hour The Loudest Noise In This New Rolls Royce Comes From The Electric Clock "“ David Ogilvy

But are these the same thing?

In the second and third examples, the surprise element comes at the end. As shown by the note card research, the "confuse and sneak in assertion" technique only works if the assertion follows the confusing element.

These headlines are all examples of pattern interrupts -- they violate expectations to arouse curiosity. But with the possible exception of the first, I doubt they're using the interruption to bypass critical thinking.

Using pattern interrupts to get attention, around curiosity, and open a person's mind is a valid, ethical marketing technique. Confusing prospects slightly to get them to accept assertions, even if they're true...that just doesn't work for me.

What do you think?