Aversion to Persuasion: The Reality of the Marketing Landscape

WHILE CONDUCTING a research study years ago with two colleagues, Thales Teixeira used infrared eye-tracking scanner technology to determine exactly what people were looking at when they watched video ads. As part of the study, they also used a system that analyzed facial expressions to reveal what the viewers were feeling. The technologies were not only designed to isolate the elements that kept people engaged, but what made them stop.

What they found was astonishing. The very moment a brand logo appeared on the screen, the viewers changed the channel, regardless of whether they had an affinity for the brand or not. When Teixeira pressed the viewers on why, they could not explain why they changed the channel. What Teixeira and his colleagues realized was that if you put a big, flashy, front and center brand logo on the screen, it was bye, bye ad. Teixeira dubbed their behavior as an “Aversion to Persuasion,” eventually continuing to study the psychological phenomenon as a Lumry Family Associate Professor at Harvard Business School.

In Teixeira’s quest for the “Holy Grail” of digital marketing—a viral-type ad that large numbers of people want to share with family and friends, and on and on—what consumers tolerate has its limits, i.e., they want to be entertained more than they want to be sold to. This is the kind of chase Teixeira lives for. As the co-founder of Decoupling.co, a digital disruption and transformation consulting firm, he consults, advises and educates executives on what makes today’s buyers and brands tick. “Understanding where your target customer is during his/her customer decision journey (CDJ) can help determine where you need to focus your resources,” Teixeira says.

Today, every brand in every market is redirecting its energy and focus on helping their customers navigate in a landscape the likes we have never seen. With the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) forcing consumers around the world to drastically alter how they live their lives—let alone shop—the rules of the game have changed.

The unearthing nature of the pandemic means many brands must find new ways to engage with their marketplaces. The goal (to let your customers know you are there for them) still matters, but in a much different way. In this moment of crisis, brands have a chance to be a beacon of goodwill, hope and comfort.

If you need to raise awareness, your message should focus on engaging with empathy. Marketing is still critically important, but the connection must come from a different place. “Changes in attention habits require a more surgical strategy in thinking about your role and making sure you place the most appropriate message in the context of the whole decision journey,” Teixeira says.

COMMUNICATE, BUT DON’T PUSH

WHAT IS BECOMING more apparent is that intently forcing your brand into a consumer’s mindset is a strategy best laid to rest. The key is to find ways to “unsell” your customers.

In today’s crisis-oriented landscape, those kinds of techniques are as follows: People believe other people and friends. They trust humans and not companies. People believe in the experience versus being swayed by communication. And people are reassured by discovering, researching and hearing from friends via search and social media.

“People are increasingly skeptical and don’t trust institutions or firms,” says Rishad Tobaccowala, a senior advisor at Publicis Groupe, an advertising and communications firm with 80,000 employees worldwide. “Because of the web and social media, they have become highly aware of how they can be manipulated.”

The “aversion to persuasion” mindset is the next bastion for marketers to understand. Today’s consumers, more than ever, will fast forward past the marketing pitches, leaving brands to find new ways to engage.

“Search, social, and seeing and hearing from other people,” Tobaccowala says. “You will [be judged] by the quality of your brand or experience. Invest in building a superior process, as this is the best way to get word of mouth.”

One of the solutions Teixeira recommends is to build an emotional roller coaster. For example, he says viewers are most likely to continue watching a video ad if they experience emotional ups and downs. This fits with psychological research findings about human adaptability.

“When we come into a warm home on a cold winter day, or when we receive a pay raise, we experience pleasure, but the feeling is transitory; the novelty soon wears off,” he says. “[Brands] need to briefly terminate viewers’ feelings of joy or surprise and then quickly restore them, creating an emotional roller coaster— much the way a movie generates suspense by alternating tension and relief.”

Another strategy involves building engagement slowly and deliberately. Teixeira says that while there is a lot of talk at companies about quickly increasing engagement rather than thinking in terms of building that relationship incrementally, people are not willing to spend time with your brand if there is no connection.

“You have to have a coffee with someone before you ask them over to dinner,” he says. “The same applies for brands. It is important to think in terms of developing multiple short interactions to create a ‘ladder of engagement.’”

Perhaps the biggest strategy for helping to alleviate the aversion to persuasion is to bolster your brand’s personal engagement, i.e., build buzz in the most authentic human-centric manner. Raul Perdigão, global head of Inside Sales at Pipedrive, says the takeaway is that everyone is trying to make connections with other people.

“It is about making a true, human connection,” Perdigão says. “In a world of bots and automation, knowing you can connect with a real person at the other end of the phone, Zoom or chat, is imperative. That’s why we work try to ensure our emails are personalized, and incorporate small photos or videos at the other end. It helps show that there’s a real person there who is responsible for helping you succeed.”


This type of persuasion is the kind that will help drive brands forward in a world currently inundated with confusion and a fear of what lies ahead. But it is a step worth considering.

BY MICHAEL J. PALLERINO

Scroll to Top