Happy Birthday & Admagic [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 18 minutes, 38 seconds. Contains 3728 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter that’s Two Years Old as of Yesterday.
I’m your host Stephen, who writes when the writing’s good.
Trenchant Edges as in the bits of the map labeled here be monsters & cutting through the bullshit about them.
This normally would be one of those awful hall of mirrors self-reflection newsletters, but it’s gonna be a little different ‘cause I thought I could solve a practical problem.
See, I bought a bunch of pins with our logo and I hoped I’d be able to sell them on the page. But it turned out a bit more obnoxious than I wanted, so I figured I’d create some content.
(you can find them here if you’re curious)
But the content didn’t really click with people, oh well, and it didn’t sell many pins.
But the posts about persuasion are still pretty good. And my attempt to organize them on facebook was a joke. So I wanted to collect them someplace.
Let’s unpack some things.
Post #1: Reciprocity
Let's do that thing where I actually follow up with something I'd planned. This is #AdMagic where I unpack some basic techniques for persuading and manipulation as an unveiled Ad for my own merch.
An excellent introduction to persuasion is Robert Cialdini's Influence, where he lays out six principles of persuasion based on a few years of field research he spent doing entry sales jobs & telemarketing.
The whole book is worth reading and while it's not really groundbreaking, it lays out a practical approach that's easy to pick up quickly.
I first read this book in 2006 at Disney World's Library, so you know it's authentic black magic.
I want to start with reciprocity because, well, it's the whole gimmick here. I feel guilty about selling merch on this page, so I'm trading a bit of useful knowledge to assuage my guilt and also if you find this interesting I hope you'll support the page by buying something.
The principle is simple: You're more likely to buy from someone who's given you something. The classic masters of this are Hare Krishnas standing around airports giving people flowers. But it works with just about anything.
This is one of the most potent foundations for influencer marketing and parasocial relationships. If you get the good brain juice from reading someone's posts for long enough, you've got premade pathways between them and more good brain juice.
Now, this is where circumstances and this principle really kick into something stunning. See, I've been putting off deciding something for more than a week now: A generous person bought all my open stock of stickers and asked me to give most of them away.
They left it to my judgment, and the easiest thing to do is to simply give them away to people who ordered a pin.
But that's not really respecting the intent of the request, I think.
So if you think the stickers are rad and want one and you're in the US, ask for it.
If you're not in the US... also ask. we might be able to work something out without you having to pay $10-20 for international shipping.
There are a total of 45 stickers, plus a few I'm keeping as a reserve to make sure there's no shipping BS.
So, in theory, you should be more predisposed to buying merch. But, here's the cool thing: You don't have to act on any goodwill you might feel. You can make a responsible choice for your life.
Once you know that a social force is greasing your wheels in some particular direction, you can become aware of feeling greasy and push back.
Anyway, that's the first #admagic post. If you'd like to look at the pin, there's a link in the comments. Stickers are first come first served based entirely on when I see comments.
Remember: You don't owe people trying to sell you on something a goddamn thing. And yes, I expect saying this will make me more money in the same vein as, "Trust me, I'm lying." It's all very meta.
Post #2: Scarcity
Continuing our discussion of persuasion/manipulation techniques, we're going to focus today on one of the most powerful. Check the hashtag if you want to see our discussion yesterday where I lay out what we're doing more.
This is the bait in a thousand mousetraps.
We humans tend to want things more if there's some challenge in getting them. Having some porno delivered to your house is just a transaction, but having to search through a dozen sketchy stores for just the right porno isn't merely commerce: It's a quest.
And the grail feels appropriately more valuable once in hand.
This principle is usually discussed these days as FOMO: Fear of Missing Out.
It mostly shows up when there's an appearance of more demand for a thing than a supply.
So advertisers look for many ways to fabricate scarcity in every way they can think of. You've undoubtedly seen sales pages with timers or a warning about only a few pieces being left. Kickstarter's whole business model relies on this exact structure.
It makes for an odd juxtaposition with the general material abundance of this century, so everyone's always making limited editions or offering special deals when you buy now.
So let's take a look at how I've been (mostly ineffectively, it seems) using scarcity: First, I order merch in fairly small batches. I think I ended up with something like 350 stickers and 205 pins.
My original idea was to do semi-regular releases. But it's clear this page is a highly inappropriate container for that kind of commerce.
But without the kind of rotation structure in place, and without a developed prelaunch build-up (combined with the shipping delays), there wasn't really any momentum to build up with.
Good for an anti-commercial Facebook page, I think. Less so for my wallet.
But that's as useful as anything else when discussing "persuasion principles". The simple fact that there aren't many stickers or pins isn't as interesting as layering that fact with other factors as well. Even better if they're contextualized with a story.
The only one I've got, and it's pretty bad, is "Want to support this page, buy my garbage."
An antidote to scarcity is awareness of how manufactured it likely is. Go learn about the diamond trade and you'll be angry for days and never want to buy anything ever again. And plus, you'll join the "Cecil Rhodes Haters Club", and we're SO MUCH FUN AT PARTIES.
NGL, I'm getting off on trying to end these posts in the worst way possible. And I think name-dropping a genocidal colonialist and my own insufferable self-satisfaction ought to do it.
Alright, back to laying in bed.
Post #3: Social Proof
Welcome back to #Admagic, the series where I clue you into some of the most common advertising techniques while also selling you all on buying my merch.
I've been pretty lazy today so we're going to pick the simplest of Caldini's 6 principles: Social Proof.
But don't take my word for it, take a look at some of these sick recommendations of this page!
See how I'm pointing to someone else's authority as proof of how good I am?
Now, just because it's simple doesn't mean it isn't powerful. We're hard-wired to be social creatures, and even if you're indifferent to something if enough people in your social world start bringing it up you'll start to feel that daemonic need to have an opinion.
(Some people are indifferent to this kind of pressure, but that's another story)
Now, if Facebook's reviews feature worked really well (and the person who wrote it didn't delete it), I'd have screengrabbed one of the nicest things anyone's ever said about me: Comparing my page to Calvin and Hobbes' creator Bill Watterson.
Someone who's less of a hack marketer might have prepared enough for this to actually have more than a handful of reviews on their website.
Social proof is really flexible too, since you can create it just by showing up near influential people or paying for them to shout you out on services like Cameo.
People tend to cluster both towards and away from influential people, so most people on this page likely feel about equally bad about Joe Biden and Donald Trump because that's where I fit in. Trump's a worse person, but Biden's had his fingerprints on so many of the worst things in US history it's hard to dismiss him.
The low-hanging fruit of social proof is influencer culture, especially on Instagram, Tiktok, and Youtube. All these platforms really thrive on creating shared content between popular accounts.
Though, if you want the masterclass in this art, you could simply watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians. I realize their family has a bad reputation, but there's plenty of shrewd business sense there. Lots of people hung around OJ during his trial, but it's not an accident that Robert Kardashian's wife and daughters are currently the most famous of them.
*Looking* important can be a bigger deal than being important. And if you're grifting, social proof can be the absolute best way to cover up the failures of your ability to deliver.
Theranos, anyone? Such an amazing board of directors, all fools.
Anyway, learn to see people intentionally setting up social proof. Never read testimonials someone points you towards. Especially on a sales page.
And don't forget, if you want a meaningless symbol of how above consumerism you are, I'm now selling those because this is a hellworld and that's just how it is right now.
An insightful commenter asked if this idea was related to Aristotle’s concept of Ethos in rhetoric.
My response: Social proof is kind of a cheap hack for ethos.
Remember, ethos is about character and standing to speak on the subject you're about to discuss.
Social proof is about the appearance of high character. Ethos at least stands in for a higher virtue, not merely its appearance.
Aristotle would not approve of Fake Instagram gurus and their rented lambos, as they are a temptation away from the good life.
Post #4: Liking
Welcome back to #Admagic, a thing where I post about the ways people like me manipulate you for fun and profit.
Many folks freak out about scifi brainwashing, but it's this kind of thing that you should be more concerned about because it takes advantage of how most of our social/emotional systems have developed.
So far we've been going through the principles from Robert Cialdini's Influence, built around 6 principles. We've already covered social proof, reciprocity, and scarcity.
Today we're going to hit an obvious but essential principle, liking.
Liking is positive regard, good vibes about someone. And hoo boy can it be hacked.
The most basic sales technique for being liked is "building rapport", where you match a person's communication style: Word selection, tone, pace, energy, general emotional state, body language, and style.
Ideally, you start by matching someone a little under where they're at and slowly raise your vibrations together.
Marketing attempts a similar form of subconscious flattery by starting from thoughts and feelings you've already had as the target market and making those seem to naturally lead to the decision to purchase some sweet pins. Sorry.
This is all in the realm of small talk, and I'm going to take a quick aside here. Small talk is fucking rad and more people should learn how to do it.
Folks don't wanna invest time and trust in people they don't know anything about, so you've gotta kinda warm them up. Like putting a non-threatening hand out for an animal to sniff.
You can go pretty quick from small talk to crazy heavy topics once you've done a few minutes of groundwork and you're on the same page with someone you're relating to. It's rad.
But usually, you probably don't want to have a conversation about the meaning of life with some stranger, just to leave their day a little less bleak.
Anyway, if you like someone you're more likely to cut them slack or buy their pins. It's kind of like weighting dice.
Of course, chasing likability can make one too eager to please which is usually repulsive.
I think a lot of liking is really a variety of entertainment, where you and another person sync up. It feels good.
And having grown up as someone who went out of his way to make other people feel worse around him, it's a hell of a lot better to play the other side.
Anyway, that's a bit about likability. It's a natural thing, but if you find yourself suddenly synced up with someone asking something unusual from you, you might want to step back and ask some tougher questions about what they're really after.
There are a bunch of variations on this theme in various parts of the social sciences like the fundamental attribution error and the halo effect, I think of it as kind of a constellation of related mechanisms that can overlap and combine into some of the wackier ways people react to, say, famous people.
Anyway, if you like stuff like this and want me to keep doing it here in your news feed, consider buying a pin.
Or not. This bit will fuck my call to action here, but it's true. I won't like you less. And cool pins just aren't the most important thing in the world
Last night I wrote a short story, which got me to actually listen to a podcast called How Story Works by Lani Diane Rich and she used a phrase I've not heard before.
She described the effect of a story drawing you into its internal world as "achieving transport", a phrase highly relevant to #admagic.
See, storytelling in advertising is about grabbing attention and directing it to a set of felt values through the story.
There are a few ways to do this: coke just wants you to associate sugar water with feeling good so when you see their garbage water around (and they know you will), you'll impulse buy it.
That kind of ubiquity doesn't really work for smaller companies, who usually need some kind of real or imagined problem to solve.
"Creating demand" is often just a matter of telling a story about why a problem exists, even if it didn't before.
It's that sense of achieving transport, going into the story, I want to highlight here because that can last a long time.
Transport can be exciting, but especially with nonfiction, it can be very deceptive because it's often achieved through withholding information.
That's fine for a mystery novel but can easily become harmful in many other places.
We can see this with conspiracy theories. They'll often find odd facts and stack them together to conclude something far beyond what they can prove, insisting that *ONLY* some extreme case can explain everything.
My favorite JFK assassination theory is a good counterpoint to this: Howard Donahue's theory that Kennedy was shot by panic fire from a secret service agent in the trail car.
If he's right, all the weird bullshit around the assassination you otherwise need a baroque conspiracy to explain becomes shockingly simple: someone fucked up in the worst possible way and everyone pitched in cover their ass.
Is it true? No idea. I've read a few debunkings of it and they also seem to make sense.
But the story is elegant and I appreciate that.
The important thing is to be careful what stories you accept transport into. Get your media literacy on.
Post #5: Commitment and Consistency
Time for another late night #admagic.
It occurs to me that this series has, so far, focused on a broadly recognizable set of principles, and while useful to understand, they aren't maybe the most useful knowledge to navigate our modern advertising environment.
Basically, there's a company that runs a staggering amount of the businesses that advertise on Facebook, especially in the self help and e-learning spaces. It's called clickfunnels and later this week we'll unpack the sales funnel with them.
But tonight let's keep going through Robert Cialdini's Influence principles.
The next principle is commitment and consistency. basically, people are primed to continue making decisions in line with their previous decisions, especially in public.
Nobody likes feeling like a hypocrite.
So, how can this be used to manipulate you?
The classic example is a canvasser asking for signatures for a good cause, something you agree with. They hit you up for a signature and then ask for a donation.
First, you confirm that you're the kind of person who cares about whatever, and then they ask you to demonstrate your support a little more. First attention, then a signature (probably w/ and email), then they ask for the donation.
A savvy reader may notice some similarities with a facebook page. First attention, then reactions/comments, then some chump makes a batch of merch and sees how that sells. Consistency supports the process.
One way to break this up to is draw a line, like only bringing $100 to a casino. Maybe you'll talk to the canvasser, but not sign your real name. Or give a fake email address. Or only leave ironic reactions and troll comments.
Decide what you won't do before getting into a situation and stick to it. That puts commitment in your hands, not in the hands of someone who might not have your best interests at heart.
One aspect of this to watch out for, because it's VERY built into many outright cons is an escalation of commitment. First, you agree to a reasonable offer. But then something comes up and you need to put more resources in to salvage the deal. After 2-3 rounds of this, you're getting squeezed for a deal that's outright bad for you, even if it looked good at first.
This is the sunk cost fallacy weaponized.
Going to clickfunnels as a preview, the way their sales funnels work is they start with a free thing to get your email. A lead magnet, which then directs you to a cheap product that immediately tries to upsell you into a much more expensive product.
Some funnels have 4-5 levels of this so the $7 ebook you thought was a reasonable purchase now comes with a $497 masterclass on the secret to sacrificing stuffed animals to dead gods for unlimited manifestation power that you just have to have.
Personally, I end up on a lot of these pages and I rarely read the sales copy at all. I just look for the price and what that gets you. And I ignore upsells entirely.
The silly thing about this stuff is it can be insidious or it can be some kinda obvious gimmick you chuckle at. But even as a gimmick it can be effective.
One final recommendation: Donald Trump's email list is an amazing experience in baby's first sales letter. You can see all the puppet strings and there's almost no presumption because Trump has made buzzfeed lists of persuasion techniques his personality for decades.
And with that, I'm out. G'night y'all.
Post #6 Authority
Let's bang out the last #admagic post here.
It's the last one because I've discovered that hashtag is useless for organizing anything. I do like this series so I'll be keeping it up.
We're gonna talk about Robert Cialdini's last influence principle: Authority.
I've saved this one for last because I think it's the most powerful principle, the one that lubricates the rest of them.
Authority is a combination of perceived expertise and high situational social status.
We live in a world of counterfeit authority because it's so useful to have. The classic example is the Milgram experiments where social scientists used symbols of medical authority to push a staggering number of people into believing they were pressing a button to torture another person.
So anyone looking to manipulate others will naturally attempt to inflate their authority. As I have before, I recommend Donald Trump as an obvious example of someone doing this. He's the "biggest and the best about the military" and everything else.
As mammals, we're kinda hardwired to defer to authority. And since anyone can claim as much authority as those around them are willing to give them, it's often very easy to end up with people VASTLY more authoritative among some audiences than their actual expertise would suggest.
Another good example is Oprah Winfrey, who spent decades becoming one of America's premier Authority brokers, kingmaking dozens of careers of people with a pretty wide range of actual expertise: From serial rapist miracle workers like John of God to Dr Oz, who at least actually is an expert surgeon from what I can tell.
And the good Dr Oz brings us to one of the most important facts about authority: Expertise usually doesn't transfer well between domains, but familiarity and a sense of authority do.
So Dr Oz is one of a huge number of experts who have slowly begun commenting far outside their actual expertise, with him now moving away from any pretense of medicine to a reactionary politician. A disappointing trajectory for sure, but not one he's alone with.
Our whole advanced technological society is built on counterfeit authority in the form of formal degrees. Now, to be clear, I'm not saying that formal education is bad. Formal education fucking rocks.
It's just possible for someone to get a PhD and have a wildly incorrect understanding of the field they've specialized in. But since the only people who can usually check their work are other specialists, it's relatively easy for such misunderstandings to be built into many fields for generations.
Though, the scientific method does push toward truth usually.
Now, it also must be said that my people, autodidacts, aren't any fucking better. Self-directed education is extremely prone to compounded bias escalating over time.
So one should be skeptical of authority because it's fairly easy to fake. Find yourself a nice title, dress respectably, etc.
One last tip here: People who insist they're the only valid source of information are almost never trustworthy. It does happen from time to time, but it's one of the best ways to keep an audience dependent on you, and thus keep a career going.
A corollary here is while someone who shares you their sources so you can look at the ideas underlying their claims aren't always trustworthy, people who refuse to show their chain of evidence rarely are.
This is funny because I'm about to tell you that this post doesn't have a specific source, beyond using Cialdini's Influence as a starting place. It's just built from accumulated effort thinking about the subject over the last 15 years.
Everyone gets salt to take with this post ;-)
Whew, well, that was fun.
Anyway, I’m not sure what else to say. June’s usually my worst mental health month and this year was no different. I feel like I’m stepping up from a funk.
Who knows where we’ll head from here. :-D
Looking forward to finding out with y’all.