By Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta
“WOW, MISS, that dress looks really gorgeous on you! It brings out your figure so perfectly! It’is made for you!”
If the recipient of the compliment believes in the sincerity behind the compliment, she would buy the dress. She might even recommend the shop to her friends, or make further purchases down the road.
Flattery — the art of offering pleasing compliments — is one of the oldest and most commonly used persuasion methods. So, naturally, flattery is often used in marketing.
Research has shown that recipients of compliments are likely to react positively to sincere compliments. But it appears that flattery works even when prospective consumers can smell an insincere compliment — such as in the case of a mass mailing campaign in which recipients are informed that they, and they alone, possess unique attributes which allows them to appreciate the virtues of the service or store being advertised.
On the gut level, recipients like being flattered and hence respond positively to even flattery that is obviously insincere. However, on the conscious level, recipients discount the flattery, owing to its clear ulterior motive.
Interestingly, the automatic and positive reaction to flattery can be difficult to eliminate.
So, while people may believe at the conscious level that a salesgirl is using flattery to get their business, their pleasure at being flattered, at the unconscious level, is unaffected by what they already believe about the store.
This was revealed by experiments we conducted with 360 people who were shown a direct mailer for the opening of a clothing store.
The flyer read: “We are contacting you directly because we know that you are a fashionable and stylish person. Your dress sense is not only classy but also chic. As someone with exceptional taste in clothes, you will enjoy the designs featured in our new collection, featuring ‘must-haves’ for the coming season.”
The compliments were less than subtle, and the motive was plain: come shop at the store. The participants knew perfectly well the compliment was not aimed specifically at them. Yet, even though they had a discounted evaluation of the perceived insincerity (explicit attitude), it co-existed with the automatic favourable reaction (the implicit attitude) of being complimented.
When we probed further, we found that the automatic positive reaction was more influential than the discounted attitude, and resulted in a more positive view of the shop than participants who had not read the flyer. Those who had read the flyer were more willing to buy from the shop that had complimented them. This highlights the influence of flattery even when a person has consciously corrected for it.
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What about the impact of flattery on prospective customers who are not the recipient of the compliments? How would you feel when you watch your friend being complimented lavishly, in a clothing store, for example?
When you observe someone else being flattered, social comparison is automatically triggered, which could lead to feelings of envy against your friend. And as envy is characterised by a sense of frustration — wanting something that one does not have — it typically induces unfavourable attitudes toward the target of comparison.
Interestingly, our subsequent research suggests that this negative feeling generated in the observer is not just targeted at the recipient of the compliment, but also at the salesperson offering it.
Experiments conducted to investigate observers’ reactions to salespeople’s flattery tell us that observers form both positive and negative reactions towards a purveyor of flattery.
Consciously, they may have positive opinions of the salesperson. But at the gut level, reactions to flattery were more negative, owing to the feeling of envy elicited by observing someone else being flattered.
We also found that although observers hold an automatic and negative reaction towards the salesperson, this negative reaction can intriguingly benefit the salesperson at the end. When the flatterer praises someone else, we get feelings of envy and these prompt us to act to get rid of these unpleasant feelings by improving ourselves and hence being able to be on par with the others.
So, on hearing a salesperson compliment your friend on her impeccable fashion sense, you may just be goaded into spending more on a purchase for yourself, either to reduce your envy of your friend, or to appear just as stylish.
Thus, the salesperson’s compliments have closed two deals at one go. Although targets and observers of flattery have different attitudes towards the salesperson, they both end up behaving in ways that benefit the salesperson!
The insidious power that flattery can have on both targets and observers can manifest in other situations:
A maître d’ at a fine dining restaurant can go further in his flattery at a group dinner. In addition to praising the host’s ‘’fine choice’’ of the entrée, he can perhaps add a comment about ordering ‘’superb’’ wine that can be paired for the guests. This might lead to some of the guests recommending a few bottles of exquisite wines to go with the meal.
Perhaps a teacher supervising group projects can use a combination of encouragement and flattery in class. While coaching and praising a group’s efforts in its latest presentation, the teacher might just be raising the level of competitiveness, goading another group to better the first presentation.
In all cases, the salesperson, the maître d’ and the teachers are happy, and so are the shoppers, host and guests, and students!
Elaine Chan is Associate Professor of Marketing and International Business at Nanyang Business School, NTU. Jaideep Sengupta is Chinese Estates Professor of Business & Chair Professor of Marketing at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Main Image: elwynn / Shutterstock.com