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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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The society we live in is overpowered by consumerist culture that is heavily built on the power of dominating influence. Society is saturated with brands, marketing, social media outlets, celebrities and political groups; all vying for the biggest impact on their audience's attitudes. Although, many of these people or platforms rely on the power of images, ultimately those that appear to shape attitude change the most, are those that have mastered the power of persuasive language.   According to Perloff (2003), persuasion can be defined as "...a symbolic process in which communicators try to convince other people to change their attitudes (…) regarding an issue through (…) a message in an atmosphere of free choice."  A stalwart example of this can be seen in the recent rise of non-political and widely unpopular businessman, Donald Trump, now president of the United States of America.  Despite criticism worldwide he has successfully used the power of persuasion to convince the majority of states to elect him as their leader.  According to social psychologists there are several key areas of persuasion and when looking at Trump's campaign, it is clear to see, he has employed many of these tools outlined. This essay will focus on the ways the US president has utilized persuasion in order to enhance his administrative position in the United States government. In line with this, glittering generalities alongside the increased use of fear; the learning theory and Cialdini's Six Principles of Influence have been incredibly prevalent in Trumps' political agenda.  These techniques of persuasion will be accentuated throughout this essay.  


Key areas of persuasion used in Trump's campaign which led to his success included emotionally connecting with the masses incorporating anti-campaigning against established politicians such as the Clintons in an attempt to put himself in the same position as the voter.  This is supported by social psychologist, Darley et al (1977) whom claimed in his Attribution theory angle: ‘if the similar other agrees with your tentative judgment, you can feel more confident that the judgment is "correct"'; this allowed the majority of the voters to view Trump as a model of some of their own views.  However, despite Trump not promoting his credentials, he used name calling and glittering generalities to discard his opponent's, mirroring the politically disillusioned sentiments of the voter.  It has been proposed by Leon Festinger (1954) that we are ‘most likely to seek opinion comparisons with others who are similar to us'.  This is perhaps why Trump became relatable to the masses as throughout the 2016 election campaign Trump would regularly refer to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary”. By painting Clinton in a negative light, it brought attention to her flaws as secretary of state in the Obama White House which gave the public an indication that she could not be trusted.  Thus, Trump's method of name calling allowed the public to connect with a ‘like-minded' individual being himself, and led them to avoid seeking reasons to vote for Clinton instead.  Furthermore, I believe that his method of persuasion could also be viewed as perceived manipulation (Festinger et al, 1962); since his tactics were to challenge Clinton instead of directly portray his own power, this in turn put the limelight on himself as the better and more successful candidate. In addition, Trump uses the persuasive tool of name calling to evoke fear in the voter that the alternative option would be more dangerous. This is reinforced by Leippe et al (1991) whom found that fear generates positive ‘cognitive responses and consequent attitude change if participants [feel] vulnerable to threat'.  I believe that Trump heavily relies on making the public feeling vulnerable through his fearful claims as a motivator to achieve ‘resultant attitude change'.  


Another method to capitalise on fear in the campaign is the use of glittering generalities.  Advertising and politics are known for using this device in which vague phrases are repeatedly used to reinforce messages which carry very little or no evidence.  Magedah E. Shabo (2005) claimed that a ‘propagandist will intentionally use words with strong positive connotations and offer no real explanation' I believe that this might explain the power of Trump's vague slogan ‘Make America great again' (Trump, 2016) which not only appeals to the sympathies of a wide audience as logically most people want their country to be ‘great', but it also enforces a fear with the unsupported suggestion that voting a different way would make America not ‘great'.  However, he does not explain how or why America is not great or will become so.  This slogan used by Trump echoes a previous dictator in history, Adolf Hitler who used the recurrent slogan ‘Make Germany great again'.  The almost parallel slogan used portrays how influential the technique of glittering generalities can actually be; since such a simple statement can hold such great meaning.  Yet, Hitler reinforced in his book ‘Mein Kampf' (1933) that ‘these slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward'.  This perhaps demonstrates one of the reasons why Trump became president of the United States, as his constant reinforcement of his slogan may have convinced the majority that he would be successful to improve the conditions of America if elected.  To take this argument further, it could be argued that these repetitive and vague messages not only propagate votes but actually mirror techniques used in brain washing, otherwise known as coercive persuasion.  In a study on the Moonie's, the technique of brainwashing was used in recruiting, manipulating subjects into feeling that they had no free will but to join or remain in the group. By exclaiming that America needs to be made great again Trump could be accused of presenting the idea that there is no choice, similar to strategies used by the Moonies in removing ‘free will'.  


Examining this campaign's core statement further ‘Make America great again', it could be said that more than just arouse fear and subtly remove the appearance of choice, it also uses very simplistic assessable language.  When analysed closely it is just vague, but if only taken at face value and heard often enough, it is easy to digest and remember.  Carl Hovland, Yale psychologist formed the learning theory with his communication research project (Hovland et al., 1949).  His theory is that a ‘message can succeed in changing an audience's attitude if its arguments promote the belief that adopting the message's position will result in reinforcement'.  In order for this approach to work, a message therefore has to be simplistic so that retention of the message can form a new attitude.  Although political critics may argue that the language is simple because he is politically inexperienced; social psychologists would argue that it is an effective strategy as the learning theory would state easily comprehended messages are effective in persuasion and attitude change.  For example, Trump said: ‘I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I'll build them very inexpensively'.  Although addressing an important topic of building a division wall, he still uses basic language to do so alongside simple sentence structures.  His simplistic language provides a platform for the public to understand exactly what he promises to do and process it accordingly (Eagly and Chaiken, 1984) which convinces the majority that he will make these changes to America to lead it to becoming ‘great'.  Also he becomes relatable to the public as his speaking style is similar to the regular ‘folk' (Wilson, 2018).  Trump's simple but powerful speeches connect him with the public effectively thus portraying him to be a strong speaker.  In light of this, he accomplishes one of the main ancient criteria provided by Aristotle; stating that a strong speaker is more effective at influencing the audience through a persuasive message (Petty and Cacioppo, 1981).


Trump uses Cialdini's Six Principles of Influence to be both actively and passively persuasive.  These six principles (Cialdini, 2011) are as follows: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, scarcity.  By factoring in these different principles, it can aid the persuader to achieve what they want in their given situation.  Trump manages to employ all of the six principles in his campaign which may explain how he is a successful persuader and propagandist.  The first principle, reciprocation, says: ‘we should try to repay (…) what another person has provided us', this provides a just system and builds trust between individuals.  Thus, in relation to Trump, through his promises to citizens of the United States, such as lowering the corporate tax and making significant tax cuts; it encourages the voters to elect him as president in order to reciprocate the benefits he will provide.  Following on, consistency and commitment is linked to ‘our nearly obsessive desire to be consistent with what we have already done' as it is what we are used to and comfortable with.  For example, consumers are likely to purchase a product if they have previously been given a free trial of it as they have been persuaded to need the product.  Likewise, as Trump has been an iconic character previously in the United States, it has played to his advantage as he has continued to carry himself the same way he was presented on television.  Additionally, in regards to social proof, Trump notably employs it through the use of persuasive cues by presenting an image of popularity.  By reinforcing the idea that he is popular, quoting only polls he is the top of, for example, he creates a notion in a voter's mind that everyone else can be wrong but himself. Cialdini explored the idea that when social proof such as popularity is presented, high social media follower counts as a modern example, there is a false effect of ‘proof'.  Linked to social proof is the idea of authority, similar to Trump wanting his popularity and status to be know, his chance to flaunt how much money he makes takes the lead.  His constant need to promote that he is the alpha male and the most dominant candidate in the room relates to Cialdini's explanation stating that individuals are less likely to question and show more respect to an authority figure who makes their authority apparent.  On the other hand, despite Trump not considered to be a likeable character to many individuals, he still managed to persuade the voters to elect him and I believe this is due to him convincing the public that he will make a change and him only.  Therefore, his determination and persistence shown could have been the one of the main reasons which won the majority's votes.  Lastly, scarcity can be explained ‘as opportunities become less available, we lose freedom'; thus since Trump promised to make America ‘great' again, it would be too big of a risk to not give him a chance to do so as time is limited and I think the opposition was not as determined as him.  


To strengthen Trump's rapport with the public and ultimately making him the chosen president, his ingenious use of propaganda entices the voters to believe his claims and promises are true and will impact the lives of the nation.  According to the dictionary definition, propaganda is defined as: ‘information, often inaccurate information, which a political organization publishes (…) to influence people'.  Through Trump's many campaign promises, one that stood out was building a wall along the US-Mexican border; this however has not made any progress and most likely will not occur.  Yet, when he did make this claim to the public it was in attempt to convince the majority that he would persevere with what he promised; thus gaining power in his campaign.  This ties in with Balfour (1979) whom derived several categories of propaganda.  These are as follows: false statements made in the belief that they are true; deliberate lies; suggestion of falsehood; suppression of truth; the slanting of news.  The first two of these categories have been displayed in the previous example; in addition, Trump's use of falsehood has been continually demonstrated through his many lies in speeches which not necessarily have to be believable but when repeated so often they make him more credible.  Social psychologists Paul et al (2016) stated: ‘repetition leads to familiarity and familiarity leads to acceptance'.  Furthermore, his slander on the news is present through many of his interviews, one in which he said: ‘Just remember what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening, just stick with us.'  By Trump instigating that the media portrays inaccurate information, one could argue that he attempts to influence the majority by claiming that only what he states is the correct information.  In addition, his use of the first-person pronoun ‘us' promotes inclusivity and bonding as a nation as the members of the public would feel that he actually wants to make America ‘great' again.  Taylor (1979) supports this idea as he claims that you if you cannot determine a link between the propagandist and their audience then there is no propaganda present.  Thus, it is clear as Trump's ‘inaccurate information' through his promises has managed to ‘influence people' to vote for him as their president.


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