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Chapter 13

The Rule of Association -- Create the Climate


It's not the situation. It's your reaction to the situation.


To maintain order of the world, our brains link objects, gestures, and symbols with our feelings, memories, and life experiences. We mentally associate ourselves with such things as endorsements, sights, sounds, colors, music, and symbols, just to name a few. This association allows us to make judgment calls when we don't have the required time to do thorough research.

Persuaders take advantage of association to evoke positive feelings and thoughts that correspond with the message they are trying to convey. In this sense, you, as a persuader, can actually arouse a certain feeling in your audience by finding the right association key to unlock the door. Associations are not the same for all people — obviously, each person has their own set of triggers. However, once you understand the general rules, you can find the right associations to match any prospect. And of course, some associations are universal for an entire culture.

The Rule of Association is constantly at work. If an audience likes a picture, a logo, or a musical jingle that appears in an advertisement for a product, they also tend to like the product. Why is it we must dress up for a job interview? It is because we know a slovenly appearance will bring into bearing certain unwanted assumptions or associations about us. Have you ever heard about past cultures where the messenger was actually killed when he brought back bad news? Why do you think it is that restaurants decorate a certain way, have their lighting a certain way, and play certain types of music? All these things are defined in the Rule of Association.

I remember having a corporate credit card when I was working for a certain unnamed corporation. The company had a nasty habit of not paying their bills. One day I got a phone call from a collection agency claiming that because my name was on the credit card, I was responsible for making the payments due. I informed the representative of the situation, but he was quite persistent. Of course, I was not responsible, but the interesting association was that the representative's name was Thor, the god of thunder (or so he said). The point is that if you want to create the feeling of a tough, persistent, strong person, then Thor is the perfect name to go by. Suppose his name had been Stanley or Herbert or Shannon instead? Not quite as threatening, are they?

The Amazing Power of Endorsements

We all know what endorsements are: Companies use famous people to pitch their products so we'll associate that individual and their success with the product. For example, Bill Cosby endorses Jell-O and Kodak, Michael Jordan pitches for Nike and Hanes underwear, and Tiger Woods does ads for Nike golf balls and Buick automobiles. We tend to like products, services, and ideas that are endorsed by people we like, regardless of the quality of the product. Sometimes, we will even buy a product for the first time simply based on a celebrity endorsement.

We naturally want to be associated with fame, fortune, and success. That is why we follow the lead of celebrities we admire, respect, and like. It's also why we use the products they endorse. It is amazing to see teenagers ignore their parents' warnings about drugs, but when their favorite star or professional athlete says it's not cool, they stop. This is the power of association.

All in all, the use of celebrities to endorse products is one of the most popular and effective associations marketers and advertisers use. Why do corporations spend tremendous resources to find the right spokesperson to bring the right association to their products? We hold our beliefs and attitudes to define and make sense of who we are. By shaving with the right razor or eating the right cereal, we are saying, "I am just like that ball player; I am part of the attractive "in group." By purchasing the "right stuff," we enhance our own egos. We rationalize away our inadequacies as we become just like our favorite celebrity."[1]

The critical factor in using a celebrity endorsement is creating an emotional tie or association between the consumer and the athlete/celebrity. The athlete or celebrity's positive associations have been transferred to the product or service.[2] Wearing the same shoes or driving the same car as their hero allows consumers to identify and associate with their idols.

There is a downside to using celebrities to promote products and services, however. Anytime a celebrity gets negative press, that association also tends to carry over to the products and companies they promote. In such cases, depending on the severity of the circumstances, the celebrities are usually dropped like hot potatoes. Michael Jackson was once an endorser for Pepsi until he was accused of child molestation. The company was quick to pair its product with someone else. Tonya Harding, the Olympic figure skater, was a Nike endorser until she was convicted of assault on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan. Mike Tyson was also an endorser for Pepsi until he was convicted of rape. O.J. Simpson was once the spokesman for Hertz car rentals until he went on trial for a double murder.

[1]A. Pratkanis and E. Aronson, Age of Propaganda (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1992), p. 93.

[2]G. E. Belch and M. A. Belch, Advertising and Promotion: An Integrated Marketing Communications Perspective (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998).

Anchors: Capture the Feeling

Anchoring is a technique that captures the feelings, memories, and emotions of certain events, places, or things. The psychology behind the technique lies in the use of elements from a previous situation or circumstance to replay the emotions and feelings of that experience.

An anchor can be anything that brings up a thought or feeling and reminds you of something you have previously experienced. It will usually reproduce the exact emotion or feeling you experienced at the time. Remember the experiment of Pavlov's dog? It's the same idea: You use a certain stimulus to create an association that will bring about a particular response. An anchor can be produced either externally or internally. Anchors don't have to be conditioned over a period of several years to be established. They can be learned in a single event. The more powerful the experience, the stronger the anchor will be. Phobias are an excellent example: Most phobias are established after one single, intense experience. Here we'll talk about three different sets of anchors: smells, music, and symbols. There are other elements (sights and taste) that can be used as anchors, but these three anchors are the most powerful stimuli in evoking memories in our minds.

Smells: The Aroma of Persuasion

Our sense of smell is so powerful that it can quickly trigger associations with memories and emotions. Our olfactory system is a primitive sense that is wired directly to the center of our brain. By four to six weeks, infants can tell the difference between their own mother's scent and that of a stranger.[3]

Almost everyone has experienced situations in which a smell evoked a nostalgic (or not so nostalgic) memory. Think of the smells that take you back to your childhood. For some it is the smell of fresh baked bread, of freshly cut grass, or of the neighborhood swimming pool, etc. You can go back fifty years in a matter of seconds with the sense of smell.

Fragrances, aromas, and odors trigger memories, feelings, and attitudes in our minds. Smell can enhance or reinforce desired responses as well as positive and negative moods. There are multiple examples of this. Supermarkets with bakeries fill the air with the warm aroma of breads and coffee. Some children's stores send baby powder through the air ducts. When you walk through the mall, the food merchants will make sure you smell their cookies, cinnamon rolls, and Chinese food. Real estate agents are famous for having homeowners bake bread before they have interested buyers tour the house. Large amusement parks will pipe in certain scents at certain times of the day to trigger responses and get immediate reaction. The use of smell in these instances is an attempt to link the seller's products and services with a positive attitude, thereby inducing the shopper to buy. In the same way, you can link positive smells with your message to create a positive attitude in your prospects.

There have been numerous studies conducted on the bearing scent and fragrance have on association. A 1983 study conducted among undergraduate students found that female students wearing perfume were rated as more attractive by male students.[4] Scents were even found to improve scores on job evaluations in a study published by the Journal of Applied Psychology.[5] Of course, offensive odors can also be used (and actually have been used) to evoke a negative response. This technique was once used while campaign committees were rating and appraising political slogans. Not surprisingly, ratings for the slogans went down.[6]

Music: Feel the Beat

Music is much like smells in that our brains link music with attitudes and experiences from our past. Music is closely tied to our emotions. Think of the theme music from Rocky and then think of Jaws; the two movie themes evoke different emotions, don't they? Local gyms pipe upbeat music outside to get passersby to associate it with high energy and good times inside. In one case, a local convenience store had problems with teenagers loitering outside. The store owners wanted the teenagers business, but didn't want the drugs and fights that seemed to go with it. They decided to play a Frank Sinatra song outside the store and soon found that the teenagers voluntarily stopped loitering.[7] You may still remember the particular song that played during the dance with your high school flame. Music has a powerful pull on us and triggers instant memories.

Because music is so powerful, persuaders need to carefully select the music they're going to use. Advertisers often use a popular song or a catchy jingle. Notice the next time you watch television how many songs you recognize from all the commercials — you will be surprised. Every time the ad is played, the tune reinforces the product's appeal. Music is universal because it has the power to evoke the emotions shared by all of humanity. We know music can soothe the savage beast or create instant energy and excitement.

The Might of Symbols

We live in an especially symbolic world. Symbols bypass our thoughts and our logic and they affect our perceptions and behaviors. Take gold, for example. As one of the world's most precious metals, gold is very symbolic of wealth and success. Countless stories are told of the search for gold. But, if you stop and think about it, there are other precious metals that are harder to find and far more precious. Gold, however, just holds a certain symbolism; it denotes success and wealth.

Symbols can also help us understand and feel a message without actually having to undergo the experience. For example, a skull and crossbones on poison says it all — we don't have to ingest the poison to know of the fatal experience. The simple symbol of a red stop sign triggers an automatic response. For many, the sight of a police car on the highway will also trigger the automatic braking response.

Think of these symbols as you read the list and pay attention to the feelings, memories, attitudes, and experiences they trigger in your mind:

When you are trying to mold attitude as a persuader, it is useful to know how symbols shape the attitudes of your audience. Make careful study and research of the symbols you want to use before you employ them. If used well, they will influence your audience's feelings and behavior to your benefit. Marketing and advertising executives use symbols in a very sophisticated way to manipulate consumers. For example, did you know that the average child recognizes McDonald's' arches before he or she is even twenty months old?[8] There are symbols of freedom, symbols of success, and symbols of poverty. Find and use the symbols you need to create the proper association with your prospect.

[3]M. Schleidt and B. Hold, "Human Odour and Identity," in Olfaction and Endocrine Regulation, W. Breipohl, editor (London: IRL Press, 1982), pp. 181– 194.

[4]Robert A. Baron, "Sweet Smell of Success: The Impact of Pleasant Artificial Scents on Evaluations of Job Applicants," Journal of Applied Psychology 68 (1983): 709–713.


[6]G. H. S. Razran, "Conditioned Response Changes in Rating and Appraising Sociopolitical Slogans," Psychological Bulletin 37 (1940): 481.

[7]Doug Murphy. See:

[8]David Leonhardt, with Kathleen Kerwin, "Hey Kid, Buy This!" Business Week, June 30, 1997.

Affiliation: Create the Link

Another aspect of the Rule of Association is the use of affiliation. Persuaders want you to affiliate their company with positive images, feelings, and attitudes. We tend to affiliate our feelings with our surroundings and environment and then transfer our feelings to those we are with.

For example, one frequently used technique is to take the prospect to lunch. Why? Because people like whom they are with and what they experience while they are eating (if the food and company are good). The idea is to link something positive in the environment with your message. For example, a good game of golf, a weekend at the beach, NFL tickets, or an exotic cruise would all typically build positive associations and feelings in your prospects. Do you remember ever noticing how, after a crushing victory, sweatshirts sporting the university's logo were seen all over the place? People want to be associated with winners. In fact, a study showed that when a university football team won, more students would wear that college's sweatshirts. The bigger the victory, the more college sweatshirts become visible. When you bring positive stimuli into the situation, you will be associated with the pleasant feeling you have created.

We are now going to discuss the four different affiliation techniques that are most often used: advertising, sponsorships, images, and color. Each of these has a unique role in affiliation.

Advertising: The Billion Dollar Persuasive Industry

Advertisers and marketers use affiliation to evoke valuable associations in the minds of their prospects. They know that babies and puppy dogs automatically carry great associations of warmth and comfort in the minds of their audience. Consequently, we see tire commercials with babies and car commercials with puppies, even though cars and tires aren't really warm and cuddly. These warm appeals grab our attention and create positive associations in our mind.

Want some other examples? Consider some of the popular slogans: "Like a good neighbor," "The same as home-style cooking," "Like a rock," and "The breakfast of champions." Using slogans in this way, marketers are able to readily create positive feelings and associations without having to create a new image. They simply create even stronger and more positive associations with what already exists.

One of the most common examples of advertising affiliation occurs in the alcohol and cigarette industries. How often do you see a lung cancer patient in a cigarette ad? Instead, advertisers in these industries use young vibrant people who are in the prime of their lives. The beer companies want you to associate drinking beer with having fun and attracting the opposite sex. Their ads portray images of men and women having fun, while surrounded by beer. Their message is, "If you aren't drinking, you aren't having fun." On an intellectual level, we all know that these are just advertisements, but the associations they arouse in us stick in our minds.

When companies need to change their image, they usually find a good cause to latch on to. They will typically find a good social or environmental issue they can tap into. For example, an ice cream company advertises their support for an environmental movement, or yogurt companies start a campaign to stop breast cancer. You also see patriotic endorsements being employed to create a positive association in your mind. The simple sight of the American flag, or the phrases "Buy American" and "Made in America," can trigger instant positive associations.

In the 1970s, the big American car still dominated the U.S. automobile scene. American carmakers had no fear of imported automobiles. There was a tradition in most families to always buy the same make of car. Imports were associated with being cheap, unreliable, and a waste of money. When the baby boomers came along, however, they became better educated and they refused to blindly follow the guidelines laid out by their parents. They viewed imports as having better gas mileage, greater reliability, and lower prices. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, the negative association shifted suddenly from foreign cars to gas-guzzling American-made cars, and the rest is history. American carmakers were almost put out of business by this shift, and they, still to this day, lose big market share to imported cars. As the tide turned, American car companies had to learn to make new associations with their cars.

Sponsorship: Lasting Impact

Closely related to advertising is the notion of sponsorship. Companies and organizations sponsor events that they believe will produce a positive association in the eyes of the public. They hope this positive association will transfer over to their company. The Olympic Games pull huge sponsorships — companies pay big money to get their name and products associated with the Olympics. What company wouldn't want to be associated with peace, unity, perseverance, determination, success, and winning the gold? The affiliations that companies create for us are very strong and memorable.

Let's try an experiment: Think about the following beverages and pay attention to the images that come to your mind while you do so.

Try doing the same thing with the following cars:

Now try it with these companies and institutions:

The companies themselves created these images and aroused feelings in you. Of course, we are affected by our environment and our experience, but we are also affected by the images these companies create for themselves and their products. Everything we buy symbolizes something.

Images: How to Get Through Their Guard

The images we see create attitudes within us. It is no random accident that most U.S. presidents have pet dogs in the White House. Consciously and unconsciously, we believe a loving, obedient, trusting dog creates a positive image of its owner. Voters would be more likely to reject a politician who preferred cats, hamsters, snakes, ferrets, or tarantulas.

It really isn't a secret that we are abundantly influenced by imagery when making everyday decisions. We are much more likely to donate to someone wearing a Santa Claus suit than to someone in street attire. We are more trusting of a sales rep wearing a gold cross around his neck. Sports bars decorate their walls with jerseys and other sports paraphernalia.

Credit card companies are among the greatest users of imagery and association. Because credit cards give us immediate gratification without us having to face the negative consequences until weeks later, we often think of the perceived positive associations before the negative ones. Consumer researcher Richard Feinberg conducted several different studies testing the effects credit cards had on our spending habits. He came across some very interesting results. For example, he found that restaurant patrons gave higher tips when using a credit card as opposed to cash. In another case, consumers were found to show a 29 percent increase in their willingness to spend when the merchandise was examined in a room displaying MasterCard signs. More interesting still was the fact that the subjects were unaware that the MasterCard signs were an intentional and calculated part of the experiment.

Feinberg discovered the same results when subjects were asked to donate to a charity. When the room contained the MasterCard insignias, 87 percent donated, as compared to only 33 percent donating when the room did not contain such signs. Ironically, credit cards were not accepted for making donations. The study produced startling evidence of how associations can be used to create greater compliance. A simple image, with its related associations, caused the subjects to be more liberal with the cash they had on hand.[9]

Color Triggers

Countless hours of research indicate that color does matter. Notice how fast food restaurants, schools, and professional sports teams all choose certain colors that "represent" them. You already know that colors can suggest a mood or attitude, but did you also know that color accounts for 60 percent of the acceptance or rejection of an object or a person?[10] These impressions don't change overnight. We all have automatic color triggers and hidden associations about various colors. Color impacts our thinking, our actions, and our reactions. Armed with this knowledge, we must take into account the association of colors in our persuasion and marketing efforts.

Color is a great persuasive device. Since we don't perceive what is happening, we don't develop a resistance to persuasive color techniques. This process happens at a completely subconscious level. Color is critical in marketing, in advertising, and in product packaging. Colors are not just for appearance — they have significance. The favorite food colors are red, yellow, orange, and brown.[11] These colors trigger automatic responses in our nervous system and stimulate our appetite. Fast food restaurants decorate with shades of red, yellow, and orange. These hues are known as "arousal colors" because they stimulate the appetite and encourage you to eat faster. Compare these bright colors to the calming colors found in fine restaurants. These restaurants tend to use greens and blues in their design schemes, colors which encourage you to stay and linger.

Colors can also be used to attract our attention. The shades that grab our attention are reds and oranges. The challenge is that each color has multiple meanings; one person might draw one meaning while another person might conclude an entirely different meaning. Red can be exciting to one group and mean "unprofitable" to another. To others it could signal "stop" or "danger." Red can denote boldness, aggressiveness, and extroversion, but it also represents anger, danger, sin, and blood. Yellow is known as a fast color and is the first color to register in the brain. Yellow causes you to be alert and watchful. The results of such research explain why new fire trucks and fire hydrants are being painted yellow. An interesting study on the use of color occurred at the U.S. Naval Correctional Center in Seattle, Washington. The entire holding cell was painted pink, except for the floor. Many inmates at this stage of confinement were hostile and violent. The cell was painted pink to see whether the color would have a calming effect on the prisoners. Each person was only held ten to fifteen minutes a day in these pink cells. After 156 days of constant use, there were no incidents of erratic behavior in the inmates.[12]

What about the color of the pills you take? Research has shown that the color of medicine can change the perception or association of the pill. When scientists studied the drugs people took and the associations they formed of them based on their colors, they found that most people felt white pills were weak while black ones were strong. In another study, researchers gave blue and pink placebos to medical students, who were told the pills were either stimulants or sedatives. The students taking the pink pills felt more energy while the students taking the blue pills felt drowsy.

Color even enhances the perceived flavor and desirability of the food we eat. For example, orange juice with enhanced orange hue was preferred over naturally colored orange juice and was thought to be sweeter. This was also true for strawberries, raspberries, and tomatoes. The redder they looked, the more they were preferred.[13]

In one experiment, the flavor of coffee was manipulated by the color of the serving container. Two hundred people were asked to judge coffee served out of four different containers — red, blue, brown, and yellow. All containers contained the same brand of coffee, yet the coffee in the yellow container was found to be "too weak." The blue container coffee was dubbed "too mild." Seventy-five percent of respondents found the coffee in the brown container to be "too strong" while 85 percent found the red container coffee to be "rich and full-bodied."[14] A similar experiment was also done with women and facial creams. Subjects were given pink and white face creams, which were identical except for their color. One hundred percent of the women surveyed said that the pink cream was more effective and milder on sensitive skin.[15]

In another experiment, researchers gave subjects laundry detergent to test for quality. Of course, all of the boxes contained the exact same detergent, but the outsides of the boxes were different colors. The test colors were yellow, blue, and a combination of both. After a two-week testing period, the test groups reported that the soap in the yellow boxes was "too harsh" and the detergent in the blue boxes was "too weak." The detergent in the combination yellow and blue boxes was "just right." The findings indicated that the yellow represented strength while the blue represented antiseptic power.[16]

Original research into Cheer laundry detergent produced similar results. Louis Cheskin conducted research on three different color flecks in Cheer: red, blue, and yellow. Again, the detergent was the same, but the colors were different. As the research unfolded, subjects determined that the yellow flecks did not clean clothes enough, the red flecks were too strong, and the blue flecks were best for cleaning clothes. Colors play a large role in the success of a product, its packaging, or its persuasive ability. Color communicates and triggers emotions, moods, thoughts, and actions, all without words.[18]

Explore the following list to see some common color associations:

[9]R. Feinberg, "Credit Cards As Spending Facilitation Stimuli," Journal of Consumer Research (1986): 348–356.

[10]K. Fehrman and C. Fehrman, Color: The Secret Influence (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000), 141.

[11]Ibid, p. 142.

[12]Ibid, pp. 12-13.

[13]Ibid, p. 84.

[14]Ibid, p. 144.

[15]Ibid, p. 144.

[16]Ibid, p. 145.

[18]Ibid, p. 145.

Use Association to Persuade and Influence

The Rule of Association is a powerful tool in helping you influence and persuade your audience. If used correctly, you will be able to create the desired feelings, emotions, and behavior in your prospects. It is in this way that you can use association to bring about the best experiences and create a persuasive environment. Whatever your subject is drawn to, impressed by, or desirous of, seek to incorporate it into your message, your product, or your service.

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