Social Influence in Media – Art or Science?

Guest Blog 3 – Anand Chandrasekharan

When I was in India recently, I heard about several younger actors aspiring to the title of Superstar. Having grown up in Tamilnadu, I know that is a title Rajnikanth has been holding on to for two decades. The aspirants have several things going for them, and have created varying degrees of influence and acceptance among the public and in the industry.

One of the best books I have read, Robert Cialdini‘s Influence, came to mind immediately. It presents social influence not as an art but as a science – a combination of six simple human psychological tendencies, based on years of experiments that provide insights into consumer behavior.

No better industry to apply it to than to media – one where careers are made or broken based on consumer whims and social acceptance by the public. It’s hard to think of many artists who have been successful without one or more of these techniques working for them subconsciously. The six techniques and some garnishing in terms of who it may have worked for (or not) are:

1. RECIPROCITY: People generally tend to respond to a small favor with a larger one. Rajnikanth is a good example of an actor for whom the reciprocity factor and his direct relationship with his fans and the public has worked wonders. In addition to making it work for him, he has also shown what a powerful factor of influence it can be.

2. COMMITMENT AND CONSISTENCY: People tend to believe in something and do everything they can to stick to it. For instance, Hollywood actor Jim Carrey fell flat on his face as a serious actor because the public wanted to stay true to their long standing belief that he was only a comedy actor. This type of pigeon-holing does not help an artiste’s cause, and artistes trying to reinvent themselves have to take the commitment and consistency factor very seriously.

3. SOCIAL ACCEPTANCE: People tend to accept things they believe their peers have accepted. Artistes who have benefited from this factor include directors Mani Ratnam and Shankar. This factor has also worked well for Steven Spielberg. Their universal themes that resonate with people’s daily lives and their ability to consistently appeal to the public with their stories have rightfully earned them the social acceptance they have today.

4. LIKING: People tend to be swayed by people they like. Traditionally, MGR has benefited immensely from this trend as has NT Rama Rao. Audiences in Andhra apparently still identify Lord Krishna with characterizations by NTR during his acting days. Shah Rukh Khan in Bollywood and Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp have all had this factor work to their advantage.

5. AUTHORITY: People tend to respect people who have been perceived as leaders or figures of authority in their chosen fields. The Passion of the Christ and The Lord of the Rings are two recent films that have benefited from positioning themselves as the authority in portraying themes that people already have intense emotional connection with (the last hours of Christ, JRR Tolkien’s trilogy). Amitabh Bachchan (father figure of Bollywood), Aamir Khan (perfectionist with intense focus on his roles), Shekhar Kapur (unique understanding of the trends behind Asian entertainment) and Charlie Kauffman (a unique ability to delve into the working of the human mind) are some of the many artists who have made this factor work for them, leading the public to trust them immensely.

6. SCARCITY: People tend to take whatever is scarce seriously. Good cinema is scarce and Kamal Hasan has made his career from consistently taking risks to deliver new roles, try new things and in the process raise the standards that audiences use to rate good cinema in the South. Needless to say, there are quite a few examples of such artistes in the west – Rowan Atkinson and Woody Allen being two examples that come to mind. Another angle to this factor is overexposure, something that has not served artistes well unless done in combination with the reciprocation factor in mind.

Comments and other examples of how these factors have worked in the industry are obviously welcome!

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