Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Spring, 1998

Infomercial Mania

Analysis by
Jonathan Batt, Julie Bollmer
Riki Evans & Jamie Schlabach

dilbert980121634218.gif (15818 bytes)
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Dilbert by Scott Adams, 2/18,19/98


    Anyone who has ever found themselves awake at 3:00 A.M. on a Sunday morning, has undoubtedly stopped on an infomercial while randomly surfing through the television channels. What made you stop and watch? The Dilbert comic from above demonstrates some of the more common techniques employed by infomercials. Infomercials use several tactics of social influence including reciprocation, consistency, liking and friendship, and authority. These techniques will be explored further in the following analysis.

    One type of social influence that infomercials frequently use to lure consumers towards their product or service is reciprocity. Reciprocity can be defined as the tendency for human beings to feel obligated to return a behavior that they have received from another. Individuals that work in the commercial industry realize this human tendency exists, and therefore often take advantage of it in order to gain compliance from consumers. Cialdini (1995), in a discussion on techniques of social influence, defines the principle of reciprocation for compliance as the fact that people are more willing to comply with a request from someone who has already provided them with a favor or concession. A more specific type of reciprocation that is often used in the infomercial business is the ''that's-not-all" technique. A salesperson using this technique would present a product or a service at a specific price, but instead of allowing the consumer to respond, the salesperson then adds something to make the deal seem even better. For example, in the Dilbert cartoon, Dogbert uses this technique to persuade viewers to comply with his investment proposal. He first makes his offer, and then, before the viewer can respond, Dogbert makes the deal seem better by offering to include information on weight loss. According to research (Burger, 1986), this technique works in part because the viewer sees the salesperson, in this case Dogbert, as entering into a type of negotiation by offering an additional product. The viewer then feels an increased obligation to purchase the product, or in this case make an investment, in order to reciprocate the salesperson''s negotiating action. This technique has been found to be quite successful in gaining consumer compliance as some of our class members discovered. Many of them worked summer jobs in sales positions that required them to use this technique when selling products to people over the phone.

    Another social influence that was depicted in the Dilbert strip was the consistency rule. A fundamental inducement of human behavior is the desire to be consistent in both our actions and our thought processes. Commitment is the force that facilitates this compliance, as once a position is taken, there is a natural tendency to act in manners consistent with that belief (Greenwald, Carnot, Beach, & Young, 1987). The consistency rule states ''after committing oneself to a position, one should be more willing to comply with requests for behaviors that are consistent with that position" (Cialidini, 1995; p.264). The specific sales technique depicted in the Dilbert strip, is the low-ball technique, which often is employed by automobile salesmen. By introducing fantastic claims, or offering extravagant deals, salesmen hope to obtain the commitment of their consumers to buy, as they know once this decision is made, the customer is unlikely to annul the transaction. Even if the salesman modifies his/her original claim, the consumer frequently will purchase the product anyway as a result of the inner commitment to the specific item in question. This phenomenon was demonstrated in class with the testimony of buying a car. A friend of one of the class member''s decided to purchase a car for a given price; nonetheless, when she was ready to sign, the dealer added $1500 to his original deal. Additional research has shown that if a single requester employs the low-ball technique, this sales strategy will enlarge its effect (Burger & Petty, 1981).

    When Dogbert insinuated $1000 a month for a whole year could be made, he hopes the potential consumer will commit themselves to purchase the information about his no-load funds, thereby allowing him to later add an extra stipulation of $13,000. With the new stipulation, the investor'' will incur a net-loss of $1000. Undiscerning viewers, such as the individual depicted in the final frame, become enticed with the prospect of easy money '', and often forget that if a deal seems too good to be true, it usually is. This was exemplified when one class member explained how he was lured into door-to-door sales on the premise that it would pay $10.25 an hour. However, after the final calculations were performed, including driving time, speed of presentation, etc., the actual salary was much less than was initially promised. Yet, he followed through and sold the product for the entire summer.

    Another technique of social influence used by sales forces is increasing the friendship and likable aspects of the spokesperson. Two ways of accomplishing this goal of attempting to persuade consumers are physical attractiveness and similarity. Cialdini (1995) suggests that using people that are physically attractive can be a useful method of persuasion as physical attractiveness can increase the likability of a salesperson. In our class discussion, certain class members felt that this was true as they enjoyed watching advertisements with attractive spokesmodels. However, it was felt that this effect was limited and other factors besides physical attractiveness were involved. Another issue the class raised was that attractiveness may only be influential if the spokesperson''s attributes match the product, such as Michael Jordan selling Gatorade or shoes. When he tried to sell batteries people viewed him as ''selling out" and did not see a match between him and his product. Research by Kamins (1990) showed that the physical attractiveness of the spokesperson may only enhance the persuasion of the product that they are attempting to sell if it is consistent with the product''s characteristics.

    In addition to physical attractiveness, similarity also plays a role in the likability aspect of social influence. For example, in the Dilbert cartoon, Dogbert is perceived as a common, everyday, hardworking individual with which potential viewers can identify. Cialdini (1995) discusses the fact that we like people who are similar to us; therefore, if the viewer sees himself as a hardworking individual, he is more likely to identify with Dogbert and invest his money.

    A final technique of social influence employed by the Dilbert cartoon and many infomercials is that of authority. Whether it is the host or just a guest appearance, the expert is of great importance to the infomercial's success. In the cartoons, the portrayal of Dogbert sitting behind the desk shows him as an authority with power and expertise when it comes to investments. People are easily influenced by an authority figure, as we will often follow their suggestions or buy their products because we trust their advice (Ford & Johnson, 1996). We started trusting authority figures the day we were born. Parents and teachers knew more then us, and we followed their advise, which proved beneficial (Cialdini, 1995). So today as adults, we still follow others who know more then us. Informercials take advantage of this when they use these experts to do their advertising. A good example is Richard Simmons. Everyone knows he is an expert on health and weight loss, so he is a very influential person. Simmons convinces millions of people to buy his videos or his programs because of his authority.

    In conclusion, the class felt that infomercials exemplified many aspects of social influence techniques. To summarize the class discussion, a brief segment of an infomercial was used to make the cartoon come to life. Although the clip was less than a minute in length, it demonstrated all of the aforementioned approaches to social influence. For example, reciprocity was found, as well as consistency, liking, and authority. In conjunction with the Dilbert cartoon, this video illustrates the persuasive power that informercials have on consumers, so that hopefully when one is made aware the social influence techniques, they will be a better informed consumer and will be less likely to fall prey to the suggestive capability of infomercials.


    Burger, J. M. (1986). Increasing compliance by improving the deal: The that's not all technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 277-283.

    Burger, J.M. & Petty, R.E. (1981) The low-ball compliance technique: Task or person commitment? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 492-500.

    Ford, R. & Johnson, C. (1996). Dependence power, legitimacy, and tactical choice. Social Psychology Quarterly, 59, 126-139.

    Greenwald, A. F., Carnot, C.G., Beach, R., & Young, B. (1987). Increasing voting behavior by asking people if they expect to vote. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, 315-318.

    Kamins, M. A. (1990). An investigation into the ''match-up" hypothesis in celebrity advertising: When beauty may only be skin deep. Journal of Advertising, 19, 4-13.

    Tesser, A. (1995).  Advanced Social Psychology. McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York.

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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Thursday, April 18, 2002 at 15:17:10 . This document has been accessed 540+   1 times since 1 Jan 1998. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman