The social proof of Alan Partridge

Written by Tim Gowing

The return of the Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon has been this week’s saviour of my tedious commute. It has also prompted me to dig out and watch a few classic Partridge episodes I had on itunes. For some reason watching them on the tube with my ear phones in I really picked up the canned laugher – something I hadn’t really given much thought to before.

In Bob Cialdini’s classic book ‘Influence’ he points to human beings need for ‘social proof’- We need to see other people doing something first before we feel comfortable doing it ourselves. We like to be around people like us and we like to be like them.

So this made me think – Is Alan actually as funny as I think he is? Or have I just been manipulated by the programme makers?

The concept of social proof is certainly nothing new and I feel its influence is demonstrated well in this light hearted clip:

Following on from this I have been looking in more detail into the concept of social conformity to see how people’s behaviour is influenced by groups. A great example of how vulnerable we can be was shown in a series of experiments conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. Watching the reaction of the subjects as they listens to others give the wrong answers is fascinating. Watching what they do, even more so.

You don’t have to look too far to see how different brands are using social proof and conformity – be it BBC news indicating the ‘most read’ articles, Amazon telling us what other buyers have also bought, or the PR around the queue for the latest Apple product.

This certainly gives food for thought for marketers and researchers alike, whether we are looking at potential levers to pull to influence behaviour or indeed how we accurately evaluate consumers’ attitudes and opinions.

There is a darker side to social conformity and you can find many examples on the internet such as how cults and extreme politics exploit this human weakness – these may be extremes, but it does raise the question of acceptability and the impact on a brand if consumers ended feeling up duped.

I feel the big question is where do we as marketers draw the line – where does it cross from being a legitimate tool into exploitation?

Oh, and yes Alan is funny.