Neuro-linguistic Programming and Digital Marketing: Pseudoscience or Is There Something Behind It?
Over the past couple of years, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) seems to have been co-opted by a number of digital marketing gurus. It’s only fair to ask: is it a pseudoscience or is there something behind it? In this post, we’ll examine what NPL is, how it is being used in digital marketing, and how it differs from common rhetorical tactics such as presupposition and implicature.
What is NLP?
According to the Linguistic Society of America, neurolinguistics is “the study of how language is represented in the brain”. This fascinating area of study is intertwined with cognitive linguistics and psycholinguistics as it looks at how and where our brains store knowledge of languages and what happens when we acquire new knowledge.
The term ‘neuro-linguistic programming’ (NLP) was coined by University of California psychologists John Grinder and Richard Bandler as a way of describing how our thinking processes (neuro) and language (linguistic) can affect our behavior (programming). While neurolinguistics does overlap with NLP, the latter places an emphasis on how language can affect our body and our behavior.
Is NLP a pseudoscience?
That’s a legitimate question to ask. After all, some of NLP’s biggest proponents, such as professional pick up artist Neil Strauss, have limited scientific credibility and a worryingly relaxed attitude towards ethics. Applying NLP principles to influence who people choose to date (as in the case of Strauss’ book ‘The Game’) has proved highly controversial. However, much of the scientific research backing NLP is legitimate.
Why NLP has been co-opted by digital marketing gurus
The goal of all marketing and sales efforts is to influence people’s decisions and communicate a message more effectively to a target audience. It’s little surprise, therefore, that NLP has been seized upon as the missing piece of the digital marketing puzzle that might help train salespeople, copywriters, and marketers alike.
NLP is not only great for motivating people, it also fosters an atmosphere of positive thinking. Salespeople exposed to NLP ideology are therefore more likely to sharpen the same skill sets that might lead to positive results, regardless of whether NLP techniques work.
Do NLP techniques work?
Yes. Most NLP techniques are backed by solid amounts of scientific data. One of the most studied techniques is ‘framing’, which holds that wording a given statement in a positive light is far more likely to generate positive responses. As UC Berkeley professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science George Lakoff observed, “The choice of language is … vital because language evokes frames — moral and conceptual frames.”
The evidence shows that this NLP technique works. When one study asked participants to choose between ground meat that was ’75 per cent lean’ and another meat that was ’25 per cent fat’, most people chose the lean option despite both types of meat being essentially identical.
When it comes to marketing, framing helps significantly. Michael Aagaard was able to dramatically increase signup numbers for a gambling website (bettingexpert.com) by framing headlines more positively. He found that headlines featuring the phrase ‘Make more money’ were 40 per cent more effective than alternative headlines promising readers that they would ‘Lose less money’, despite both options offering the exact same betting tips and advice.
Sometimes negative framing works well too
While these two examples (as well as other studies) support the NLP principle that positively framed statements and headlines can work wonders for salespeople looking to convert, there’s also evidence that highlights the power of loss aversion, too. For instance, this study found that 61 per cent of women in a group who were shown a negatively framed video about breast cancer signed up for a mammogram. This was significantly more than the 51 per cent of women in another group who were shown a positively framed video.
Unfortunately, NLP doesn’t offer a cut and dry answer about which approach is best for a particular product, company or individual. Finding the right approach takes considerable amounts of research and testing.
How does NLP differ from common rhetorical tactics such as presupposition and implicature?
Some NLP tactics are borrowed from established rhetorical tactics that have been in common use since antiquity. A good example of this would be increasing the persuasiveness of text through the use of presuppositions. Many digital marketing gurus suggest this approach as a way of using NLP to maximize the impact of a text on its intended audience.
One well-known example of presuppositions in use was the notorious Protein World advert in the UK which featured an impossibly slim bikini-clad model next to the question; “Are you beach body ready?” The advert was roundly condemned as being sexist and generated a fair number of complaints, but its text was essentially a type of loaded question known as a presupposition.
According to the linguistic branch of pragmatics, presuppositions make an implicit assumption necessary for completing a thought, questions or statement. So, in the question, “Are you beach body ready?” the advert is implying that the viewer is headed to the beach and is likely to want to wear a bikini. It is also a good example of implicature as it implies that only those with slim bodies are able to wear bikinis.
This seems like a trivial technique, but it’s a powerful way of influencing the way that people remember adverts and marketing copy. Presuppositions and implicature are a good example of the way that NLP techniques borrow from established rhetorical tools.
While there is a significant body of evidence supporting the effectiveness of NLP techniques, there are clear similarities between some NLP techniques and established rhetorical tactics that copywriters have long used to influence readers’ decisions. NLP is more than pseudoscience and there is clearly something behind it, but when it comes to putting NLP techniques into practice, a solid knowledge of commonly used rhetorical devices will stand you in good stead.