Marketing Tactics and the Law of Reciprocity

A recent event that occurred while I stopped at traffic lights reminded me of the book “Influence” by Robert Cialdini. In this book Cialdini gives some great tactics on how to sell and influence. Since marketing and sales are intertwined, I had to marvel at how clever the law of reciprocity is when put into action and how easy it can be put into action and invoked by almost anyone.

While I think that it’s a terrible rule when you are caught in it, it is extremely powerful and has some big implications for businesses of all kinds.

A Powerful Tactic That Anyone Can Use

A great example of how powerful it can be is when I had stopped the car at traffic lights. While stationery, I noticed that there were a couple of guys washing the windows of cars in front of me. Unfortunately for me, after the guy finished cleaning the car in front of me, he made his way towards me – obviously with the intention of washing my windscreen. As he approached me, I shook my head and mouthed the word “no.”

To my horror, the man started washing my windscreen unsolicited. This then left me with a dilemma – to pay or not to pay. I hate getting trapped like that.

Since this gesture was uninvited, I decided not to pay. I wasn’t trying to be tight – I just don’t like rewarding people for not respecting my boundaries and this dude had clearly crossed the line. I had clearly indicated I did not want my windscreen washed yet he chose to do it anyway.

After he finished cleaning my window I kept my window closed and refused to pay the man. To my absolute ire, the car behind me obviously decided I should pay him so they honked their horn, rolled down the window and paid the man for washing my car whilst at the same time refusing treatment on their car.

I had failed. I had violated the law of reciprocity and even though I had tried not to play that game.

What is the Law of Reciprocity?

The law of reciprocity rule says that we should try and repay in kind what another person has provided us.

This means we are obliged to give something back in return in the future. Even worse, if we fail to comply we are rejected socially. Basically a person who violates the reciprocity rule by accepting without attempting to return the good acts of others is actively disliked by the social group.

The car behind me hated me because in view my windscreen was washed and the man did not receive a return gift.  So they paid for me. Then in an act of good will (rejection then retreat technique), the man accepted their request not to clean their windscreen.

Its almost a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  The interesting thing is that what happened to me was not that unusual.

Businesses Have Been Using this Method for Years.

Think about the last time a business invited you out:

  • To dinner
  • To a box at the MCG
  • Given you a free gift such as wine at Christmas
  • Supplied morning tea
  • and much more

Or what about when you receive a free sample in the mail. Or when you are given a free food sample when shopping. I bet you feel obligated to buy the thing that you tried.

The thing is that this rule is powerful and can be applied by almost anyone. Ironically this is an area where many fundraisers get it wrong.

Imagine how much more money would be raised if fundraisers gave a little gift to people passing by and then asked them for a donation. I bet you they would make more money.

It’s worth testing this.  Anyone want their car washed today?