Analyzing PR Principles

The purpose of public relations is to communicate and relate to people.  There are messages and marketing opportunities available, but there is a science behind this communication and art form.  This science can be outlined through six different principles of influence. Different psychological studies have shown the effectiveness of the science, and we will look at how Volkswagen implemented some of these techniques into its marketing.

The Six Principles of Influence

Dr. Robert Cialdini outlined six principles of persuasion or influence.  This is part of the science behind public relations and marketing.  The six principles include reciprocation, social proof, commitment and consistency, liking, authority, and scarcity, and each principle appeals to a need within the person. Effectively relating to your audience increases engagement, participation, and conversion rates in business (Robert Cialdini - The 6 Principles of Influence 2011).

Reciprocation can be easily understood as returning the favor. A free trial or sample can create a sense of indebtedness to buy the product or service; however, social proof focuses on the effects of group behavior and influence.  This can be simplified by looking at consumer interactions. A consumer who has multiple friends with a certain brand of shoe is likely to buy that same brand of shoe. These are types of conformity that draw on social appropriateness and a sense of belonging.

Commitment and consistency focuses on a consumer’s values. People do not like to back out of deals, and they like to be acknowledged for their commitment. Praising someone for his past decisions and encouraging him towards continuing the trend can work tremendously in customer retention, but liking (showing similarities to previous decisions, having similar names, being attractive, or being similar to the customer) can influence customers to change products or decisions.  Researching a customer’s preferences and previous decisions can impact success in influence because these topics focus on a customer’s likeliness to maintain his status quo and avoid change.

Authority is an ingrained principal from birth. Consumers, as infants, looked for guidance from their parents or caretakers when they did not know what to do. This was further supported in education, asking teachers for assistance and clarification.  The onus was put on the authority figure for decision-making purposes.  This differs from scarcity because the supplier, or authoritative figure, is not giving a recommendation or instruction.  The authoritative figure provides a limit in availability.  This increases the product’s demand since the supply is limited. Both these principles deal with someone who has a perceived control over the customer in relation to their behavior or product availability.

Principles in Action: Volkswagen

Volkswagen uses each of the six principles of influence on its website.  Offering customers cash incentives demonstrates reciprocity. Providing results from known consumer guides like Car and Driver lends credibility through social proof.  Volkswagen has a “Find A Match” tab that allows potential customers to find a car that meets the customer’s personalized needs.  This is a strong implementation of liking.  Providing safety accolades strengthens Volkswagen’s marketing using the authority principal, and they include advertisements focusing on limited time availability to create a sense of scarcity, encouraging customers to buy now rather than later.  The implementation is smooth and appears natural, and the layout is attractive, suggesting a pleasant experience.

Volkswagen, in its Polo Dad Television Advertisement, uses a strong example of the liking principle.  The target audience is likely small families.  Volkswagen shows various events, highlighting the importance of family. These events show a girl growing up and the things her father does for her as she grows.  The commercial ends with the grateful daughter receiving a Volkswagen from her parents as she leaves home (VW Polo Dad TV Advert 2012). These are common life events Volkswagen emphasized to relate to its target audience because ideal families go through these different changes, and, in its estimation, the ideal family owns a Volkswagen.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs identifies five different needs common to each person’s wellbeing.  These fall into the categories of comfort, safety, belonging, self-esteem, and fulfillment (An introduction to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs - Abraham Maslow 2011).  These five needs are motivational forces that drive each person, and drawing a correlation equating a product with meeting one or more of these needs can be highly effective in marketing and public relations.

In its Beetle High Five Commercial, Volkswagen drew a correlation between owning a Volkswagen Beetle and to both belonging and self-esteem.  Throughout the commercial the Volkswagen owner received high fives from everyone he encountered, including a dog, acknowledging and praising the driver for owning a Beetle.  This made the owner smile throughout the commercial, demonstrating a positive experience.  This was designed to have potential customers consider the Beetle for a complete feeling instead of the vehicle’s merits.  The company focused on the consumers’ emotional and social needs rather than safety, affordability, or convenience.

Asch Conformity Experiment

The Asch Conformity Experiment demonstrated individuals’ tendencies to follow their peers against their own assertions. Subjects knowingly agreed with incorrect answers for various reasons because the crowd answered incorrectly (Asch Conformity Experiment 2007).  Understanding this principle can play a significant role in public relations and marketing.

Consider, once again, the Beetle High Five Commercial. As previously noted, customers were targeted based on acceptance appeal.  Customers want to go along with the accepted practice of owning a Beetle.  Even if this is the wrong decision based on safety, affordability, or any other criteria, customers want to follow the crowd.

Persuasion versus Influence

Persuasion and influence are closely related, being two parts of the same principal.  Persuasion is the method people use to influence change.  One does not have the power to cause others to act against his will, but he can use persuasion to influence or affect a customer’s decision. Persuasion is a method, used in everything from marketing to everyday conversation, but influence is the desired affect.

Volkswagen’s marketing campaigns leverages social proof or acceptance to influence potential customers.  As previously discussed, the website addresses all six principals of influence, but Volkswagen invested significantly in advertisements that build on social acceptance and conformity (Find the perfect VW with the Find a Match tool.). The company’s research into their target audience likely projected positive responses to the commercials. My own reaction was positive to each of the commercials (Volkswagen-Darth Vader 2011 Super Bowl Commercial 2011).

Volkswagen could improve its marketing efforts by making minor changes on their website.  The website could use cookies to identify ethnicity and household size to better market to visitors.  This would allow imagery that potential customers could better relate with.  Larger vehicles could be displayed for those with bigger families.  Customers of different ethnicities could see people who look like them.  This could be more affective than Volkswagen’s current efforts, but implementation may not be easily achieved.


Volkswagen did its market research.  The company uses the psychology part of public relations and communication to reach potential customers.  I have no interest in Volkswagen vehicles, but I have positive feelings about the company after watching their advertisements. Volkswagen does not meet my family’s needs, but they have me considering a vehicle for my daughters when they are of age.  Overall, I think Volkswagen achieved its desired results, influence over a potential customer, and that is worth Volkswagen’s investment.


2012 Beetle High Five Volkswagen Commercial. (2011, September 19). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from

An introduction to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs - Abraham Maslow. (2011, July 17). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from

Asch Conformity Experiment. (2007, December 22). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from

Chapter 7 Lecture: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. (n.d.). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from

Find the perfect VW with the Find a Match tool. (n.d.). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from

Robert Cialdini - The 6 Principles of Influence. (2011, September 20). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from

Volkswagen-Darth Vader 2011 Super Bowl Commercial. (2011, February 06). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from

VW Polo Dad TV Advert. (2012, May 17). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from

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