Tag Archives: Robert B. Cialdini

The Victory in Christ Multi-Level Marketing Scam

Today I attended the 9 AM service at the Victory in Christ Christian Center in Westville, NJ. The VICCC opened up across the street from my apartment complex not long ago, and I drive past it every time I leave the house. I was curious, and since I hadn’t been to any kind of church in about ten years, I decided I should check it out and see what kind of place it was.

I also decided to live-tweet the experience under the hashtag #JasonTweetsChurch.

I was raised Catholic, and while I’ve never been entirely fond of Catholic views or the long, boring sermons they hold, I still tend to expect a certain piety from any religious institution. I’m familiar with the more passionate and musical style of churches seen in movies filled with vibrant gospel songs and loud praise for Jesus. I’m familiar with the more community-based churches that treat everyone in attendance as family. I’ve even attended a Greek Orthodox ceremony during my cousin’s wedding. None of these prepared me for what I experienced at the VICCC.

I arrived at 8:30 when the doors opened and found live music playing in the “sanctuary,” their name for the main room where the sermon would be held. A group of people were singing very loudly and praising Jesus and shouting Hallelujah so many times that the word began to lose all meaning. The music was so loud my ears started to ring. Instead of an organ or other type of more traditional music, there was a band with a drummer, keyboard, and electric guitar. There were spotlights flashing in various bright colors throughout the room. It felt more like a concert hall or a night club than a religious experience.

The music got more serious when the official start time arrived. There was about a half hour where the band played and the lyrics to the songs were displayed on the two widescreen TVs hanging on either side of the front wall. I found it interesting to see that one of the songs was a blend of English and Spanish lyrics, asking me to embrace Jesus en mi corazon.

When the music was over, I expected the sermon to begin. But instead, I was greeted with the sales pitches.

The pastor began by making promises about free gifts for newcomers if they stayed after the sermon. We were told we’d be taken back to a private session to get to know them and their church. I couldn’t help thinking about my studies into the science of influence and persuasion when I read Robert B. Cialdini’s book Influence, Science and Practice in a class at Rowan University. The book warns readers to become attuned to the methods used by salespeople, marketers, con artists, and others who will try to persuade you to part with your money. One of the common tricks used relies on the principle of reciprocity: by giving someone a “free gift,” you make them feel obligated to you so that they’ll be more likely to fall for your sales pitch. It’s a common technique used by marketers trying to sell timeshares and vacation packages. In the class we also learned that many businesses like gyms will invite you into a private room in order to isolate you and make you vulnerable to the sales pitch. The idea of being stuck in a room in the back of the church while they pressed me for a donation or commitment to volunteer made me certain that I did not want to accept this free gift.

We were then subjected to a series of video advertisements on the TVs, using the kind of graphics you normally see in marketing-based PowerPoint presentations. Pitches were made about various classes we could sign up for, for DVDs preaching the Word of God, and for the Kingdom Korner Store located near the exit on our way out after the sermon. I remember what I learned about amusement parks and museums being designed so that you need to exit through the gift shop, and I tried to figure out what kind of church had a gift shop inside the church.

Greed:

The pastor then started talking about how one of the churchgoers was about to open his own church in a neighboring town. The entire exchange sounded like some kind of multi-level marketing scheme designed to get newcomers to sign up and become salespeople who then recruit more salespeople to continue the process, layer after layer. There was also a great deal of praise for the VICCC and their divine mission. At one point the pastor went so far as to call it, and I quote, “One of the greatest churches on the planet.”

Greed:
Pride:

By the time they started citing the church’s website, email address, and the name of their mobile app, I was itching to leave. The worst part may have been when they told me I could text “Victory1” to 71441 to learn more about the free gifts, get text alerts from the church and make donations with my mobile device. I’m all about progress and keeping up with the advancements of the times, but by this point we were nearly an hour into the “sermon” and no one had talked about the bible yet.

When the “real” sermon was finally ready to begin. We were asked to hold up our bibles and declare “This is my bible!” We were asked to pledge our commitment. A few people raised up their Kindles or mobile devices instead. I imagined them sleeping with their bibles and chanting, “This is my bible. There are many like it but this one is mine. My bible is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.”

Most of the sermon was about achieving “victory.” Considering it was the Victory in Christ Christian Center, this seemed to be something of  theme. I was on board with the ideas the pastor presented about not giving up, having the strength to pursue your goals, and holding your faith through the difficulties you faced. Things got really weird, however, when he started citing the example of how he got together with his wife. He told us about how she had another boyfriend when he first met her, but he didn’t let that stop him. He actually used the phrase, “I was in the shadows, waiting.” He told us how while she was out on dates with her boyfriend, he was home with a picture of her on his mirror, thinking about how she’d one day be his.

Greed:
Pride:
Envy:
Lust:
Coveting thy neighbor’s wife:

Near the end of the sermon the pastor asked any newcomers who weren’t “born again” to raise their hands so we could pray for them. I kept my hand firmly in my lap. After the prayers, the pastor preached about how these newcomers shouldn’t be ashamed to stand up and show their declaration. He asked them to raise their hands again and not to hide, because he’d seen them the first time and he’d know who they were. I thought again of Cialdini, and one of the other persuasion techniques he described: commitment. By getting someone to make a public declaration that they’ll do something, you can double the chances that they’ll follow through. The people who’d first raised their hands were trapped now. They couldn’t back down from the declarations they’d made without fearing the guilt and possible ridicule they’d face for going back on their commitment. That’s in addition to Cialdini’s principle of “social proof,” the idea that seeing other people commit to something makes it more likely that you’ll commit to it as well. Once the first few people stepped up and agreed to this trap, it made it harder for the others to back down.

They were asked to come forward and meet the pastor, and told to bring their stuff with them because they’d be going to another room and they wouldn’t be coming back. I started to fear for those people, wondering what they’d be subjected to in those back rooms. I imagined sales pitches, pleas for donations, and pressure to get them to commit to becoming official members of the church. There had even been mention of “connection cards” they could fill out. Another persuasion technique cited by Cialdini is getting people to fill out a written commitment to a cause.

The “newly reborn” souls were taken away, perhaps never to be seen again. Then the pastor was in a rush to finish, saying he was “out of time.” Because he had to hand the mic back over to the other pastor who had to deliver more sales pitches for the life insurance company being sponsored by the VICCC this week. Apparently the pastor couldn’t spare more time talking to us about Jesus and the actual bible scripture because there were more important matters to get to.

Greed:
Pride:
Envy:
Lust:
Sloth:
Coveting thy neighbor’s wife:

The collection buckets were passed around. But apparently this church doesn’t accept it if you can only afford to make your own little sign. No, we were given a ten minute lecture about “tithing” and how the “proper” way to tithe was to give 10% of your income to the church. Quite a difference from the baskets that were passed around at the church I went to when I was younger, where they’d tell you to just pass the basket along if you didn’t want or couldn’t afford to make a donation. I’d never been to a church before that went so far as to practically demand a specific amount from their flock’s pockets. Which was on top of being told we could text a donation by texting “victory” to 71441 or make a donation through the church’s website. The audience watching the live-streaming video at home through the cameras mounted around the church were even encouraged to donate online.

But I suppose they needed the money to pay for the widescreen TVs, video cameras, the line of computers at the back of the room where the visual effects team controlled the graphics overlayed on the pastor’s image, the stereo surround-sound for the live gospel band, the spotlights, and the IT for their website with live-streaming video, email prayer requests, and online video gallery.

Greed:
Pride:
Envy:
Lust:
Sloth:
Gluttony:
Coveting thy neighbor’s wife:

I hurried out as soon as the “sermon” was over, avoiding the gift shop. I got cornered by one of the church’s sponsored life insurance salespeople and handed a pamphlet that I threw out as soon as I got off the premises (not wanting to litter on “holy” grounds. I didn’t know how to feel about the experience I just had, but I certainly didn’t feel righteous, enlightened, or saved.

If anything, I felt pretty pissed off that this place passes for a church.

Wrath:

Advertisements

Ethnographic Hockey, Part 4: The Dietz & Watson and Horizon Services Zambonis

This is Part 4 of my series of posts detailing my ethnographic study of the March 18th, 2014 Flyers vs Blackhawks game in Philadelphia, PA. You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

When I entered the seating area to find my seat, I stopped for a moment to look down at the rink. It was about 30 minutes to game time. The JumboTron was flashing the names and pictures of various players, while upbeat music played that reminded me of a dance club or rave. After each player’s picture, the JumboTron showed the player’s stats and other bits of trivia knowledge, most of which I couldn’t interpret.

When I looked down at the rink, I saw the teams were on the ice, but not playing. They were gathered on opposite sides of the rink, each team sticking to their own side. Dozens of pucks were laid out across the ice, and the players were shooting them over and over while skating around in circles. They looked like practice shots.

I found a stadium attendant with a black jacket that read “EVENT STAFF” across the back. Her nametag read, “Vida.” I asked her, “Are they warming up?” It was the only explanation I could come up with.

“Yes,” she said. “Then they’ll bring out toe Zambonis to refresh the ice, then they’ll come out to play.”

She stepped away to ask another fan if they knew where they were sitting, then examined their ticket and directed them where they needed to go. Meanwhile, PECO and Dietz & Watson ads played on the JumboTron, while an announcer informed the attendees of the rules. We were told that there was “No smoking,” which seemed reasonable. Then he said that there would be “No abusive language.” That also seemed reasonable but it surprised me that it had to be announced explicitly. After listing a few other rules about rowdiness, the announcer said, “Violators will be escorted from the building.” This made me wonder just how rowdy they expected the crowd to get.

At 7:15, the Zambonis arrived. They were painted all over like NASCAR cars, one with the Dietz & Watson logo and another with the Horizon Services logo. By this point, somewhere between a third and half of the seats in the stadium were already filled. People were talking and laughing, and sitting down to eat hot dogs, pizza, and french fries. Meanwhile, the Dietz & Watson and Horizon Services Zambonis performed their dance on the ice, gliding about in slow coordination, one following a short distance behind the other and a bit to the side so their paths just barely overlapped.

Watching the Zambonis drew my attention to the ice itself. The Flyers logo was clearly visible in the center. It was surrounded by a circle of text that read “Wells Fargo Center.” Beyond that, ads were stamped directly into the ice: Dietz & Watson, Dorado Systems, McDonald’s, and Toyota. The remaining 15 minutes before the game started was an endless saturation of ads, for while the Zambonis did their dance, another ad played on the JumboTron, with Magic Johnson encouraging us all to sign up for Healthcare.gov. This was followed by an ad for “Muppets Most Wanted” before 1-800-Lundy-Law once again welcomed us to the game, and Mr. Lundy closed by saying, “Go Flyers.”

I wondered about the effectiveness of all this advertisement saturation, but I knew that there was a principle of association and persuasion at work here. In his book, “Influence, Science and Practice,” Robert B. Cialdini discusses the power of conditioning and association. This is a way in which positive associations between otherwise unrelated things can affect the way we feel about those things. This can start off with something as simple as a good meal. Cialdini described a study in which “subjects become fonder of the people and things they experienced while eating” (p. 164). The reason for this is because if you are eating good food, you experience positive emotions. Those positive emotions then become subconsciously associated with the event you’re attending, rather than just with the food itself. It was no wonder, then, that the stadium was filled with food stands from one end to the other. Not only was it more convenient (allowing guests to eat here instead of having to eat before the arrived), but the act of eating during a game can actually have a psychological effect of your enjoyment of the game.

This association effect can also apply to other products and people. Cialdini said, “Radio programmers are instructed to insert the station’s call-letters jingle immediately before a big hit song is played,” (p 165) because it creates an association of positive emotion between the station and the song. Just like there would be an association between 1-800-Lundy-Law and the positive emotions fans experienced during the game.

This is an especially strong influence when it comes to sports, and it soon became apparent to me that the association principle taking place wasn’t limited to just the advertisements. Overhead, an American and a Canadian flag hung above the arena, across from banners listing Bruce Springsteen (#53) and Billy Joel (#48) as “Philadelphia Sellouts” in honor of concerts they held at the Wells Fargo Center that sold out all the seats.

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia

As the countdown to the game grew closer, a group of kids near me began shouting and chanting, “Let’s go, Flyers,” followed by slapping their noisemakers against their hands in a rhythm: 1, 2, . . . 3, 4, 5. They continued chanting over and over, each time with the same pattern to the clapping and noisemaking afterwards. Then, at 7:30, the announcer came on to introduce “Your Philadelphia Flyers,” and all the fans cheered.

“Your” Philadelphia Flyers, not “the” Philadelphia Flyers. This is another example of the influence of association at work. Cialdini also discusses this idea of fan association, stating that people will shout, “‘We’re number one! We’re number one!’ . . . not ‘They’re number one’ or even ‘Our team is number one'” (p. 168). The association felt by fans is so strong that they often use the pronoun “we” to show their identity with their team. Though, it seems this only applied when a team is winning, and that “No television viewer will ever hear the chant, ‘We’re in last place! We’re in last place!” (p. 168) since people will distance themselves from their team after a defeat.

It seems, then, that there are a number of influences at work, all at once, within a single arena. The fans associate their positive feelings–from the good food, to the cheering, to the music–with the team itself, and they associate themselves as being part of the team. If advertisers, such as the announcer from 1-800-Lundy-Law, become associated with those same positive feelings, it seems likely that a similar connection will be forged. A team who has a great time with great food and great friends at a game will carry their positive feelings over to everyone who is “part of the team,” and that includes Mr. Lundy, who shouted, “Go Flyers!” right along with the rest of the crowd.

After musing over the significance of so many associations in one place, I took my seat, and waited for the game to begin.

This story will continue in Ethnographic Hockey, Part 5: American Heroes and the Star Spangled Banner.