The Hare Krishna and Gary Halbert on the fundamentals of persuasion

In the 1970s, the Hare Krishna learned a powerful lesson in persuasion.

They were seeking to raise donations to support their organization.

At first, they would stand around street corners and ask passersby for money. But most people considered them strange and unlikeable, and the donations were slow in coming.

Then the Hare Krishna hit upon a great idea. They would first press a gift — a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a magazine, a flower — into the hands of a potential donor.

Even if the person didn’t want the gift, which happened often, the Hare Krishna would refuse to take it back.

“It’s our gift to you,” they’d say. “However, you can help us out by making a small donation to support our activities.”

Donations, altough unwilling, started pouring in.

People were feeling honor-bound to make a small donation once they accepted the Hare Krishna’s gift.

This happened in spite of the Hare Krishna being strange and unlikeable, and the gift being unwanted.

It’s a classic example of reciprocity, the instinctive need to return a favor.

But the story doesn’t stop there, because the passersby started adapting.

They would avoid the Hare Krishna in a wide loop in order to avoid the unwanted gift, or they would refuse to accept the gift.

The interesting thing is that most people still couldn’t resist returning the favor, so they found these alternate ways of coping.

Which brings me to Gary Halbert, the Prince of Print, also widely considered to be one of the greatest direct-response copywriters who ever lived.

Halbert had a 3-part recommendation for success in direct marketing:

1. Ground yourself in the fundamentals.
2. Heighten your awareness of “What’s Working Now”.
3. Capture ideas on 3×5 index cards and review them at least once a week.

These 3 recommendations apply more broadly to persuasion, and not just direct marketing.

In the Hare Krishna story, the fundamental was reciprocation, the irresistible instinct to return the favor.

However, the Hare Krishna flower is no longer a good tactic because people have adapted.

But so have the Hare Krishna, and they have heightened their awareness of what’s working now.

As a result, they are offering free yoga and meditation workshops.

And they are still raising donations.


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