Game of Death: Lessons in Life and Marketing

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A recent controversial documentary Game of Death reveals how TV game show participants knowingly inflicted pain and potential death on a fellow contestant in a bid to comply with authority. The shocking outcome reinforces the findings of another controversial experiment led by Yale University in the 1960s. It’s something marketers take advantage of, and consumers should be aware of.

Game of Death

Filmmaker Christophe Nick helped conduct the experiment in the form of a TV game show, where 80 participants were asked to follow explicit rules. On a real set in a television studio with a live audience, the host asked participants to pull levers to apply electric shocks to a fellow game show participant, which gradually increased from 20 to 460 volts. Neither the participants, nor the audiences, were aware the shocks were staged, and the recipient was an actor.

At 80 volts, the recipient began voicing his pain, and eventually went silent, suggesting he had passed out, or worse. However, despite the cries for the shocks to stop, or subsequent deathly silence, eight out of 10 participants continued to adhere to the host’s demands to continue, ultimately delivering what they believed was a massive 460-volt jolt.

The results were similar in a 1963 scientific experiment, led by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, where 65% of participants complied with a researcher’s request to deliver shocks to others right through to the 450-volt maximum.

Why Did They Do It?

Milgram concluded it has to do with the deep-seated sense of duty to authority. In neither study, were the participants deemed sadistic, cowardly or immoral — they never hurt people before. The researchers insist they merely submitted to authority.

As members of society, we’re taught to follow authority at the earliest stages in life, starting with complying to our parents’ orders. And, as adults, we carry on this path, presumably to avert anarchy.

Authority Influencers in Marketing

People are vulnerable to mere symbols of authority, not just substance, suggests author Dr. Robert Cialdini. For instance, he stated in his book, Influence: Science and Practice: “We can see that advertisers have frequently commissioned the respect accorded doctors in our culture by hiring actors to play the roles of doctors speaking on behalf of the product.”

He cited a commercial that featured actor Robert Young warning people against the dangers of caffeine and recommending caffeine-free Sanka coffee. The commercial was so successful that it was played in various forms for years. It worked because Americans associated him with Dr. Marcus Welby, a popular TV character.

Cialdini noted: “Objectively, it doesn’t make sense to be swayed by the comments of a man we know to be just an actor who used to play a doctor; but, practically, that man sold the Sanka.”

While doctors, accountants and lawyers — or actors portraying these professionals — can get consumers to take actions that go against their own preference, celebrities seem to carry similar clout.

Consider rapper 50 Cent getting youth to believe that Vitamin Water, loaded with chemicals, sugar and a trace of synthetic vitamins, is good for you. Or celebrities like game show host Alex Trebek providing advice on osteoporosis and calcium in a ‘got milk?’ campaign.

Three Highly Effective Symbols of Authority

These symbols, according to Cialdini, can “reliably trigger our compliance in the absence of the genuine substance of authority.”


Titles are both the most difficult and the easiest authority symbols to acquire. “To earn a title normally takes years of work and achievement,” noted Cialdini. He added, “Yet, it is possible for somebody who has put in none of this effort to adopt the mere label and receive a kind of automatic deference.”

It brings to mind a natural shampoo founder in Canada, who uses his first two initials, D.R., before his surname, perhaps to create a perception that he’s a doctor. Or certain ‘degrees’ that some radio guests use to impress listeners, which can be ordered online for a few dollars in just minutes. One site asks: “Are you looking to earn an accredited degree without having to study, take exams, attend classes, or pay a hefty fee?”

University degree


Clothes can make the man, and the sale. Slick suits can be effective authority symbols, along with hospital whites, holy blacks, army green or police blue.

In separate experiments in 1974 and 1988, males and females went to the street and asked passer-bys to comply with odd requests, i.e. pick up trash. When they made the requests wearing regular street clothes, few subjects acted. However, when they wore guard-like costumes, many people complied.

In another study highlighted in Influence, researchers got a 31-year-old man to violate the law by crossing the street against the traffic light on several occasions. In half the cases, he was dressed in a freshly pressed business suit and tie; on the other occasions, he wore a work shirt and trousers. Cialdini reported three-and-a-half times as many people followed the suited jaywalker.


While fancy titles and expensive clothes carry an aura of status and position, so do trappings, such as jewelry and cars.

In San Francisco, researchers found that most people would wait patiently behind a new, luxury car stopped at a green light. However, people were quick to lay on the horn — or even ram the rear bumper (it happened twice) — when an older, economy model was in the way.

A software company employee and Webcopyplus client once told a story about how several people flocked to him for business advice when he drove a late-model, cherry red Porche. “They asked me how to launch this product, or run a restaurant,” he said. “How the heck would I know about running a restaurant?” A few years later, when he swapped the sporty number for a more practical Honda Civic, the questions came to a grinding halt. He said, “No one asks me for business advice anymore.”

What Does the Future Hold?

As the Internet and smart phones continue to accelerate the pace of business and life, will this automatic ‘mindless’ compliance to authority — perceived or real — escalate?

It actually appears social media technology, like Twitter and Facebook, is curbing people’s willingness to blindly obey, by helping us gather broader knowledge, views and strength from peers, or ‘friends’.

One of the game show participants stated in a follow-up interview that he felt so alone and isolated during the ordeal as he continued to pull the levers to deliver increasingly powerful shocks. Perhaps if he had an iPhone and Twitter at hand he would have gained the courage to stand up to the host and disobey her orders.

Consider how consumers can now gang up on corporations and institutions and rapidly spread previously suppressed information. Or how social media is helping citizens in the Middle East connect and organize efforts to overthrow decade-old regimes.

By connecting people or peers, the new social phenomenon is weakening and undermining authorities’ once supreme control. Bit by bit, the power is shifting to the people.

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