How be­havioural sci­ence can be ap­plied to ad­ver­tis­ing Q&A with Richard Shot­ton

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Richard Shot­ton’s book, The Choice Fac­tory, in­ves­ti­gates how be­havioural sci­ence can be ap­plied to ad­ver­tis­ing. The fol­low­ing chap­ter looks at why peo­ple and brands be­come more ap­peal­ing if they ad­mit a flaw. It be­gins by imag­in­ing that you had to hire a new man­ager for your team… THE PRATFALL EF­FECT How flaws make a brand more ap­peal­ing

Your main task this af­ter­noon is to in­ter­view the last two can­di­dates for the po­si­tion of man­ager on your team. At the close of the sec­ond in­ter­view you re­alise both can­di­dates have the same rel­e­vant ex­pe­ri­ence, strong aca­demic re­sults and prac­ti­cal ideas to im­ple­ment once they start. You’re won­der­ing how you’ll ever choose be­tween them. As the fi­nal can­di­date gets up to leave, he catches his foot awk­wardly on the table leg, up­end­ing the dregs of his cof­fee over the new floor. He leaves ashen-faced.


If the pratfall ef­fect is cor­rect, it’ll be the clumsy can­di­date. The bias was dis­cov­ered in 1966 by Har­vard Univer­sity psy­chol­o­gist El­liot Aron­son. Along with his col­leagues, Ben Willer­man and Joanne Floyd, he recorded an ac­tor an­swer­ing a se­ries of quiz ques­tions. In one strand of the ex­per­i­ment, the ac­tor – armed with the right re­sponses – answers 92% of the ques­tions cor­rectly. Af­ter the quiz, the ac­tor then pre­tends to spill a cup of cof­fee over him­self (a small blun­der, or pratfall). The record­ing was played to a large sam­ple of stu­dents, who were then asked how like­able the con­tes­tant was. How­ever, Aron­son split the stu­dents into cells and played them dif­fer­ent ver­sions: one with the spillage in­cluded and one with­out. The stu­dents found the clumsy con­tes­tant more like­able. In Aron­son’s words: The pratfall made the con­tes­tant more ap­peal­ing as it in­creases his ap­proach­a­bil­ity and makes him seem less aus­tere, more hu­man.


It’s not just clum­si­ness that in­creases ap­peal. Jenny Riddell and I in­ves­ti­gated whether prod­uct flaws could boost ap­peal. We repli­cated an un­pub­lished study by con­sumer psy­chol­o­gist Adam Fer­rier by ask­ing 626 na­tion­ally rep­re­sen­ta­tive peo­ple which of two cookies they pre­ferred. The biscuits were iden­ti­cal apart from one small dif­fer­ence: one had a rough edge; the other a per­fectly smooth one.

The cookie with the rough edge was the over­whelm­ing favourite: 66% pre­ferred it. The small im­per­fec­tion didn’t de­tract from its ap­peal, but boosted it.

HOW TO AP­PLY THIS EF­FECT 1. Flaunt your flaws

The best ap­pli­ca­tion is to ad­mit that your brand has a flaw. Fool­hardy? Not if you con­sider how many of the lead­ing ad cam­paigns have done so. One of the ear­li­est ex­am­ples was the long-run­ning Amer­i­can VW ad cam­paign by Doyle Dane Bern­bach, which from 1959, glo­ried in the flaws of the Bee­tle. The looks of the car were gen­tly mocked with one print ad fea­tur­ing a photo of the lu­nar mod­ule and the head­line, “It’s ugly but it gets you there”. An­other ref­er­enced the size of the car with the line “Think Small”. And my favourite drew at­ten­tion to the slow speed in the body copy: “A VW won’t go over 72 mph. (Even though the speedome­ter shows a wildly op­ti­mistic top speed of 90.)”

The trade mag­a­zine Ad Age ranked it the best ad of the 20th cen­tury. More im­por­tantly, it shifted a lot of cars. In 1963 VW sold 277,008 ve­hi­cles in the US – more than any other im­ported brand had ever sold.

Bill Bern­bach’s agency re­peated the hon­est ap­proach with Avis. The tagline, writ­ten by Paula Green, em­pha­sised the car rental’s rel­a­tive un­pop­u­lar­ity com­pared to Hertz: “When you’re only num­ber two you try harder. Or else.” Within a year of the cam­paign launch­ing, Avis made a profit of $1.2m – the first time they had bro­ken even in a decade. The ap­proach was so suc­cess­ful it ran for more than 50 years. Then there’s Lowe’s cam­paign for Stella Ar­tois, be­gin­ning in 1981, which rev­elled in its high price un­der the head­line, “Re­as­sur­ingly Ex­pen­sive”. The award­win­ning cam­paign trans­formed Stella’s for­tunes and ran for 26 years.

Guin­ness and AMV pub­li­cised the slow­ness of the pour with “Good things come to those who wait”. The Na­tional Dairy Coun­cil al­luded to the high calorific con­tent of cream cakes with “Naughty, but Nice”. (In­ci­den­tally, that strapline was coined by Sal­man Rushdie while work­ing at Ogilvy & Mather.) Ad­mit­ting weak­ness is a tan­gi­ble demon­stra­tion of hon­esty and, there­fore, makes other claims more be­liev­able. Fur­ther to that, the best straplines har­ness the trade-off ef­fect. We know from bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ence that we don’t get any­thing for free in life. By ad­mit­ting a weak­ness, a brand cred­i­bly es­tab­lishes a re­lated pos­i­tive at­tribute.

Guin­ness may take longer to pour but boy, it’s worth it. Avis might not have the most sales but it’s des­per­ate to keep you happy.

Ev­ery­one as­sumes that brands are fal­li­ble, so if a brand is open about its fail­ings, it can per­suade con­sumers that its weak­nesses lie in in­con­se­quen­tial ar­eas. This the­ory partly ex­plains the suc­cess of bud­get air­lines. At launch they openly ad­mit­ted that the trade-off for cheap prices was com­pro­mised ser­vice: no seat reser­va­tions and a piti­ful lug­gage al­lowance. If they hadn’t ad­mit­ted as much, con­sumers may have as­sumed the cost­cut­ting had come at the ex­pense of safety.

2. Make sure this tac­tic suits your brand

A twist in Aron­son’s ex­per­i­ment sug­gests cau­tion. He re­peated the set-up but this time the ac­tor feigned in­com­pe­tence and an­swered only 30% of the ques­tions cor­rectly. Once again stu­dents rated his ap­peal. In this sce­nario the clumsy spillage made him less ap­peal­ing. The pratfall ef­fect has a mul­ti­plica­tive ef­fect rather than a purely pos­i­tive one. It makes strong brands

Ad­mit­ting weak­ness is a tan­gi­ble demon­stra­tion of hon­esty and, there­fore, makes other claims more be­liev­able.

stronger, but weak brands weaker. The pratfall ef­fect works par­tic­u­larly well when the com­peti­tors are brag­gards. And nowhere is hy­per­bole more preva­lent than among es­tate agents. Roy Brooks carved out a prof­itable niche in the 1960s by sell­ing houses in a bru­tally hon­est man­ner. Here’s a typ­i­cal ad:

Wanted: Some­one with taste, means and a stom­ach strong enough to buy this erst­while house of ill-re­pute in Pim­lico. It is un­touched by the 20th cen­tury as far as con­ve­niences for even the ba­sic hu­man de­cen­cies are con­cerned. Al­though it reeks of damp or worse, the plas­ter is com­ing off the walls and day­light peeps through a hole in the roof, it is still hab­it­able judg­ing by the bed of rags, fag ends and empty bot­tles in one cor­ner. Plenty of scope for the so­cially as­pir­ing to ex­press their dec­o­ra­tive taste and get their abode in The Glossy, and noth­ing to stop them putting West­min­ster on their notepa­per. Com­prises 10 rather un­pleas­ant rooms with slimy back yard, 4,650 Free­hold. Tarted up, these houses make 15,000.

In an­other ad he hon­estly ap­praised the rick­ety stairs in a house for sale: A lightly-built mem­ber of our staff ne­go­ti­ated the base­ment stair, but our Mr Hal­stead went crash­ing through.

Nor were buy­ers spared: We have a rather re­pul­sive old man who with his child-wife, are look­ing for an el­e­gant town res. pref Bel­gravia…price not im­por­tant but must be re­al­is­tic as he has, at least, his head screwed on the right way…

Brooks’ bravado paid off. His unique style earned un­told lev­els of pub­lic­ity: read­ers of the Sun­day pa­pers made a habit of seek­ing out his ads and he reg­u­larly ap­peared on TV chat shows. If you work in a cat­e­gory typ­i­fied by overly pos­i­tive de­scrip­tions, such as lux­u­ries, cars or cos­met­ics, then this ap­proach might be suit­able. It’s also worth con­sid­er­ing the gen­der of your tar­get au­di­ence. Kay Deaux, Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­ogy at New York City Univer­sity, con­ducted an ex­per­i­ment in 1972 that showed that men are more swayed by the pratfall ef­fect than women. If your brand tar­gets men then ad­mit­ting weak­nesses should be an ap­proach you se­ri­ously con­sider.

3. More than just ads

Fi­nally, it’s not just a mat­ter of tweak­ing the copy in your ads. It should af­fect how you deal with un­flat­ter­ing cus­tomer re­views. Many brands hide the neg­a­tive re­views. How­ever, a 2015 study, by North­west­ern Univer­sity’s Spiegel Re­search Cen­tre, an­a­lysed 111,460 prod­uct re­views across 22 cat­e­gories and linked rat­ings to prob­a­bil­ity of pur­chas­ing. It found that like­li­hood of pur­chase didn’t peak with per­fect scores but at 4.2-4.5 out of 5. There was only mi­nor vari­a­tion be­tween cat­e­gories – hair care re­views, for ex­am­ple, peaked in ef­fec­tive­ness at 4.2, while 4.5 was ideal for light bulbs.

Per­fect rat­ings had less im­pact be­cause they were seen as too good to be true. Ac­cord­ing to the au­thors: Coun­ter­in­tu­itive as it may seem, but neg­a­tive re­views may have a pos­i­tive im­pact be­cause they help es­tab­lish trust and au­then­tic­ity. Con­sumers un­der­stand that a prod­uct can’t be all things to all peo­ple.

My favourite such ex­am­ple comes from Iain Banks’s 1984 de­but novel, The Wasp Fac­tory. Banks was thirty when he fi­nally per­suaded a pub­lisher to re­lease one of his works. The de­lay was not for want of try­ing. Over the pre­vi­ous 14 years he had writ­ten four nov­els, all of which had been re­jected by pub­lish­ers. De­spite strug­gling for so long to gain recog­ni­tion, Banks broke with tra­di­tion and in­sisted that the novel in­cluded both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive re­views within the blurb. Some of the re­views were caus­tic, such as the fol­low­ing from the Sun­day Ex­press: A silly, gloat­ingly sadis­tic and grisly yarn of a fam­ily of Scots lu­natics, one of whom tor­tures small crea­tures – a bit bet­ter writ­ten than most hor­ror hokum but re­ally just the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of a video nasty.

The Times was even more damn­ing: As a piece of writ­ing, The Wasp Fac­tory soars to the level of medi­ocrity. Maybe the crassly ex­plicit lan­guage, the ob­scen­ity of the plot were thought to strike an agree­ably avant-garde note. Per­haps it’s all a joke meant to fool lit­er­ary Lon­don into re­spect for rub­bish.

Banks’s chutz­pah paid off. His dis­tinc­tive ap­proach got him no­ticed and the sheer out­rage of many crit­ics meant its po­si­tion­ing as a pow­er­fully mov­ing book had cred­i­bil­ity. The pub­lic­ity helped cre­ate a best­seller, while po­si­tion­ing him as an in­de­pen­dent thinker.

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