Adam Ferrier
Jun 16, 2015

Unobvious Observations: The pratfall effect

Consider the impact that negative information or imperfections can have on desirability, writes Adam Ferrier.

Adam Ferrier
Adam Ferrier

Brands play different roles in consumers' lives in developing versus developed markets. The difference is rarely discussed, considering the fundamental nature of the issue. Before I mention the difference, however, let’s look at the similarities.

All brands, to some extent or another, fit within the equation AS + B = IS (Actual Self + Brand = Ideal Self). That is, we buy brands that reflect an idealised version of who we are. Nothing wrong, or particularly challenging about that. The interesting bit comes when we try and ascertain what is an ideal version of one’s self, and how that is contextually relevant.

In developing markets, with greater levels of wealth inequality, brands are largely reflective of the aspirational life we want to be living. In developed markets where a reasonable standard of living has been attained for the majority of citizens, it could be argued that brands are playing a more reflective role of who the individual is and what they are about.   

It’s no coincidence that the fashion houses of the world are undergoing massive growth, driven by the opening up of many developing markets. Their brands are overt status symbols of what you could become. 

Whilst at the same time in developed markets there is a move towards ‘realness’ and ‘authenticity’ in brands. That is, brands are not presenting a glossy aspirational image. Rather they are increasingly reflective of society. To this end we are starting to see brands act in ways that previously were rather uncommon. 

Brands are starting to proudly show their imperfections, apologise when they screw up and admit to getting things wrong from time to time. Take, for example, the recent apology by global CEO of Domino’s Pizza, who admitted the brand's pizzas tasted like cardboard and that it had to lift its standards. 

 

Or take our campaign for Jeep where we played back the incredulous look someone got when they told someone else they bought a Jeep!

 

Or the much-celebrated recent NAB ‘Break Up’ campaign in Australia, where one of its big four banks ‘broke up’ with the others, saying it no longer felt comfortable ripping off consumers.

 

I imagine we are going to see more examples more often of brands showing us their negative space and imperfections.  Some of you would be familiar with the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi, where beauty is found in something imperfect. Think of a lovely ceramic bowl from Japan, it’s rarely ‘perfect’, a raked sand garden will always have a rock or two thrown in to break up the perfect symmetry.  Brands will begin to latch onto what consumers already know, that there is beauty in imperfection. 

Brands have been trying to portray a perfect image of themselves, when everyone appreciates a little imperfection.  This isn’t just opinion, it’s science.  There is an effect in psychology discovered in 1966 called ‘The Pratfall Effect’. This effect shows that if we perceive someone as competent and attractive, we’ll see them as even more competent, attractive and desirable, if they make a small mistake.

Even more interestingly, in 2012 researchers were able to demonstrate that the effect had been observed in information people received about brands as well.  That is, brands that had some form of imperfection were perceived as being more desirable than the brands that did not.  Interestingly, this was only when the imperfection was not central to the brand’s proposition. 

The impact of such thinking particularly comes to life when considering review culture – what’s the impact of receiving lots of positive information about a hotel or restaurant and then dotted among that information are negative comments, not central to the establishments main business – arguably you’ll like it more. 

So science based opinion says that marketers should start to consider the impact that negative information, or imperfections can have on desirability. It’s something Japanese culture has known for many years, now perhaps the rest of the world is catching on?

If you want to spend a day discussing these and other marketing science principles then please make your way to Sydney, Australia to be a part of MSIX (Marketing Science Ideas Xchange) (link = www.msix.com.au), the largest marketing sciences conference in the region.

Adam Ferrier is global chief strategy officer and consumer psychologistat Cummins&Partners. See all of his 'Unobvious Observations". He is also the author of The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour (Oxford, 2014).

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