Richard Shotton: If you want to earn consumers’ love, flaunt your flaws

Marketers need to be confident enough to turn challenges to their advantage, rather than airbrushing out their imperfections and claiming extravagant benefits.

consumer love flaunt flawsIn May 1993, Melody Maker published a scathing review of the band Darlin’. The critic, Dave Jennings, dismissed their tunes as “daft punky trash”. Ouch.

But the band shrugged off the criticism. So much so, that when they relaunched, the barb became their name: Daft Punk.

The French dance duo are not the only musicians to have embraced insults. Keith Moon, The Who’s drummer, ridiculed rival musician Jimmy Page’s group saying they would go down “like a lead balloon”. Page promptly renamed his band Led Zeppelin.

Finally, James D Bradfield found inspiration in an insult flung at him while busking in Cardiff. “Who do you think you are boyo,” the passerby spat at him, “some kind of manic street preacher?”

Replacing the input model with an output model

While musicians are confident enough to turn insults to their advantage, the same cannot be said of marketers. I’m not just referring to brand names but also ads. Most brands airbrush out their imperfections and claim extravagant benefits.

READ MORE: Richard Shotton: Aim for average and you’ll serve no one well

The reason for their bragging lies in a misunderstanding. Too many brands implicitly believe that ads work on an ‘input’ model – that what an advertiser says is internalised literally by an audience. When you believe this, listing your strengths and hiding your flaws seems sensible.

However, as far back as 1962 Stephen King and Jeremy Bullmore criticised this model. What matters, they argued, is not the input but the output: the consumer reaction.

Bullmore summed up their argument: “Suppose I were to tell you in all seriousness that I was man of many remarkable qualities – so many, in fact, that I found it difficult when asked to say which of my qualities was the most remarkable. My integrity was certainly widely admired, as was my compassion; but if forced, I’d have to say that of all my qualities, the most remarkable had to be my modesty. ‘I’d like you to know,’ I’d say, ‘that I’m an extremely modest man.’

“Well, that’s my message. But do you accept it? I suggest you don’t. I suggest that, in fact, you arrive at a diametrically opposite conclusion.”

Volkswagen admitted the Beetle was ugly but used that to convince drivers that it ignored such aesthetic fripperies.

When you focus on the output of your ads you realise that the effect of communication is far from simple. This realisation liberates you to test counter-intuitive approaches.

And one such approach, shown to be successful by social psychologists, is flaunting your flaws.

The surprising power of a flaw

The original evidence for flaunting your flaws comes from Harvard psychologist Elliot Aronson. In his 1966 experiment, Aronson recorded an actor answering a series of quiz questions. 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 as the Americans say, a pratfall).

The recording was played to 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 significantly more likeable.

Aronson termed the fact that we prefer people who exhibit a weakness the pratfall effect.

Brands are like bands

So, what does this have to do with advertising? Well, many brands have detractors who are all too willing to point out a brand’s flaws. For example, some people think Listerine tastes awful, others that the Volkswagen Beetle looks bizarre.

The input model would suggest countering those criticisms with claims to the contrary – that the flaw was a figment of their doubters’ imagination. But that’s not what the pratfall effect suggests, nor what some of the most successful brands of all time have done. Instead, they embraced their criticism and turned it to their advantage.

Consider, for example, the 1959 campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle created by DDB. The car was advertised with the line, ‘Ugly is only skin deep’. The ad admitted the car was ugly but used that to convince drivers that VW ignored such aesthetic fripperies as they were fixated on engineering excellence.

Or think about Listerine, which publicised its bitter taste with the strapline ‘The taste you hate, twice a day’.

The ad admitted a flaw, this time taste, but again capitalised on the criticism. The campaign suggested that the bitter taste was a sign of the mouthwash’s effectiveness. You wouldn’t expect a potent medicine to taste nice, would you?

The campaigns recognised that exhibiting a weakness didn’t make them look weak. In fact, not only did it corroborate a mirror strength, it made them seem self-confident and their competitors, by contrast, needy.

So next time a consumer insults your brand, don’t fear, maybe they’ve spotted an opportunity.

Richard Shotton is deputy head of evidence at Manning Gottlieb OMD and author of The Choice Factory, a book about applying behavioural science to advertising. He tweets at @rshotton.

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