ARTICLE
August 13, 2021

Pratfall Effect in Marketing: Admit Your Flaws to Win Customers

Louis Grenier
Founder of Everyone Hates Marketers

The pratfall effect: People who show their imperfections tend to be more trusted.

Back in 2015, I became obsessed with tech companies sharing their results in public: Basecamp, Baremetrics, Buffer.

It seemed to be a crazy new way to differentiate by doing something that no other companies were willing to do.

I was so into it that I did the same when launching my first marketing agency.

Every month, we would share our results as a blog post:

Example of how not to do the pratfall effect.

I would go as far as sharing our profits and expenses:

Example of how not to do the pratfall effect

It helped us to gain some attention in our local Dublin market but I didn't have the energy to keep this agency running for long enough to reap the rewards.

Your competitors probably aren’t using the pratfall effect. There's so much bragging, so much bullshit, so much lying, so many over-the-top statements, so many buzzwords that mean nothing.

Everyone wants to be seen as perfect, with a perfect track record, perfect case studies, perfect 5-star customer reviews… Perfect everything.

Everyone’s making shit up because they think it’s the best way to differentiate.

Take the beauty industry. Jonathan Salem Baskin, the author of Tell The Truth and a B2B marketing advisor from Nissan, Apple, and Blockbuster.

High-end women's cosmetics literally promise that they reverse the flow of time. It's amazing to see the nonsense that gets put in the marketing and branding for those products. Ask their customers, ‘Do you think any of it is true?’, and they’ll say, ‘Well, no, but on the off-chance that might help…” or, “What else am I going to do?’

Or take the tech industry. DHH, the founder of Basecamp, explains:

They had to invent new words to describe something simple. For example, ‘monetization.’ I just hate that word because it encapsulates everything that is rotten about this new technology-driven approach to business, because it pretends to make something that is so simple seem so complicated. It's only complicated because people have something to hide. What are they monetizing? They're monetizing eyeballs or privacy.
DHH on using transparent language in applying the pratfall effect
DHH is the co-founder of Basecamp and Hey. He was also one of my first guests on Everyone Hates Marketers.
This is the language of bullshit needed to describe the unsavory. When you're selling a good product that helps people directly and you sell it for a fair price, you just don't need that vocabulary."

I don't blame you

I understand the pressure you're under. You need to make sales. You need to generate demand. You need to please your boss. You need to please the board. You need to make ends meet. I get that.

Paul Mellor, MD of the British advertising agency Mellor&Smith, gets it, too:

These marketers, especially those CMOs or VPs of Marketing are earning pretty good wages. They've got a mortgage, probably even a second mortgage on that second holiday home. They've got kids in private school, they’ve got a lot to lose to go against the grain.
It's much easier to sit with the crowded group where everyone is exactly the same, where no one stands out.

How to break away from that nonsense and use the pratfall effect to your competitive advantage

Two words: radical transparency.

Admit your flaws, be transparent, stay on truth.

It's not just my point of view.

The pratfall effect is backed by scientific evidence: people who show their imperfections tend to be more trusted. 

Richard Shotton, behavioral psychologist and author of The Choice Factory:

This idea was first discussed by Elliot Aronson, Professor of Psychology at Harvard in the 1960s: if you admit a weakness, exhibit flaws, you become more appealing.
He recruited someone to take part in a quiz and gave that contestant the answers to the quiz. The guy does amazingly well and gets 90% of the questions, winning the quiz by miles.
After he’s done, he makes what Americans would call a pratfall, a small blunder. He stands up and he spills a cup of coffee down himself. So Aronson takes that recording and he plays it to participants in his experiment in one of two ways: 1) either they hear the entire episode or 2) they just hear the great quiz performance.
And then Aronson asks everyone, ‘how appealing do you find this guy?’
The people who’ve heard the mistake found the contestant to be significantly more appealing.
The Choice Factory book explains how the pratfall effect builds trust with customers
The Choice Factory, a great book on psychology and its impact on advertising/marketing.

The pratfall effect also materializes within online reviews.

You may think that customers would trust you more if they see only five-star reviews. Think again.

Richard Shotton, again:

In 2015, Northwestern University scraped 111,000 product reviews across 22 product categories and analyzed the correlation between the average review rating and the likelihood to purchase.
Here’s what they’ve found: the likelihood to purchase increased as the average review rating went up until it reached a tipping point, somewhere between 4.2 and 4.4 out of 5. After that point, the likelihood to purchase decreased as the average rating went up.
So, consumers didn't trust perfection. If you are running a brand, whatever size, and have negative reviews, don't be ashamed of them. Don't be one of these websites that just put up the perfect reviews. Put some of the poor ones up and explain why maybe they had a poor service in that very rare individual case.

6 examples on how to use the pratfall effect in marketing

Example #1 - David Darmanin, co-founder of Hotjar

How do you feel about David after reading this statement?

One thing that’s important to share, especially for anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur: when we were starting off, we honestly really had no clue what we were doing, but we focused on what was important: our users and value creation. Things just kind of settled themselves. We figured things out.

Boom.

I’m willing to bet that you have a good feeling about this guy, even though it may be the first time you’ve ever heard of him or his company.

That’s the pratfall effect in action.

Example #2 - Guinness

The Irish company admits a flaw: pouring a glass of Guinness takes longer than other beers. There’s a reason for this, though. It’ll taste better.

Guiness is an example of how to stand out from competitors using the pratfall effect
I'm sorry to feature an alcoholic beverage.

The fact that it takes a long time to process implies that it must be good.

Example #3 - Listerine

Their mouthwash tastes bad.

Listerine is an example of how to stand out from competitors using the pratfall effect

They’re willing to admit it because “something that tastes that bad must be good for you.” A mouthwash that tastes great AND does the job would be too good to be true.

Example #4 - Volkswagen

Volkswagen is an example of how to stand out from competitors using the pratfall effect
This ad campaign from 1969 changed the face of advertising. Need I say more?

Example #5 - CXL

CXL, one of the best marketing training programs out there, sheds light on the depth and complexity of their content by showcasing a real customer review.

CXL is an example of how to stand out from competitors using the pratfall effect

They admit that they’re not for everyone.

They don’t cover content you can just watch on YouTube for five minutes.

Example #6 - Oatly

Oatly, a beverage made from oats (and not cow milk), admits that the taste isn’t their best asset.

OAT-LY is an example of how to stand out from competitors using the pratfall effect

They prefer to focus on their ingredients while offering an alternative to traditional cow milk.

Steps to use the pratfall effect to your marketing advantage

Wherever you are, whatever industry, whatever you're selling: you can use the pratfall effect to your advantage. Virtually all the companies you're competing against are way too scared to explore this. They're going to challenge it internally and kill the idea before it was even born.

This is a huge opportunity.

Step #1 - Challenge your beliefs about transparency

You have a lot to lose if you're NOT going against the grain.

You are facing obscurity. Think about what you're missing out on by NOT running these types of ads or NOT incorporating that idea in your marketing.

I officially give you my permission to fucking go for it, to take some risks because no one else in your industry is doing it.

Most of our competitors are braggers. They want to be seen as perfect. They don't want to risk losing their job.

Step #2 - Get unbiased feedback

Ask your customers and employees: “Be honest. Do you think what we're saying is true? What do you hate the most inside our category?

Do whatever it takes to get unbiased feedback from people in your market: get them on a call and share your screen, run usability tests, messaging tests. Ask them to be brutally honest.

Everyone has a bullshit detector that is very well in tune.

This is also the way to convince your boss, your board, or your clients to give radical transparency a try: share the raw feedback you’re getting, watch their reaction as they become increasingly embarrassed, and then move on to the next step...

Step #3 - Step away from the hyperbole

Jonathan Salem Baskin calls it the “litmus test of accuracy.

Apply a litmus test of accuracy and truthfulness to the stuff you do.
If you're tasked with editing copy for an ad or with creating social posts, challenge yourself to take a step back from the hyperbole. Challenge yourself to NOT just put out something that is ‘on brand’, but also ‘on truth.’ That's something you can start doing without any approval.

Step #4 - Admit your flaws

What do you do exceptionally well? What do you have to compromise on in order to deliver on that strength of yours?

Customers will rationalize your negatives and rave about your positives.

Step #5 - Challenge the clichés

Play inside your category.

When everyone else is bragging, how can you do the exact opposite? What can you say that others are too afraid to?

Lean on what customers are telling you. Remove the clichés they hate. Double down on what they love.

Go for it.

No compromise.

To summarize

  • Everyone wants to be seen as perfect, so we brag and lie.
  • We think we have too much to lose by going against the grain and telling the truth.
  • But studies all point to the same thing: imperfection is trusted (pratfall effect).
  • Get unbiased feedback, admit your flaws to shed light on your strengths, challenge the status quo, play within your category. You have my permission.

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