The Pratfall effect: humanise your brand through its faults

Joanna Turner

5 October 2021

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In recent times, the human ability to understand the world we live in has not kept up with the rapid change in technology. We are constantly overwhelmed by the stimuli around us and if we had to consciously process every single decision we made, life and society as we know it would probably be at a standstill. So we have adapted and now rely heavily on unconscious biases, external influences and intellectual shortcuts to make our decisions for us.

Academics in the fields of cognitive science, social psychology and behavioural economics have studied these cognitive biases for decades and have consolidated a list of 188 that impact our everyday beliefs and decisions. A true gold mine for us marketers, who can use those biases, nudges and psychological principles to better understand patterns in consumer purchasing decisions. 

Whilst there is a vast array of cognitive biases that can be applied to all areas of the customer experience and journey, the truth is the Pratfall Effect is one of our favourite examples.  Controversial but powerful, the principle is so simple yet so rarely used as it can feel like such a risk for marketers. But if executed in the right way, it can be a game-changer for brands. 

But what exactly is the Pratfall effect?

Published by Psychologist Elliot Aronson, the bias known as the Pratfall Effect states that people are more liked when they show imperfections. 

In Aronson’s research, he recorded an actor (armed with the correct answers) answering quiz questions with a 92% accuracy. He then showed this footage to a group of participants who were later asked how likeable the individual was. A second group of participants were then shown the same recording but at the end, the actor was filmed spilling a cup of coffee over himself. Participants who were shown the coffee spillage (the pratfall) found the quiz contestant to be considerably more likeable than the group who wasn’t shown his clumsiness. Aronson therefore concluded that pratfalls actually make people more personable and likeable. 

But does this principle really work beyond people? Can we actually apply it to products, brands and services? Well, this is where we will bring in the cookie experiment! 

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Initially developed by consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier, and then replicated by Zenith Media, the study found out that when shown the above image of the two cookies, one with a rough edge and one with a perfectly smooth edge, 66% of participants preferred the cookie on the left with the rougher edge. The imperfection didn’t make the cookie less appealing, in fact, it boosted its appeal considerably. And I bet you’d also prefer to eat the cookie on the left. 

Pratfall Effect and Brands

So what do these experiments mean for brands in the real world? There are several tried and tested examples that show how admitting weaknesses and being honest to consumers can make your brand seem more human. Consumers are increasingly seeking authenticity in the brands and services they use. The Pratfall Effect may help you humanise your brand, which has recently proven to be a dominant trend across the marketing landscape, and a vital aspect of any powerful strategy, as it allows consumers to feel closer to your messages and values, and hence identify with your messages in a deeper way. 

Another reason why the Pratfall effect is so powerful is that, as consumers, we will always assume that brands and companies make mistakes, and thus we naturally distrust total perfection. A great example for this is the way we analyse product and services reviews. In 2015 a study by Northwestern University found that “the likelihood to purchase a product 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.” 

This means that aiming for flawless reviews can in the end worsen the odds and decrease sales. A better strategy to leverage the pratfall effect would be to reply to bad reviews, own your mistakes and show that you are willing to learn from them. By being open about where your failings and pratfalls are, consumers can be persuaded that your weaknesses lie in inconsequential areas. 

The rise of budget airlines is the perfect example. These companies are very open and honest about why they are so cheap; lack of seat reservations, very small luggage allowances, no free in-flight food or drink… By admitting this is how they are saving costs, it means customers don’t assume cost-cutting was done at the expense of safety. You’re much more willing to fly with a budget airline and put up with lower service than you would be if you thought the aircrafts weren’t safe. 

A great (and classical) example is this campaign by Guinness. It takes 199.5 seconds to pour a pint of Irish beer. That’s over 3 minutes. For reference, the average pour time for a pint of beer is only 10 seconds, so Guinness definitely needed to make the wait seem worth it. Their answer to this was to leverage the Pratfall Effect in their infamous slogan “Good things come to those who wait”. They managed to turn the main disadvantage of their product into the thing they are most known for. Guinness drinkers happily stand around for those 199.5 seconds and wait for their pint, they know it’ll be worth it in the end! 

But more current campaigns have also been able to leverage on the potential of  the pratfall effect for their brand’s benefit. In 2020, COVID-19 came and forced everybody to social distance and to pay attention to their habits, especially fast-food related, when sharing with others is more usual. 

In this dodgy context, KFC’s slogan “It’s finger licking good” became obsolete and out of place. Therefore, in an worldwide award winning campaign, they temporarily dropped the tagline, pixelated their logo in all their creatives and asked consumers to create their own taglines, including them in the campaign. This way they leveraged an inappropriate tagline to bring attention to their brand and power sales in a post-confinements world. 

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But a bigger example is how Tesla turned their latest (and maybe biggest) fail into a meme. As you may know, when presenting their Cyber Truck, Elon Musk got carried away and asked his lead designer, Franz von Holzhausen, to test the apparently unbreakable armour of the truck by kicking it with a steel ball. What happened will not surprise you: the glass broke. They tried again, and it shattered for a second time. 

Of course, this was a huge setback for the brand, in the presentation of one of their most awaited product releases of all time. And what did Musk’s brand do with it? A press release to control the damage? Publishing thousands of videos and quality standards proving the cyber truck armor actually works? None of that. They produced a souvenir of the event, a t-shirt with an image of the shattered glass and posted it on their website for sale at $45. They didn’t just acknowledge their pratfall, they made fun of it, leveraged the conversations around it and created a meme that went viral and generated even more conversation online. 

And did this impact the product? Of course not, Elon Musk announced that Tesla received over 250,000 reservations for the Cybertruck within a week of unveiling the vehicle. Taking into account that the model hadn’t been produced and no one had tested it yet, it is quite a remarkable figure. 

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Beyond creative campaigns

At this point, it may seem as if the pratfall effect only worked for trivial creative campaigns. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Acknowledging your brand’s flaws can also be a good strategy to build credibility in terms of sustainability and social impact and avoid accusations of greenwashing. 

Although controversial, Oatly’s is a good example of a brand being open about their mistakes. As the world marked #BlackOutTuesday and many brands expressed their support to the movement, Oatly chose to also acknowledge the long way it still has to walk towards achieving racial equality: “We are taking a hard look at ourselves as a company (…). There’s a lot of work to be done so we are taking this moment to listen to those people who most need to be heard right now as we draw up our own action plan. Going forward we expect to be judged by our actions, what we actually do to create change for society and the planet, and not solely on the words used in a statement like this”.

The approach was similar when replying to customers’ negative comments regarding the sale of a 6.7% stake to investment fund Blackstone. A risky bet, we know, but coherent and honest. In situations like these, it is better to openly talk about what you do wrong than to pretend you know it all. 

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In conclusion, the Pratfall Effect can be risky and it has surely led to a lot of marketing staff being in the firing lines if the idea wasn’t executed or received as planned. However, if you are able to use this effect in the right way, it can be such a powerful bias to leverage. This is because, besides humanising your brand, it also emphasises a concept that we, as Good Rebels, always try to achieve with our clients and in everything we do: radical transparency. So think about your brand or product’s worst trait and be honest about it.