“Scruffy”. “Untidy”. “Rough around the edges”.
Not words you’re usually delighted to hear.
These were all words used to describe the cookie pictured below overwhelmingly preferred by 66% of participants in a study by leading consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier.
The cookies are in fact the same but for one small detail. One has a rough edge whilst the other is perfectly smooth and circular. This small imperfection didn’t detract from its appeal, but actually boosted it.
The Pratfall Effect: Why we prefer the imperfect
This somewhat counter-intuitive bias shows we have a likeness for items, people and even brands with seeming imperfections. An idea first explored by psychologist Elliot Aronson.
In his initial study he recorded an actor – prepared with a list of answers - answering a series of questions with 92% accuracy. This was then played to two groups of students. After the quiz, the actor committed a pratfall or small blunder as they pretended to spill coffee over themselves.
One group witnessed this second clip whilst the other were solely subject to the quiz recording. As a result, the students found the clumsy contestant distinctly more likeable.
These findings have been replicated from admitting mistakes at job interviews to marketing campaigns flaunting bad reviews as humble brags. As consumers we love imperfection so much we’ve created an industry especially for “worn out” and “imperfect” looking goods - Shabby-chic continues to influence our lives and our homes.
In many a scenario (including the spilt coffee) the framing effects of a pratfall invoke an involuntary affective response within us, connecting us with the distinctly humanised nature within someone or something we perceived as an expert or infallible.
Dare to be Brave or Fear to be Foolish?
One of the first marketing campaigns to utilise the Pratfall effect was the long-running and widely admitted American VW campaign by Doyle Dane Bernbach. This ran from 1959 and continued through to the early 70s and glorified the flaws of the Beetle.
If pointing out our flaws is potentially a preferable tactic, whilst we do see it used by some, why do so few brands apply it?
This is explained by the principal-agent problem.
Put yourself in the shoes of a brand manager. Imagine having to explain to your CEO as sales plummet that the key message of your campaign was that your brand is ugly, expensive and unreliable. If the campaign flops it might be the end of your branding career.
Though it seems it’s in the best interests of the brand – the principal – it's not in the interest of the brand manager, the agent.
Top tips to harness the power of pratfalls
For safe career progression, this tactic is questionable. However, if you want the best chance of growing your brand, increasing product appeal or interview success, consider revelling in your flaws. It will always be a distinctive approach.
Before rolling the dice on whether to flaunt your flaws, take note of our top tips:
Size and nature of the blunder
Frequency of blunders
To positively benefit from this effect you must first establish your credentials and expertise.
Blunders should never be significant enough to compromise your ability to perform the task at hand.
The pratfall effect only implies it’s more than okay to make mistakes once in a while, much to the relief of perfectionists afraid of making mistakes. Don’t go around making mistakes on purpose to get liked.
There’s a fine line between clumsy and cute. A little clumsiness brings out the empathy in people. Committing mistakes can make you more approachable and a lot less intimidating, but not if you keep making the same mistakes over and over.
Last week I sent out a list of references to our CEO on the wrong slides, hopefully the pratfall effect is working in my favour.
Cowry is behavioural science consultancy that leverages insights like the pratfall effect, to deliver the un-common, common sense to your customer and employee experiences.
Aronson, E., Willerman, B., & Floyd, J. Psychon Sci (1966). The effect of a pratfall on increasing interpersonal attractiveness. Psychonomic Science, 4(6), 227-228. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03342263