Opinion

Brands need to learn to accept the negative with the positive

As more and more brands bombard their customers with a monotonous list of reasons why they’re wonderful, Richard Shotton details why we need to embrace the negative.

Despite flashes of early promise, by his late twenties Iain had failed to fulfil his potential. He was stuck in London in a dead-end job, rushing home at the end of a shift to follow his childhood passion: writing.

But despite churning out four full-length novels, the publishers remained indifferent.

Desperate for recognition, Iain ditched sci-fi and wrote his next novel in a more popular genre. After three publishers rejected him, the fourth, Macmillan, decided to gamble on Iain’s tale of rural Scottish depravity.

The critical reception to the review copies was broadly positive.

Broadly.

A few titles were sickened by the violence. According to The Sunday Express it was:

A silly, gloatingly sadistic and grisly yarn of a family of Scots lunatics, one of whom tortures small creatures – a bit better written than most horror hokum but really just the literary equivalent of a video nasty.

The Times was even more damning:

It soars to the level of mediocrity. Maybe the crassly explicit language, the obscenity of the plot were thought to strike an agreeably avant-garde note. Perhaps it’s all a joke meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish.

From weakness, strength

Rather than brushing this criticism under the carpet, Iain broke with tradition and insisted that the novel included both positive and negative reviews within the blurb. Macmillan were aghast, but Iain was adamant. The negative reviews stayed.

Iain’s chutzpah paid off. His distinctive approach got him noticed and the sheer outrage of many critics meant its positioning as a powerfully moving book had credibility. The publicity helped create a bestseller, while positioning him as an independent thinker.

And the name of the book? The Wasp Factory. The novel that launched the stellar 30-year career of Iain Banks.

But what can this tale teach advertisers?

Well, it runs counter to how most brands behave. Most brands attempt to win over customers by bombarding them with a monotonous list of the reasons why they’re wonderful.

However, learnings from psychology suggest that Bank’s tactic of admitting your flaws is the more effective one.

The power of flaws was first discovered in 1966 by Harvard University psychologist Elliot Aronson. In his experiment Aronson recorded an actor answering a series of quiz questions. In one strand of the experiment, 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 pratfall).

The recording was played to a large sample of 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 more likeable.

Aronson called this insight the pratfall effect.

The smartest brands have recognised that exhibiting a flaw makes them more appealing, and they have use the pratfall effect to stand-out from their competitors.

Consider, the DDB VW campaign. From 1959, they gloried in the flaws of the Beetle. The looks of the car were gently mocked with one print ad featuring a photo of the lunar module and the headline, “It’s ugly but it gets you there”.

Another referenced the size of the car with the line “Think Small”. And my favourite drew attention to the slow speed in the body copy: “A VW won’t go over 72 mph. (Even though the speedometer shows a wildly optimistic top speed of 90.)”

VW used these weaknesses to their advantage – they implied that the Beetle looked bizarre because their focus was on engineering excellence not superficial looks.

Why not consider applying the pratfall effect in your next campaign? If you pick your fault wisely, avoiding your core competence and choosing a weakness that has a mirrored strength, then it can be a successful tactic.

This article has been adapted from Richard Shotton’s book, The Choice Factory.

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