Few bother to read the mass of reviews at the beginning of a novel, but if the book in question is the Wasp Factory, they should. Iain Banks's debut novel was remarkable not for its contents, but because it included negative reviews on the cover, such as the following from the Sunday Express:
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.
Banks's bravado paid off. The publicity helped create a bestseller, while positioning him as an independent thinker. But these tactics are not just an interesting quirk; they can be applied to marketing. A series of academic studies prove that admitting weaknesses is an effective strategy.
Psychologist Elliot Aronson discovered the bias known as the Pratfall effect. He recorded an actor answering a series of quiz questions. In one strand of the experiment, the actor - armed with the right responses - competently answers 92% of the questions correctly. After the quiz, the actor then pretended to spill a cup of coffee over themselves (a small blunder, or pratfall).
The recording was played to a large sample of students, who were then asked how likable 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 likable.
These findings have been repeated in other settings. Psychologist Joanne Silvester, for example, also found that candidates who admitted past mistakes at job interviews were more appealing.
What's true for people is true for products. At Zenith we replicated an unpublished study about cookies by leading consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier that asked 626 nationally representative people which of two cookies they preferred. The cookies are the same apart from one small difference: one has a rough edge; the other a perfectly smooth one.
The cookie with the rough edge, was the overwhelming favourite: 66% preferred it. The small imperfection didn't detract from its appeal, but boosted it.
The implications for marketing
So why do imperfections make people and products more attractive and, more importantly, how can brands apply these insights? First, admitting weaknesses makes brands seem more human. In an age when many prefer the authentic to the mass produced, this boosts appeal, as in the case of the cookie.
But there are other factors. Everyone assumes that brands are fallible, so if a brand is open about its failings, it can persuade consumers that its weaknesses lie in inconsequential areas. This theory partly explains the success of budget airlines. At launch they openly admitted that the trade-off for cheap prices was a compromised service: no reservations and a small luggage allowance. If they hadn't admitted as much, consumers may have assumed the cost-cutting had come at the expense of safety.
Finally, admitting weakness is a tangible demonstration of honesty and, therefore, makes other claims more believable. Three of some of most successful ad campaigns ever: "Good things come to those who wait" (Guinness), "Reassuringly expensive" (Stella Artois) and "Naughty but nice" (Lyons cream cakes) all made their core claim more believable by admitting a weakness. Sure, these cream cakes are full of sugar and won't be good for your figure, but they're worth it because they taste so good.
The principal-agent problem
If admitting flaws is potentially a good tactic, why do few brands apply it? The rarity is explained by the principal-agent problem: what is in the interest of the brand - the principal - is not in the interest of the marketing manager, the agent. If the campaign flops it might be the end of the brand manager's career. Imagine explaining to the CEO as sales dive that the key message of your campaign was that the brand was expensive. Even referencing Aronson might not save you.
For safe career progression then, this tactic is questionable. However, if you want the best chance of growing your brand, consider revelling in your flaws. It will always be a distinctive approach.