The Pratfall Effect in Marketing: Profit From Your Mistakes

Nobody’s perfect, rigt?

The pratfall effect can have a big positive on your marketing campaigns. If you’ve ever wondered why some brands flaunt their product’s flaws, you’re in the right place.

No matter how hard you try and how much time you put in, the occasional error is always likely to slip by, and that’s ok, in fact, according to the pratfall effect, it might even be a good thing.

In this article, we’ll be looking at what the pratfall effect is, why it applies to marketing and how you can use this psychological power to the maximum.

Let’s start with the obvious:

What is the Pratfall Effect?

The pratfall effect explains that when we see somebody that we hold in high esteem make a mistake or error, they appear even more likeable.

Equally, when we see somebody that we don’t hold in high esteem make an error or mistake, we like them even less.

The pratfall effect can be transferred over into brands who occasionally make mistakes, or sell products that aren’t deemed perfect.

Where Does the Pratfall Effect Originate?

The pratfall effect was first studied in 1966 by social psychologist, Elliot Aronson.

He theorised that people who were considered ‘superior’ could become even more attractive in the eyes of their peers if they made a mistake.

Aronson believed that we view our idols as exceptional or superhuman, but a small error can humanise them, making them more relatable.

pratfall effect elliot aronson

The Experiment

To test his theory, Aronson gathered 48 college men and divided them into four groups or 12.

Each group was given a different recording of somebody answering questions. These people were pre-framed, so each group knew something about the backstory and character of the person speaking on the recording.

The 4 recordings were:

  1. Somebody pre-framed as average answering questions
  2. Somebody pre-framed as superior answering questions
  3. Somebody pre-framed as average answering questions and loudly spilling a cup of coffee
  4. Somebody pre-framed as superior answering questions and loudly spilling a cup of coffee

After the recordings, the 4 sample groups were asked about their impression of the people on the tapes.

The results concluded Aronson’s theory – the ‘superior’ individual answering questions and making a pratfall was the most positive.

Whilst the recording of the average person answering questions and making a pratfall was the least positive.

Examples of the Pratfall Effect in Marketing

VW Beetle

Perhaps the most famous example of the pratfall effect in marketing is the VW Beetle campaigns of the 1950s and 60s.

At the time, the car was everything that the American consumer didn’t want, small, ugly and German, and yet the car became a massive hit from its brilliant advertising campaigns.

The messages from VW reinforced everything that the typical American consumer didn’t like about the beetle.

pratfall effect marketing vw beetle 50s

With campaigns leading on headlines like: ‘Lemon’, ‘One of the nice things about owning it is selling it’, ‘And if you run out of gas, it’s easy to push’, and even ‘Nobody’s perfect’.

VW took advantage of the pratfall effect before Aronson had even tested the theory.

pratfall effect marketing vw beetle 50s

Guinness

The slowest drink to pour in a pub is a pint of Guinness.

Many brand owners might see this as a problem and try to alter their product, Guinness didn’t, they made it their strap line.

‘Good things come to those who wait.’

This clever line of copy adds value to not only the drink, but to the wait itself – improving and symbolising it as part of the customer experience.

Here it’s used in one of the most iconic television adverts of all time:

KFC

If your business was unable to serve its customers, you’d probably want to apologise, amend the problem ASAP and quietly move on.

This is not what KFC did when they ran out of chicken.

kfc fck poster pratfall effect marketing

The now infamous marketing materials that the fastfood company shared have become synonymous with their biggest ever pratfall.

This image was virally shared across social networks, boosting KFC’s brand recognition, awareness and sales (when they finally found some more chicken).

How To Use the Pratfall Effect In Marketing?

The pratfall effect works but that doesn’t mean you should make an intentional mistake.

There are other ways that you can implement errors into your marketing campaigns.

Just make sure that you or your products are already positioned as ‘superior’, otherwise your pratfall might have the opposite effect.

Use Weaknesses

If you have a great product that does all the right things for your target market, it might be worth highlighting some of your weaknesses as a hook for your product.

What is seen as a weakness by some, can be made into a positive for others, as well as showing your human side.

Expensive products can be labelled as ‘worth it’ or ‘luxury’. For example, Stella Artois have long used the strapline ‘Reassuringly expensive’.

pratfall marketing stella artois

You can even use your pratfall to make your product more desirable by putting it front and centre in your marketing campaigns.

Buckley’s are a brand that specialise in cough medicine, they famously used the line ‘It tastes awful. And it works.’

pratfall effect marketing buckleys

This line of copy doesn’t just tell an audience that their product works, it builds trust and reminds us of those medicines that tasted so bad, but had the desired effects.

Buckley’s are clearly confident that their product is great at doing what it’s supposed to – so they’re much happier sharing their pratfall as a marketing hook for their product.

The Apology

If your product is missing a key feature or you feel like you haven’t been serving your customers as well as you should, you could use an apology to tap into the power of the pratfall effect in your marketing.

An apology is not only a great way to humanise your brand and make it seem more appealing, you could use it to highlight a problem that’s been fixed to a wider audience.

This acts as an effective way of promoting new product or brand features and generating greater brand awareness.

Look back to the KFC example as a brilliant way of combining an apology with the pratfall effect in content marketing.

Be Less Perfect

People crave the real and authentic – and in some situations being less perfect is actually far more appealing.

Imperfections show honest touches that have been made by people, not machines.

Look at your product like a pizza, would you rather be served a perfectly round pizza, or one of those handmade, hand-stretched, wood-fired pizzas that come in slightly odd shapes?

homemade pizza pratfall

One consumer psychologist asked 600+ consumers to pick between two identical cookies with different edges:

  1. With a perfectly smooth edge
  2. With a slightly broken, crumbly, imperfect edge

The second cookie won by a large majority – all because of its authenticity, realness and imperfection.

homemade cookies pratfall experiment

Being less perfect is an awesome way to involve the pratfall effect in your marketing.

Conclusion

Brands like Marmite, KFC, Volkswagen and Guinness haven’t just tried to hide their pratfalls, they’ve used them to great effect in their marketing campaigns.

If your product has any imperfections (which it definitely does btw) don’t feel obliged to hide them.

Showing your flaws to your target market can be a great way to humanise your brand and become more relatable.

Use the pratfall effect in your marketing and feel the effects of this marketing psychology tactic yourself!

Want more marketing and advertising advice and strategies? Check these out: 

Director of Content at Einstein Marketer
Josh is an award winning content marketer and the Director of Content at Einstein Marketer, previously working as a content manager, freelance copywriter and marketer. He writes, edits, proofs and strategises content for Einstein Marketer's agency and their clients, sharing the most successful tactics and strategies with his lovely audience. He hates writing in the third person, follow him on the social links (above) so he can get back to writing as himself.

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