Teodora Miscov
Teodora Miscov 29 March 2018

The Counter-intuitive Benefits of Authenticity

Being vulnerable doesn't automatically translate into weakness - when used in the right way, it can bring brands closer to their customers.

When Ian Banks’ first book “The Wasp factory” was published it got very different reviews. The Independent said “One of the top 100 novels of the century.” and The New York Times said “Brilliant...irresistible...compelling.” However the The Times (London) said “Rubbish!”

The publisher was horrified but Banks asked to put the positive and negative reviews on the cover. He also signed some first editions as “Ian Rubbish Banks”.

Rather than creating a controversy, Banks understood that if we admit a weakness we are more appealing. The good review were so good that a couple of negatives made it seem more honest and increased overall sales.

University Challenge

Elliot Aronson was the first person to study this effect.

Aronson conducted a blind split test using university students that watched an quiz modelled on the US equivalent of University Challenge. In one split the person who completed the quiz with a record score, then spilled his coffee.  Students who saw spilt coffee rated him as much more appealing than the control group who only saw the quiz.

This is now called the Pratfall effect and is used as a major part in several advertising campaigns.


Avis used to the advertising strapline “Avis is only no. 2” as a hook to why they are trying harder. This is still used 50 years later.


Love it or hate it has taken a life of its own- there is now an app, a ‘DNA’ test and board game on the same theme.


Ryanair intentionally did not update its website for many years especially when compared to every other airline as part of a statement that it was focused on keeping prices down.

The issue here was that this intentional admission also played to the popular narrative that low cost also meant low quality service which did put people off. Despite Michael O'Leary frequently repeating “Our booking engine is full of people who promised never to fly again with us” - yet, Ryanair has been working to change this image.

Lessons for advertisers 

  • Vulnerability increases the attraction.
  • Brands need to have a strong perception already - the ones that are seen as incompetent only compound the perception by admitting another promoting their weakness.
  • These are about opportunity and circumstance. One should not go out to create a Pratfall campaign (unless you have a problem that you are perceived as inaccessible and want to be more open and vulnerable).
  • Most importantly, if mistakes happen, don’t ignore them. Find a way to built the humanity and transparency and playfulness of your brand.
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