Applying social psychology in advertising

Last week I attended a Google Firestarters event. My highlight was one of our Omnicom brethren Richard Shotton addressing the question of how can brands apply insight from social psychology to their advertising.

Rhyme: If you think back to yesteryear, rhymes in straplines was a staple or advertising campaigns, Typhoo, Kia-Ora, and Heinz are just three that instantly spring to mind. Whilst the ads themselves would need a bit of updating for 2017, these 30+-year-old straplines are nonetheless highly effective. Studies carried out by US psychologists revealed that rhymes in taglines made them 22% more repeatable, and made ads up to 2x more memorable. But there has been a sharp decline decade-on-decade, and an analysis of News UK’s print archives showed that in 1997 10% of ads had a rhyming strapline, but that number had dropped to just 4% by 2008. There is no evidence to show that rhyme is any less effective now, it is likely just a case of copywriters seeing it as old-fashioned and therefore not cutting edge.

Pratfall effect: The second big one was Pratfall Effect. A social psychology phenomenon, first identified by Elliot Aronson, essentially that making blunders or displaying a flaw can make you much more relatable and appealing to people. For example researchers at Northwestern discovered that the best average reviews to have online were 4.2 – 4.5 out of 5, after which products sales plateaued. Self-deprecation by brands can be great, think VW Beetle – ugly and small – but great engineering; Stella Artois – (reassuringly) expensive; Guinness – slow to pour – “good things come to those who wait”; Marmite – love it or hate it. Another long running and humorous one is Amsterdam’s Hans Blinker budget hotel. But why does this work?

  1. Consumers are cynical – admitting the flaw up front conveys honesty, and therefore makes the benefits mentioned afterwards feel more legitimate
  2. Consumers know that there will be a flaw – so this allows the brand to set expectations and own it
  3. Getting the flaw out of the way allows consumers to focus on the strength (e.g. VW – engineering, Hans Blinker – price), rather than have the “yes, but” flaw nagging away at them.

A really good example of point 2 in particular would be low-cost airlines in their infancy. When entering the marketplace they needed to reassure people that the reason for the massive savings wasn’t that the planes were unsafe! So, a few, in particular, went out of their way to publicise how bad their customer service was – so that people saw a clear way that this was how they’d made the savings!

However, estimates show that only 2-3% of brands are using pratfall. Why is this? Well, MIT’s Stephen Ross cites the Principle agent problem. The crux of this is that whilst shareholders want long-term sales, marketers will be after short-term career progression – and the prospect of an unconventional strategy not working immediately could be at odds with their career progression.

What both of these concepts are really getting at is that whilst there will, of course, be new consumer trends to be on top of, it’s important to not to overlook long-standing truths, which can still be very relevant today.


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