Can Imperfection Sell?

Darts in bullseye of dartboard, front view, focus on bullseyeWhen I analyze advertisements, I give far less consideration to the product itself than I do to the lifestyle or ideal that it is selling. Take one of the recent Windex television spots, for example. Sure, the clean windows are nice, but I would venture a guess that many would rather purchase the lifestyle – children who rise out of bed when the sun shines and rocket towards the bus stop without prodding. The benefits that the creative implies one can receive from purchasing Windex are what sell in this spot.

That said, imagine my surprise when I read the recent Fast Company article, Why Brands Should Strive for Imperfection. Author Martin Lindstrom suggests that, since nothing is truly perfect, brands should stop selling perfection and sell imperfection – not manufactured imperfection, but true, everyday imperfection.

A blemished face, less-than-slim model and a below average vacation

When considering the idea of selling imperfection, one is left to question whether or not people would actually buy in. If an acne treatment product said it cured 40% of breakouts, would anyone jump at the chance to purchase it? If the model in the advertisements face wasn’t completely clear after treatment, would it drive consumers to action?

Think about a vacation to a warm weather destination. Would the advertisements for the Bahamas, Jamaica or even California look anywhere near as enticing if the weather were cloudy or rainy? If the oceans weren’t crystal clear? If everyone there weren’t smiling and having a wonderful time?

While we may know deep down that we aren’t guaranteed the same fabulous experience, I believe that there is a piece of us that likes to think we can live the ideal.  That a plane ticket purchased for one of the above destinations will inevitably result in a memorable vacation full of sun and smiles.

Although I concur with Lindstrom that many of the most watched YouTube videos are far from perfect but still garner a sizeable audience, there is a significant difference — YouTube content is free! Consumers are only investing time in viewing the latest American Idol outtakes and other humorous content, not dollars.

There is something to be said for being able to relate

While I am not about to shell out money for a plane to ticket to a warm weather destination that markets itself with images of downpours and unhappy visitors, I wouldn’t mind hearing a product endorsement from someone who uses and believes in the product, as opposed to someone who is paid to use and believe in the product. Perhaps hearing about how well a cleaning product worked from a real mother of five with children traipsing through her home would be more compelling than a celebrity or model housewife raving about her experience with the product.

Lindstrom says in his article, it isn’t about highlighting negative product attributes, and I couldn’t agree more. However, how does one draw the line between the ideal and reality while still projecting a brand image that sells? At what point is the risk or mess involved with product usage worth the benefit? More accurately, is this society ready to buy into imperfection and part with the glimpses of the ideal that have sold products so well for decades? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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  • missmotorcade

    Great post, Danielle. I do think society is ready – in small doses – to part with the ideal. Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, which features “real” (read: not model skinny) women in their skivvies enjoying life and just being happy (of course because they use Dove…) is a great example of a recent, successful campaign that used this tactic. And prescription drug commercials have been doing this for a while (otherwise they have to disclose that the people in the commercial are actors and not actual users of the drug – which, I guess, in the world of Rx drugs, isn't too convincing).

    I think you're onto something – maybe our society is ready for authenticity. It's nice to relate to the people in the ads, especially during a time when so many Americans are making serious changes in their lives as a result of the current economic situation. This could be a pivotal moment for ads with the flavor you describe – and a huge opportunity the brands that realize this to gain huge share and momentum. I love this idea.

  • Thanks for the comment, Sherri. I think companies would find their customers less dissatisfied if they didn't sell an unattainable ideal. People's trust in organizations is low these days and companies need to accept that and respond in a way that is authentic and helps them to regain their audience's trust. Perhaps one way is to sell mild imperfection.

  • I might be going a little off on a tangent here, but there is a literary device that I think accomplishes what you're talking about here rather well. Do you remember Antony's speech from Julius Caesar? “I am here to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” yadda yadda, and then he DOES end the speech by praising him and giving everyone the moxie and gumption to punish the murderers? It sounds silly, but the bait-and-switch is really efficient in terms of capturing attention, then turning that attention to the other side of the dichotomy.

    When ads point out their products flaws or downsides or something less-than-ideal, they open the door for the other, more positive aspects of their products to make a better impression in the minds of the audience.

  • jeffespo

    Daniel this is a great post and also think that Sherri makes some great points. I would also wonder whether the human nature of social media has made it easier for imperfection being a sales tool.

  • Very thought-provoking, Danielle. I think Jeff is on to something. Ads can be a conversation starter, but research shows we trust the “hearing about how well a cleaning product worked from a real mother of five” more when making the actual purchase. And we get that perspective often times from social media.

    My question for you, and for companies, is this: If people seem to be turning to social media before making an actual puchase and if there is so much uncertainty about what direction is best for advertisers to take today (as you highlighted well in your post), should organizations really be spending hundreds of thousands — or even millions in some cases — on TV commercials? Would that money be better invested elsehwhere?