The Endearing Imperfection of Xi Mengyao

Chinese social media is abuzz with the Shanghai Victoria Secret fashion show and in particular about the Chinese supermodel Xi Mengyao. Xi Mengyao, sporting silver colored lingerie with wings, took a tumble while traversing the catwalk. After the fall, Xi quickly took control of herself, got up and continued her walk. One would expect that such a tumble from an experienced supermodel will result in a barrage of disapproval and criticism from the audience and the public in general. However, Xi Mengyao became a darling of the social media and the video capturing her tumble was greeted with millions of views and positive words from the Chinese netizens. So, what endeared Xi to the audience? Were they considerate because of the ridiculousness of the outfit she was wearing? Were they so smitten by her beauty that the fall was merely a minor blip in their admiration.

The real reason for this comes from what the psychologists and the behavioral economists call as the Pratfall effect. Pratfall effect refers to the tendency for the attractiveness of an able and competent individual to actually increase, after he or she makes a blunder. But it only applies if the individual in question is sufficiently imbued with charm and competence- for a person of average ability, the effect of the blunder is just the opposite – it makes him or her look even more average!

The effect was first identified by Elliot Aronson in a study conducted at the University of Minnesota in 1966. In his research, participants listened to the tape-recordings of interviews with certain contestants for a college show (who were actually also participants or confederates in the research). Some contestants answered the question with great knowledge, ability and confidence, while others faltered and created an impression of mediocrity. For half of the contestants, a blunder was staged in which the contestant dropped and spilled a cup of coffee. The results showed that this blunder had two different effects on the able contestants and the mediocre contestants. The able contestants were liked even more if they were a part of the blunder group. Whereas the poor mediocre contestants were liked even less if they made the blunder.

Xi Mengyao, a very attractive Chinese supermodel, had natural approval and liking of the Chinese audience. Her tumble on the stage further endeared her to the audience due to the Pratfall effect. This imperfection makes her look more human, more endearing and even more accessible to the audience. Bill Clinton, a popular US president, also benefited from the Pratfall effect, when his approval ratings actually went up after the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Though the Pratfall effect is not unknown in the world of marketing (sometimes known as the “blemishing effect”) clearly the marketers do not give it as much attention as it deserves, Marketers and advertisers will do well to portray the users of their brand as attractive but less than perfect. This more natural depiction will endear them and the brand more to the audience’s hearts.

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