The Blemishing Effect: Why Selling Perfection Can be Self-Defeating

When we’re trying to influence people to choose an option we favor, we can be tempted to only talk about the reasons why they should.  But according to something called the Blemishing Effect, it may actually be in our best interests to point out why they shouldn’t, too.  Here’s why.

The Blemishing Effect - Why Selling Perfection Can Be Self-Defeating

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Buying Boots

Say you are in the market to buy a new pair of hiking boots.  You want to pick them up today, but only have time to hit two stores during lunch break.  It’s a busy day, so you don’t want to put too much effort into agonizing over the decision. 

At the first store, the salesman shows you a great looking pair of boots.  He talks about their rugged tread, water-proof construction, and custom orthopedic insoles.  The boots were so great, he said, that they even come with a five-year warranty.

In the second store, the salesman shows you the exact same pair of boots and he happily shares the same positive qualities:  tread, water-proofing, insoles and warranty.  But then he adds something else.  As great as the boots were, they only came in two colors. 

Which pair would you buy?

The Blemishing Effect

This is the question that researchers from Stanford Graduate School of Business and Tel Aviv University asked, and the results of their study comes as a surprise.  They presented hiking boots to subjects in two different ways.  One group heard only about their positive aspects.  The second group heard all the same positives, but then also learned about a minor negative, or “blemish.”

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the customers who heard only the positives would be more likely to buy.  But because of what researchers called the “blemishing effect,” that wasn’t the case.  Under certain conditions, adding a minor negative made the subjects about 20% more interested in buying the boots.  

Researchers postulated that the presence of the negative serves to accentuate the positives and makes the item seem all the more desirable.

The Right Conditions

Dan Pink highlighted the researcher’s findings in his book To Sell is Human:  The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, and notes that it operates best under two main conditions.

First, it’s most effective when people don’t want to spend a whole lot of energy before choosing.  Researchers termed this “low-effort processing,” as when people are otherwise busy or distracted.  The more energy decision makers had to put into deciding, the less impact the blemishing effect had.

Second, the negative information has to come after the positive, not before.  Under these low-effort processing conditions, the positives that come first stick most strongly in our minds, and the negative that comes at the end actually seems less bad in light of all the positives that came before it.

The Blemishing Effect – The Takeaway

Of course, like anything, the blemishing effect is not a sure-fire way to sell something.  The more negative the feature and the more central to expected function, the greater an obstacle it becomes. 

If we were looking for a great Italian restaurant, and the reviews were all excellent except that the parking wasn’t very convenient, we may not care.  In fact, we may be more likely to choose it.  That’s the blemishing effect in action.  Parking doesn’t affect the flavor of the food.

But if the reviews talked about flies coming from the kitchen or badly undercooked Chicken Parm, that may be too big a blemish to overcome.

Nonetheless, if we’re looking to get quick decisions on fairly simple matters, it can pay to do the opposite of what we otherwise might.  Add a small negative after listing the positives, and chances improve that the blemishing effect will do the rest of the work for us.

Lean On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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