Don’t worry: We’re not covering politics on the Idea Email. However, we are going to remind you of a political phenomenon we’ve touched on before: the “backfire effect.” Identified through the research of political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, the backfire effect can be summed up this way: When individuals declare their support for a specific candidate or cause, no amount of evidence or fact-checking will convince them that they are wrong. Not only that, but the more you tell these supporters they are wrong, the more they will dig in their heels and refuse to budge.
“Giving people corrected information is often ineffective with the people whose minds we’d like to change, and in some cases it actually can make the problem worse,” Nyhan said. “It’s much harder to change people’s minds than we might have thought.”
As marketers, the backfire effect is vexing because we are programmed to compare our superior products with those of the inferior competition. Intuitively, we believe potential customers will buy our product if we prove that we have the best option in the marketplace. So we build our argument based on scientific evidence that we’re the fastest, biggest, smartest option they can choose, and we use charts and graphs to demonstrate these comparisons. We fact-check everything the competitor claims and present those to the potential buyer. “Sorry,” they respond. “We’re sticking with what we have.”
Why aren’t they convinced?
The backfire effect suggests that a customer’s prior beliefs contribute to their sense of who they are. Those existing beliefs can even be a factor in one’s self-esteem. So when a marketer presents new facts disproving what they believe, they subconsciously fight back against the new information because it damages something about their self-identity. You aren’t just attacking their product (or candidate)—you’re attacking them.
How to lessen the backfire effect: In a political campaign, the strategy is to accept the reality that if people have an entrenched belief (a favorite brand), there will be little chance to turn them, so don’t waste your time. Go after the undecided. With consumer or business products and services, focus the narrative of your product and brand on the goals and aspirations of the customer, not on comparisons that claim the technical features of your product are better than the competitor’s.
Bottom line for marketers: Rather than accidentally triggering a customer’s subconscious need to defend who they are, look for ways to ease their journey to a new reality and truth they can discover for themselves. Help them find their way to the truth, step-by-step, instead of bashing them over the head with something much harder for them to believe: the facts.