Incredible Claims Undermine the Credibility of Social Proof

Jun 04, 2015


Social proof is a powerful marketing technique. But going too far, with a claim that seems incredible, undermines credibility and effectiveness.


The picture above shows an eight-year-old giving the suspicious side-eye to a sign at a haunted house tourist attraction. The sign made a claim that he simply did not find credible – that the haunted house in question was so terrifying that more than one hundred thousand people had chickened out.

First things first – the sign may indeed be accurate. He's only eight, and most numbers seem huge to him. If asked he thinks a new car costs hundreds of dollars. And he certainly doesn't appreciate the way a number like that would grow over the span of years. But his reaction is worth examining.


adjective | in·cred·i·ble
Definition: Too extraordinary and improbable to be believed. implausible, inconceivable, unbelievable, uncompelling, unconceivable, unconvincing, unimaginable, unthinkable.
Synonyms: fantastic (also fantastical), implausible, inconceivable, incredulous, unbelievable, uncompelling, unconceivable, unconvincing, unimaginable, unthinkable, full of it

Merriam-Webster Dictionary


The haunted house, one of the five in a busy tourist area of just a few blocks, wants to establish that they are the best. By best they mean scariest.

To establish that they are the scariest they use something called social proof in the form of the chicken board. Rather than simply claiming to be the scariest, they attempt to prove they are the scariest by referencing the number of tourists that have chickened out.

Social proof is, in general, a very effective tactic. Claims from someone who is trying to sell you something are easily dismissed. The kind of peer review at work with social proof is seen as far more credible. If that many other haunted house enthusiasts found this one too scary then it must be truly scary.

Social proof is what makes the kind of peer review we see in places like Yelp! and Urbanspoon so credible. The data isn't coming from the seller, who is working entirely from a profit motive; it's coming from people just like you.

In the 1950s McDonalds used a very simple kind of social proof with their "Over one million served" sign. Can that many people be wrong? If they like it, you must like it too. The haunted house is doing the same kind of thing but it reverse – if it caused that many people to chicken out it's probably going to scare you senseless too.

Pushing too far causes a real problem though. The goal of social proof is to add credibility to a claim. Instead of just making the claim that a haunted house operator would be expected to make in a highly competitive market (our haunted house is the scariest), social proof is employed to make that claim seem more credible.

But – if the claim of social proof is incredible then it backfires. It's just another meaningless claim from someone trying to sell you something.

In fact it's worse. A subjective claim like "we're the scariest" is probably considered standard marketing hype. A specific objective claim, like the number of people to have chickened out, seems actively dishonest, and an attempt to undermine the peer review process. It becomes a betrayal.

In this case the number of daily chickens (14) might be a good number to use as social proof. A weekly, monthly, or even yearly number might be good too.

But a number greater than 100K? At first glance it simply doesn't seem credible. It might be real – if you did the math it works out to 20 chickens a day every day for almost fifteen years – but the very fact it compels you to want to check the math means that it is setting off a red flag.

Category: Selling

Related Content

Lubriderm Is Boring, The People Who Use It Aren't

This great Lubriderm campaign creates authority by admitting to a negative, and florists might be able to learn something from it.

Tracking Marketing Performance With Discount Codes

Perfect example of how discount codes can help a florist or small business owner track the effectiveness of an advertising or marketing effort.

Social Proof at an Auction: After the Bidding is Done

Auctions are often used to illustrate Social Proof – competing bids convince us an item has value and make us value it more. The same is true in reverse.

The Wrong Appeal to Guilt Can Justify Guilty Behavior

A logical, deserved and well intentioned appeal to guild (a fundraising effort by an internet radio station) might actually make you feel less guilty.

Social Influence For Dentists, By A Dentist

Dr. Christopher Phelps DMD has taken the Six Universal Principles of Social Influence and applied them to the special needs of dentists.

Consistency Above All Else

The discovery of roaches and rodent activity at a popular upscale grocery store shows just how far people will bend to stay consistent with previous beliefs and behaviors.

Category List

Tag List

Tag Cloud