When adulation backfires

One rule that marketers find hard to grasp is that online, people prefer objective writing to hype. We don't just dislike 'boastful subjective claims': we read it more slowly and understand less. In Nielsen and Morkes' classic study, just removing hype improved usability by 24 per cent.

Last week hype on paper hit me with the same effect. I was surprised at how tetchy I got, and how a bit of hype ruined a novel for me.

The novel was Arlington Park by Rachel Cusic. The hype was on the front cover:

'It's the best-written book I've read since Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.' Helen Dunmore.

This quote immediately got up my nose and caused me to waste quite a lot of time:

  • Best-written? In what sense?
  • Best-written? Should that have a hyphen?
  • Who says? Who are you, anyway? Google Helen Dunmore.
  • You mean over-written? Let me check.
  • You mean hypersensitive neurotic prose? Don't like the sound of this.
  • How dare you compare this writer with Ishiguro?

Well, I began reading regardless, as you do. But I kept being distracted by that recommendation, picking at it like a scab. (I haven't read Never Let me Go but am fond of Remains of the Day.) And my final exasperation with the book was directly linked to poor Helen Dunmore. I eventually cared about Ishiguro's butler very much, but I wanted to give all the characters in Arlington Park a good shake.

I suspect I would have enjoyed this book had Helen Dunmore not commanded me to admire it. Her subjective accolade had the opposite effect. It sure made an OK novel less 'usable'!

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