Negative Ads Might Just Be Positive for Your Brand

Four Reasons Why Marketers Should Not Rule Out Negative Ads

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If you're in a state or a district with a hotly contested political seat at play, you've likely been inundated with the ever-increasing negative political advertising that we've now come to expect during every election cycle.

Each year, it appears that candidates are spending more of their budgets talking about why we shouldn't elect their opponent than they do to explain why we should vote for them.

As citizens, we should be concerned about how this often vitriolic messaging is affecting our electoral process -- as well as our electorate's participation in it -- but, as marketers, it would be irresponsible not to learn from it.

While I'm not advocating for this kind of political advertising, I do think we should understand how and why it works -- and what, if any, part of negative messaging should play a role in our brands' campaigns.

Despite countless successes by brands like Campbell Soup (which attacked Progresso), Domino's (which pitted its sandwiches against Subway), and Pepsi (whose "Pepsi Challenge" caused Coca-Cola to abandon its storied secret recipe), my experience is that brand managers, and even CMOs, are often very reluctant to entertain any kind of negativity in their messaging -- to the point that even words like "no" and "never" are rejected when simply proposed in a headline. These marketers seem to be fearful of attaching the slightest hint of negativity to their brand, and are convinced that a positive message is always stronger than a negative one.

I wish I had better news for them, but that's just not the case.

Research in neuroscience and human behavior has determined that -- while we may not be consciously aware of it, or even want to admit it -- we humans are much more influenced by bad than good. Our sensitivity to negative stimuli goes back to our brain's evolutionary roots, millions of years ago, when our species' ancestors had to be constantly on the lookout for predators or other threats that could potentially remove them from the evolutionary sweepstakes.

Based on an understanding of how people actually behave, I'd like to share four primary reasons why you shouldn't immediately rule out negative messaging in your brand's communications.

1. We're wired to have a bias toward negativity. You know when you walk by a conference room and through the glass you see the leaders of your company discussing something in private? Your first instinct is to expect that something has to be wrong, and your second one is to worry that they're talking about you. That's your negativity bias at work. For years, CPG brands have understood our concern for our personal self-esteem. Head & Shoulders threatened what might happen if you didn't fix that flaky scalp problem, Listerine made us concerned that we all had bad breath, and the concept of "body odor" was coined by a deodorant brand almost a hundred years ago.

2. Negativity grabs our attention. Researchers have concluded that negative information gets our attention more easily, as studies have demonstrated that threatening stimuli produces more brain activity than positive stimuli. It's also why during sweeps we should cut our local TV news stations some slack when they promote sensationalized, threatening stories. They're on to us, and they know what gets our attention.

3. Badness is sticky. You know the management axiom that you should give five compliments for every negative one? That comes from the recognition that humans weigh negative information much more heavily than positive. We typically store bad information or experiences more quickly and longer in our memory banks than those that are good. If deployed effectively, your brand's assault on a competitor could take them five times the budget to counteract your campaign.

4. Attacks can be fruitful, especially if you're the challenger. People are typically attracted to underdogs, the challengers of the status quo. We often root for the David who attacks the lumbering Goliath, as long as the criticisms are executed with fairness and truth. Apple demonstrated that a brand can attack a competitor with a sense of humor as it successfully deployed "must-watch TV" assaults with its Mac vs. PC ads. And, now that Apple is the giant, it's the recipient of the clever brickbats from Samsung.

Finally, while my point is not to advocate for angry, vitriolic or caustic advertising, I am suggesting that marketers shouldn't automatically rule out some forms of messaging that might be considered "negative." In fact, it just might be our own negativity bias -- anticipating that the worst may happen if we deploy less-than-positive messaging -- that is keeping us from using a tactic that could actually have the best chance of motivating consumers or changing their behavior. "Badness" shouldn't be rejected out-of-hand, as the discomfort it generates can be a very powerful motivator. And, remember, it will likely turn out much better than you think.

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