Negative advertising attacks or criticizes a sponsor's competitors or their brands or services by emphasizing attributes that are similar to but weaker than those of the sponsor. It is designed to draw the audience's attention to an opponent's weakness through an aggressive, one-sided assault.
While positive advertising focuses on the sponsoring party's attributes and strengths, negative advertising focuses on exposure of its competitors' failings. Negative advertising can be a successful tactic for drawing attention to a product or brand and reacting to competitors, but it often produces only a temporary increase in market share.
There are two forms of comparative advertising: direct comparative advertising, which contains a specific brand-directed message, and implied comparative advertising, which contains implicit messages that do not mention competitors' names or products. Most negative advertising is in the former category and differs from objective comparative advertising in that it is one-sided, a feature that may generate a perception of unfairness.
In the 1930s, Plymouth ads advised prospective car buyers, "Look at all three, before you make a decision." This was one of the first major comparative advertising campaigns in the U.S. Even though the slogan was a fairly general statement, it implied that drawbacks existed in the competition—referring to Chevrolet and Ford—that would become obvious to an informed shopper.
In 1971, the Federal Trade Commission advocated the use of comparative advertising in national print and broadcast media to provide more information to consumers as well as to offer increased effectiveness for advertisers. The prevalence of comparative advertising increased from 15% in the mid-1960s to 80% in 1990, and the practice became more persuasive.
As the business climate has become increasingly competitive, however, comparative advertising has grown more direct and negative. Implied definition of the competitive brand ("leading brand" or "Brand X") has been replaced by explicit definition, which names a specific brand that has similar attributes to the advertiser's product or service. There have been several famous cases of negative ad campaigns, such as the battle between AT&T Corp. and MCI Corp., the attack by Visa on American Express (which featured stores, restaurants, resorts and other business that would not accept the American Express card) and the heated competition between soft-drink giants Pepsi-Cola Co. and Coca-Cola Co.
In the 1970s, the negative comparison tactic shifted from a focus on quality attributes to an emphasis on price, environmental and social issues, and the value of the brand. In addition, the use of negative advertising was extended from so-called low-involvement food and household products to high-involvement services and personal products.
Pro and con
The arguments against negative advertising focus primarily on the risks of reducing the effectiveness of the ad message or misleading the public and the possibility of reactions—rebuttal advertising, punitive action by the National Advertising Review Board or a lawsuit. The acceptability of negative advertising also varies from one country to another. For instance, in 1994, Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" campaign, attacking competing hamburger chains, was banned in some European countries. Five major Tokyo TV stations refused to broadcast Pepsi's negative ads against Coke in 1991. Issues of local taste and accepted practices need to be considered by any advertiser planning to launch a negative campaign.
Both beneficial and detrimental effects often result from negative advertising. One of the benefits of negative advertising is the attention gained. Negative advertising provides information on differences not found in the other types of advertising, and it is more likely to be remembered. Negative advertising is also more efficient than other kinds of advertising in getting consumers to share a specific perspective. The presentation of the negative comparative message also increases consumers' interest in and awareness of the product.
Not all negative advertising works as intended, however. The attack format may decrease the credibility of the sponsoring company. Moreover, some people view negative advertising as unethical and therefore reject the ad message. Still another concern is that the frequent use of negative advertising may overwhelm the target audience, resulting in a loss of interest. And there is always the possibility that the competitor may respond with a negative ad of its own, leading to a negative cycle that can increase consumer confusion and decrease the effectiveness of the advertising investment.
Another major concern when using negative advertising is the risk of provoking a lawsuit. The competing brand may sue, claiming misleading messages or false statements. In one such action, Jartran was forced to pay $40 million in damages for attacking U-haul with misleading messages.
Negative advertising has been widely used in political campaigns and became a particularly important force in U.S. politics in the late 20th century. Negative advertising can be used to expose a candidate's undesirable or shameful personal characteristics, such as a history of poor health, adultery or substance abuse—or similar failings on the part of family members—as well as to criticize a candidate's public record or position on issues.
Negative political advertising is often considered more effective than negative product advertising because the U.S. political system does not adhere to the same standards of truthfulness as product advertising. However, many people perceive a negative campaign as unethical because the message often includes personal attacks. Negative ads may, therefore, have the effect of lowering voting rates and creating a public distaste for politics in general.