Does negative advertising work?

Permit me to state the obvious: people don’t always like negativity. There’s a reason Oscar the Grouch doesn’t get asked on many talk shows, while his contemporary, the ever-delightful Elmo, is regularly invited (or was, until this unfortunate series of events).

And there’s a reason people like a little celebrity gossip alongside the regular doom and gloom of the morning newspapers served up with their cornflakes in the morning.

So ask yourself – is your advertising message negative? Do you rubbish other brands rather than sing the benefits of your own? Do you employ scare tactics to frighten your audience into action? If any of these are true, your messages may not be resonating.

Now, I’m not suggesting you bombard your audience with puppy dogs and lollipops. But I am saying it could be time to clear away some of those grey clouds dominating your marketing and let a bit of sun shine through.

This spectacular ad from Coca Cola (featuring a song written specifically for the campaign) doesn’t need a fancy study to tell you what your gut already will. Here is a tune so positive and so bright that even without the accompanying visual feast you can’t help but feel good listening to it.

The message is clear: drink coke, be happy. But if it’s so damn effective why does anybody bother with negative marketing?

Given the antagonistic nature of politics it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most studies on the effects of negative ad campaigns have been based on political advertising. And while your particular focus might be more about products than parliament it’s definitely still worth taking note of the findings.

On NPR’s website, political scientist John Stines, from George Washington University, says that it’s usually pretty hard to persuade someone to believe something they don’t want to believe:

When voters are confronted with inconvenient facts, it is oftentimes difficult to persuade them that those facts are, in fact, facts. When supporters of President Obama see negative information about Obama, they don’t think it is true. To the extent it is true, they find ways to explain it or rationalize it — they discount it.

So, for example, when Arby’s launches an attack on rival fast food chain Subway (like they did last year), don’t expect to see a significant rise in the number of out-of-work ‘sandwich artists’.

People want to believe Subway is the fresh, alternative option to McDonald’s, Hungry Jacks and KFC. Arby’s wants to make the point that they slice their meat in-house, while Subway’s cuts are manufactured in isolated factories.

The result? Unsurprisingly, Subway has not gone out of business. But Arby’s did manage to tick off a vocal group of Iowans.

Arby’s quickly responded to the outcry and assured Iowans that the chain meant disrespect only to rival chain Subway, and not to the state of Iowa.

The problem is you can’t control what’s going to offend people, and you can reasonably expect that an almost entirely negative message has a pretty good chance of making people feel disrespected, whether you intended it to or not.

Stines points out that a growing body of research suggests negative political advertising may also be a lot less effective than people think, despite it being memorable.

So the challenge is to figure out a way of utilising the good qualities of negative advertising (memorability, emotional engagement, strategic attacks) without alienating your target audience or coming across as a small-minded, disagreeable whiner.

The good news is there are circumstances in which negative messaging can be effective – to a point.

This study – of 150 university students in the US who were shown a range of negative political ads from relatively unknown candidates – found that:

A negative political ad is most effective when shown in moderation. On the other hand, extremely frequent exposure to a negative ad has a backlash effect on how the sponsoring candidate is viewed.

It’s easy to see how your marketing could produce a similar effect.

Check out this trailer from the non-profit organisation, charity: water. It’s a great example of balancing negativity (the tragic, heart-wrenching history of Rwanda) with connecting positively with its audience.

Is it time you opened up a little happiness? At the very least, it’s time to stop treating marketing like a schoolyard argument and more like the sophisticated and potentially world-changing tool that it is.

Richard Parker is the head of digital at strategic content agency Edge, where he has experience working with leading brands including Woolworths, St George and Foxtel. He previously spent 12 years in the UK, first at Story Worldwide then as the co-owner and strategic director of marketing agency Better Things.



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