When Being Negative Does and Doesn’t Work in Advertising


ADOTAS — I dread watching TV during election season. The negative ads are too much. I recently saw an ad for a gubernatorial candidate and thought, “here we go again.”  It made me wonder if negative advertising is even effective for politicians (and, yes, there is data that shows that this annoying advertising can be effective in political campaigns). However, can it be equally effective for brand advertising? Thinking back, I realized that while some negative brand ads do leave me with a bad taste in my mouth, an equal number seem to leave a positive impression. But, why?  When can marketers leverage negative tension or drama to their advantage? And, is it a risk worth taking?

General Perceptions of Advertising

At Insights in Marketing, our research shows that consumers are generally skeptical about advertising and marketing – only one-third of consumers believe what advertisers say about their products1. Additionally, only about one-quarter of consumers feel that people and images in advertising reflect reality1. Susan Gunelius, President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., says, “Consumers are less naive than they were just a few years ago. It takes a few seconds to conduct a web search and learn if messages in ads are accurate or not. While people still accept negative political campaign ads as a necessary evil, they’re not as willing to accept the same level of truth-stretching in brand advertising” 2.  Therefore, the hurdle that brands have to jump over is high and some of them do a better job than others at moving viewers (emotionally or physically).

When Negative Themed Ads Work Best

When ads start from a low or negative point it can be an incredible creative device, one that builds incredible interest. One recent, negatively themed ad that resonated with viewers and went viral was called “World’s Toughest Job.” The video, part of a campaign created for American Greetings, took viewers on a dramatic and emotional journey leading them to believe that the job opening the candidates are interviewing for is possibly the worst job known to man.

Can anyone possibly imagine working a 24/7 job with no breaks and no pay? Just when viewers thought that the interviews had hit rock bottom, the video leads them to an important discovery. They aren’t talking about a job in the traditional sense….they are talking about motherhood! So why did this emotional journey work so well?  We believe one of the reasons this ad garnered so much attention is that it, and other successful ads like it, did what strong ads or marketing message needs to do, including:

  1. Used a familiar reference for creating suspense and drama. After all, what experience is more tension filled than interviewing for a job that you aren’t sure you are qualified for?  And in doing so made it instantly relatable;
  2. Started from an emotional low but held the viewer’s interest long enough to build to an emotional high at the end of the ad which was more emotionally potent than the tension of the negative opening. In essence, the payoff at the end was worth the wait for viewers;
  3. Created tension at the beginning of the ad to grab attention and create drama, but doesn’t consume the entire spot. In this case, the length of the content (about 4 minutes long) allowed time for the drama and the payoff;
  4. Negativity touches on a common truth and is not directed at the consumer or a brand. There is never a suggestion that the brand is bad or that the consumer is wrong or bad either. In our research we have noticed that when negative concepts are directed at people or brands, psychologically it is often difficult to refocus consumers on anything other than the negativity.

When Negative Themed Ads May Do More Harm Than Good

Negative advertising that creates the wrong kind of drama can really damage a brand. Years of experience talking to and researching ads has taught us that as powerful as negative themed ads can be, they can be equally distracting to a brand. These types of ads tend to be less effective when:

  1. Consumers are not taken to an emotionally higher place than where they started. Viewers deserve a payoff in the end after committing to being taken on an emotional journey by the advertiser;
  2. Story of the brand is secondary to the tension of the ad. When the tension isn’t used effectively it can leave viewers confused about what the brand stands for – and sometimes the tension can completely overshadow the brand;
  3. The audience feels offended or personalizes the negativity. This can cause them to tune the ad out and develop  a negative association with the brand.

Domino’s Pizza spot, “Failure Is An Option,” generated a lot of online comments because it missed the mark.

We believe there was too much emphasis on failure, leaving consumers with little else in their minds about the brand.  Additionally, the message of “failure” seems to overwhelm the information about the detail provided on the product’s features.

When developing and evaluating an advertising strategy, you can certainly use negative themes to your advantage. However, it is imperative to provide viewers with an emotional payoff by using tension that is connected to the brand story and leveraging negative themes that touch on a familiar reference point instead of the consumer or brand. Following these basic guidelines can help you use negative themes to garner strong ad interest and build an emotional connection between consumers and your brand.

1Insights in Marketing, LLC Proprietary Research 2012



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