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A positive take on negative advertising

Article ID:
June 2014
Laura Bernier

Article Abstract

Done right, a negative ad can actually have a positive impact on brand perceptions. The author offers tips on how to craft and structure a negative ad so that viewers come away with the desired reaction.

Editor’s note: Laura Bernier is senior strategic planner at Insights in Marketing LLC, Wilmette, Ill.

Let’s face it. We all have an acquaintance, co-worker or friend who is negative about everything. I was recently invited to a housewarming party and I knew that a mutual acquaintance, who we shall name Negative Nellie, was going to attend.

Negative Nellie always seemed to find me at events – probably because I’m one of the few who willingly engage in conversation with her. Unfortunately, I always leave feeling exhausted after listening to her complaining. However, during my last encounter with Negative Nellie, she told me a story about how a dramatic experience at work actually led to her promotion. Wait, Nellie’s story had a happy ending? I left the party feeling like I had seen a different side of Negative Nellie.

The next day at work, I was looking at some ads we were getting ready to test for a client. The spots started off negative. My gut reaction was similar to the sinking feeling I always had when speaking with Negative Nellie. But just as I had seen an upside to Nellie’s recent negativity, I wondered if negativity also had a place in effective brand advertising. Thinking back, I realized that while some negative brand ads had left me with a bad taste in my mouth, an equal number seemed 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?

Generally skeptical

Our firm’s research found consumers are generally skeptical about advertising and marketing. In fact, only one-third of consumers believed what advertisers said about their products. Additionally, only about one-quarter of consumers felt that people and images in advertising reflect reality.

“Consumers are less naive than they were just a few years ago,” says Susan Gunelius, president and CEO of KeySplash Creative Inc. “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” 1. 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 along.

A low point

Starting from a low (often viewed as negative) point in an ad can be an effective creative device, one that builds incredible drama and 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 were interviewing for was the worst job ever. Can anyone possibly imagine working a 24/7 job with no breaks and no pay? Just when viewers thought that their interview couldn’t get any worse, the video leads them to an important discovery: The interviewer was not talking about a job in the traditional sense … he was talking about motherhood! So why did this ad generate nearly 18 million YouTube views? We believe the content did so well because it achieved what strong ads and marketing message are supposed to do: It captivated attention, piqued curiosity and took viewers on an emotional journey.

There are many other ads that do a good job of incorporating these themes. One such ad is Nike’s 2009 spot called “Driven.” Love or hate Lance Armstrong, this ad took viewers on an emotional roller coaster.

When we look at the commonalities across negative themed ads that resonate with viewers, we see that they use:

Familiarity: References for creating suspense and drama. After all, what experiences are more tension-filled than interviewing for a job that you aren’t sure you are qualified for or fighting your way back from a hardship or illness? These familiar references made the ads instantly relatable.

Emotional journey: Start from an emotional low but hold the viewer’s interest long enough to build to the emotional high at the end of the ad, which is more emotionally potent than the tension of the negative opening. The payoff at the end is worth the wait for viewers.

Tension: Create tension with the low at the beginning of the ad to grab attention and build drama but don’t let it consume the entire spot. In the case of “World’s Toughest Job,” the length of the ad (about four minutes) allowed time for the drama and the payoff.

Common truth: The negativity touches on a common truth and is not directed at the consumer or a brand. 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 what the negativity says about them.

Can really bomb

Negative advertising that creates the wrong type of drama can really bomb. 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 or damaging to a brand.

One recent that missed the mark was the Domino’s Pizza spot, “Failure Is An Option.” 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” seemed to overpower the information about the product’s features.

Negative-themed ads tend to be less effective when:

1. They don’t bring consumers to an emotionally higher place than where they started. Viewers deserve a payoff in the end after being taken on an emotional journey by the advertiser.

2. The 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 consumers feel offended or personalize the negativity. This can cause them to tune the ad out and develop a negative association with the brand.

Build an emotional connection

When developing and evaluating and advertising strategy, you can certainly use negative themes to your advantage. However, it is imperative to be mindful of providing viewers with an emotional payoff, using tension that is connected to the brand story and leveraging negative themes that touch on a familiar and general reference point instead of being directed at 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.



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