Does negative advertising work?

Yes. No. Well, sometimes.

Whether negative advertising works depends on who you ask. Ask a political campaign manager, and the answer is yes. Ask an product advertising manager, and the answer is no. Usually.

I’m thinking about this for two reasons:

One, the current election season is producing some very negative advertising. And if you think national politics gets nasty, watch the local races. That’s where the gloves really come off.

Two, Apple has been running some negative TV advertising for a few years that actually works. While these are not direct response ads, they are instructive.

The rule of thumb is that negative advertising doesn’t work. Why? In Scientific Advertising, Claude Hopkins said it best:

To attack a rival is never good advertising. Don’t point out others’ faults. It is not permitted in the best mediums. It is never good policy. The selfish purpose is apparent. It looks unfair, not sporty.

If you abhor knockers, always appear a good fellow.

Show a bright side, the happy and attractive side, not the dark and uninviting side of things. Show beauty, not homeliness; health, not sickness. Don’t show the wrinkles you propose to remove, but the face as it will appear. Your customers know all about wrinkles.

In addition to making you look petty, negative advertising puts your prospects in the wrong frame of mind, gets them thinking about your competitor instead of you, and fails to make the positive emotional connection that is the linchpin for any sales pitch. Read more

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Duke University offers vintage print ad library

I’ve always been fascinated by print ads of days gone by. Besides their cultural value, they provide a unique insight into advertising tactics.

Vintage Lifebuoy AdDuke University’s Ad*Access Project has collected and scanned more than 7,000 ads printed in the United States and Canada between 1911 and 1955. This is not a collection of direct response advertising. From my brief perusal, these appear to be mass market, brand building ads from newspapers and magazines.

The ads represent five product and subject areas: radio, television, transportation, beauty and hygiene, and World War II.

I don’t know if these ads are representative of all advertising during the time period because they’re from a single collection put together by J. Walter Thompson, which could be skewed by whatever interest JWT had when assembling the ads.

Still, there’s a lot to be learned by studying mass market advertising. Ads of the past also tend to be easier to analyze since they are aimed at sensibilities of former generations, allowing a good measure of objectivity that you may not have when looking at ads directed at you today.

This is an excellent collection worthy of a bookmark. If you know of other quality collections online, let me know.

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Why pissing people off can be good advertising

Many advertisers put a lot of emphasis on the “likability” of their ads. The idea is that if people like the ad, they’ll buy the product. But is that always true?

There’s nothing wrong with people liking your ads, but I’m not so sure that likability is a prerequisite for selling. Consider the infamous “Head On” TV ads.

(If you can’t see the video here in my feed, click on to the blog to watch.)

Likable? Hardly. It’s one of the most hated ads on TV. It’s so disliked, it has become an icon of annoying advertising. The company even acknowledges this in follow-up ads where the commercial is interrupted by “viewers” who say, “Head On, I hate your commercials, but I love your product.”

Personally, I love these ads. Well, I don’t love them exactly. I think they’re annoying, too. But I wish I’d written them. Why? Because they’re pure genius. They do exactly what they’re supposed to do — burn a brand into your brain so when you’re at the store you’ll recognize it and buy it. Can you think of any headache medicine with a commercial this memorable? I sure can’t.

I would love to have sat in on the meeting where the ad team presented this idea to the Head On people. “You want to do what? Say it how many times? You’re joking, right?”

Likability? I don’t put much faith in that. I like what works. Sometimes that means creating an ad people like. Other times it means creating an ad that pisses people off. The question is, do you have the guts to do what it takes no matter what that is?

I touched on this in a popular article I wrote some years ago about a lesson my grandfather taught me with a dead chicken. In that article I quote Charles F. Kettering, inventor of the electric self-starter for cars, who once said, “My definition of an educated man is the fellow who knows the right thing to do at the time it has to be done. … You can be sincere and still be stupid.”

I think that’s what I really like about that Head On ad, and it’s what I like about all effective advertising. It does the right thing at the time it has to be done. Unflinchingly. Unapologetically.

Can you think of other ads past or present that were annoying but effective? Have you created annoying ads, mail, or promos of any kind that worked like gangbusters?

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