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.

But what about political advertising? In this arena, negative advertising, while universally disliked, actually works. Why? Because unlike in product sales where people are usually making discretionary purchases and have many product options, those who vote feel they must make a choice, and that choice is usually between just viable two candidates. At least in the U.S., third party candidates seldom have any chance of winning.

In other words, making your competitor look bad won’t necessarily steer them to your product because they don’t have to buy anything and usually have lots of choices. But making the other candidate look bad can steer them to vote for you because voters feel an obligation to vote and usually have only two choices.

Here’s an example of a negative political direct mail piece for a race in Ohio. (I’ve blurred the candidate’s name.)

The cover reads: (Candidate) walked out on his family …

The inside spread reads: and left them with NOTHING. (Candidate) is a deadbeat dad who was found in contempt of court for failing to pay child support. (Candidate) WALKED OUT ON HIS FAMILY. Don’t Let Him Walk Out On Ohio. Don’t vote for (Candidate).

Wow. How’s that for negative advertising? But guess what? That kind of personal attack will affect voters. It works. Because it makes you hate one candidate, and you only have one other candidate for vote for.

So what about those Apple TV ads? Does this sort of thing work with products? Yes, but only when it’s handled in a careful way and when the conditions are right.

Here’s a library of the Apple ads. You’ve seen many of these on TV.

Are they negative? Sure. There’s a nerdy guy representing PC computers (specifically Windows-run computers) and a cool guy representing MACs. Each ad knocks some perceived flaw in the PC and discusses how the MAC is better.

Does it work? Yes. But the ads are lighthearted, not nasty. They poke fun and don’t reach the level of slander. Plus, since most computer users have PCs, they’re familiar with many of the problems the ads talk about, but don’t know much about problems the MACs have.

And here’s the key: The computer market is dominated by PCs and MACs, meaning Windows systems and MAC systems. Just as in politics, you have to make a choice (nearly everyone needs a computer) and you have just two viable systems to choose from. So by making you doubt one system, you are steered to at least consider the other system.

I want to emphasize that while negative advertising works in politics, it seldom works in product sales. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out a lack or flaw in competitors as part of an ad, but building whole ads or entire campaigns around these negatives is usually a bad idea. So the MAC ads are the exception.

But if you can find the right tone, and if you have the proper environment, meaning limited competition, it’s possible to make negative ads work.

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Comments

4 Responses to “Does negative advertising work?”

  1. bizsugar.com on October 14th, 2008 2:53 am

    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:…

  2. Cynthia Maniglia on October 15th, 2008 3:39 pm

    Negative advertising can also mean focusing on a problem, for which your product or service is a solution. Problem/Solution type of ads DO work. And they work very, very well. The problem with Problem/Solution ads that do NOT work well occurs when the ad spends TOO MUCH time focusing on the bad and NOT ENOUGH on the good. Think of it like this: use 10% of the ad to present the problem, and QUICK – introduce the solution and maintain the solution focus for the 90% balance of the ad. You want to sell the solution; you don’t have to sell the problem if your audience can quickly relate to the problem. They already have the need for the product or service, so they are very familiar with the problem/negative aspect. Ads that start like, “No health insurance? No problem!” we get and get fast. Or “Itchy, dry scalp?” set me up for the solution. That kind of a negative headline works as a call out to the audience. You can grab attention with the problem/negative aspect. But pay it off with the solution!

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