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September 25, 2008
Read This or Else
Explaining the lasting appeal—or just existence—of negative ads

If you don’t like this column, go screw yourself.

And by the way, that’s an ugly shirt you have on. You can’t go outside looking like that. What homeless retch did you steal it from?

Okay, calm down. I’m just trying to make a point. Or rather, what should be a pretty obvious point at this time every 4 years. Because right now, if you watch TV at all, negative political ads are inescapable. Yet so is the call for their elimination.

So why do negative ads stay around? They work. They work because they hit a part of the human psyche we can’t ignore. Political consultants know this.

But here’s the thing: as consumer advertising professionals, we know this, too.

It’s worth remembering that modern advertising’s roots are in making people feel inadequate or preying on their fears. The phrase “often a bridesmaid, never a bride” was originally a headline in an ad for Listerine; the point being that bad breath would keep a young girl single and lonely forever.

A psychologist could explore the pathology more in-depth than I could, but the basic fact is that negativity sticks in the brain. It has an immediate, visceral impact. Compliments are fleeting, but insults sting for years. You need not have been a high school outcast to understand the long-lasting effects of an insult.

While we may have gotten older, we still haven’t outgrown our kid fears. And marketers have done a tremendous job instilling in consumers a deep-rooted desire to do what it takes to conform themselves in order to avoid those insults or those inadequate feelings.

Of course, not everyone buys into this, either strategically or creatively. There’s been a counter-movement to appeal to people’s better instincts. To make friends with customers. To kill them with kindness, or love. To create communities around brands. The right clothes. The right household products. The right car. Of course, like every community, you’re either in, or you’re out.

And again, we’re seeing that thinking echoed in the Presidential campaign, which is driven as much by personalities as it is by policies. Simultaneously, we’re seeing passionate supporters embrace their candidates while they slam the opposition and their supporters. As for John McCain and Barack Obama, I get a sense that if they could, they’d avoid the negativity. But they can’t. Political candidates have one shot at making one sale. So that’s why they throw everything at your face in the hope that something will stick.

But consumer brands have a longer shelf life, so they have other options. They can build over time. They can make their case. They can be positive, knowing that their time will come, at the right time. Provided that clients won’t panic.

Clients, however, are very good at panicking. And in perilous economic times like these, they get desperate. Personally and professionally, they’re feeling inadequate, therefore they have no compunction about passing on that insecurity to the consumers via advertising. They’ll beg for a sale, insult their audience with condescending messages, or flat-out yell at consumers in their ads, and not worry about the consequences next month or next year.

In advertising agencies, we help our clients make these choices every day. Will our ads make people feel good about a brand? Or will we make the brand the answer to their insecurities and fears? It’s part of the strategy. It’s part of the creative brief. And yes, it’s part of the executions. At its simplest, think of it this way: for every scenario featuring someone using a product, there’s the opposite: what happens if someone doesn’t use it.

Like everything else in the ad industry, there’s no one right answer. Just like political candidates, you can get very successful going positive. You can get very successful going negative. The choice is yours.

And if you don’t agree with any of that, you’re wrong. Wrong for advertising. And wrong for America. Right?




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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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