Is ‘Going Negative’ the Way to Go?

By Tig Tillinghast

“It was a horrid little machine,” says Sarah Whistler, referring to her PC and breaking one of the great, irrational taboos of advertising. She appears in the new Apple Computer campaign that appeals to Windows users who have experienced the darker side of this monopolistic operating system. Instead of pointing out Apple’s wonderful differences, she and nine other testimonial-givers concentrate on Microsoft’s failures.

The ads revolve around a page on Apple’s site that shares first-person stories of people who have switched from PC operating systems to the Mac OS. People can share their own terrible Windows experiences, view price comparisons, get questions answered, and learn about migrating to the Mac.

It’s negative advertising – and it looks great. The world would be a better place with more negative advertising. I don’t mean the stuff you see around election time, but rather commercial advertisements that point out product faults that would otherwise never become a factor in the marketplace. For a marketplace to work efficiently, negative knowledge must spread pervasively. Without it, people merely buy what’s most available. The biggest wins over the best. Distribution channels become much more important than the brand message or the product itself.

Negative messages are lightning bolts to consumers. Few things stand out more than accusations. They shout for attention, no matter the subtlety of the message, because people are naturally attuned to cuts and jibes in conversation. These drips of sarcasm and outright accusations stand apart from the cluttered cloy of everyday ads.

How is it consumers understand Cool Ranch Doritos contain a megalo-gargantuan dose of MSG? Why do most homeowners know they’re likely to be hit with extra, unnecessary fees and charges at the end of a mortgage closing? It’s not because they read the studies. They see negative ads. They’re forewarned, and they’re better off for it.

Negative advertising (like all marketing) can also be done to disastrous effect. A decade ago, a San Francisco bank put out a TV campaign with a man having a terrible time trying to do a simple banking transaction. He waited in long lines and dealt with surly service people, and it was all captured (apparently) by a grainy security video camera. The ad did a wonderful job of pointing out the reason why people hate going to the bank but did nothing to separate the advertiser’s brand from this type of treatment. The unintended takeaway message was “banking is terrible,” not “banking at other banks is terrible.” Execution is paramount.

Negative campaigns can hurt a brand by making it seem desperate, petty, mean, or all three. Again, execution determines how the message is intended. The new Apple ads aren’t attacking ad hominem, but merely saying what the audience is feeling. The testimonial tactic takes the curse off the strategy.

The Apple campaign merely affirms negative encounters the audience is presumably already experiencing. It sympathizes with them. The magic comes from the viewer’s desire to confirm the validity of Apple’s sympathy. The mechanism for doing so is to buy a Mac (and perhaps to pour lighter fluid on her PC and ignite it in Intel’s parking lot).

There remains, unfortunately, great resistance to the negative approach. It’s institutional, in fact. Many companies and agencies have policies against negativity. The largest brands and the largest agencies have a vested interest in maintaining a decorum that suits the brands with the largest market share. This “happy happy” approach can lead to lame advertising.

It’s the difference between the old anti-tobacco ad messages and more recent ones. Back in the good old days, when Philip Morris controlled much more anti-tobacco messaging, we had authority figures telling teens “it isn’t cool” to smoke – which is sort of like having Al Gore stand up in front of an audience of humorists and complain about their poor comedic timing.

Nowadays we have the “Truth” campaign that skewers tobacco. The campaign portrays the companies as deliberately deceitful, counting on teens to be ignorant dupes. This concept falls squarely on the teens’ natural capacity to distrust authority and cast blame on the protectors of convention. To smoke is to aid in a conspiracy that would make them suckers.

Charles Schwab, a brokerage company without analysts, ran ads a few months ago showing other brokers to be commission-hungry con artists, pushing a bad stock by “putting lipstick on that pig.” The pressure of controversy seems to have gotten the better of them, though. Although Merrill Lynch was shown by New York City prosecutors to have very similar internal email conversations, CBS, thinking it too controversial, refused to run the ad.

Negative campaigns seem to be effective, providing creatives meet certain criteria:

Claims about competitors must be true and documented. Don’t be confused by the vague allegations and innuendo permitted in political advertising. Those people are allowed a degree of First Amendment leeway that moneymaking enterprises are not.

The ad concept and execution have to separate the negative behavior from the brand advertised.

Ads need to have a humorous or otherwise sympathetic tone to avoid the problem of appearing unattractively mean.

For the creative, it comes down to balancing the power of negative advertising with the need to project a personality that isn’t nasty. In the right environment, and especially online where ads can be targeted so finely, this can be the most effective tool.

Tig Tillinghast helped start and run some of the industry’s largest interactive divisions. He started out at Leo Burnett, joined J. Walter Thompson to run its interactive division out of San Francisco, and wound up building Anderson & Lembke’s interactive group as well.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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