Negative advertising in politics has become an expected, albeit contemptible, practice of the campaign season. The only thing that seems to change from year to year is the amount and intensity of the attacks.
But politics isn’t the only sector that embraces it. Consumer and b-to-b marketers have employed negative tactics, headlines and copy to persuade and sell, too, including magazines and publications.
Like the sly serpent, negative advertising needs to be handled deftly. Using a broad definition of the term, here are some perspectives and applications.
In his seminal textbook on direct marketing, Bob Stone observed that yes/no offers generated a higher positive response than those without a negative option. The reason? Choosing one option over another was an involvement device.
Book and music clubs and continuity programs have used negative options for over half a century. They work precisely because the buyer can’t stop the shipments unless they expressly opt out.
When a Loss Is Better Than a Gain
The pain associated with a loss is often more of an incentive to act than the pleasure of a gain. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s usually true. For example, if you tell a prospect for a healthy living magazine that they’ll find ways to improve their vigor in each issue, you’ll produce a modest level of interest. But if your promotion emphasizes what the prospect will lose or miss by not taking action, they’ll respond with greater alacrity.
Negative ads that reinforce a prospect’s deeply held beliefs can provoke a powerful emotional response and establish rapport. A promotion for The Nation built around the perils of right wing/big business control and one for The Weekly Standard trumpeting the excesses of a left wing/big government agenda both work for the same reason: They validate the worst fears and prejudices of their target audience.
Content must be considered, too. It’s not enough to rely only on the emotional impact of negative ads or to create a promotion that’s 100 percent negative. For a negative piece to be effective, you should tie it to some kind of positive solution or salvation.
In Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, the authors warn that fear alone will not win over potential customers unless you also “provide specific, achievable steps that they can take to avoid” or minimize the risk.
Dr. Frank Luntz, author of Words That Work, agrees that pure scare tactics can backfire, especially when addressed to women. “It is not the fear of something bad that motivates them; it’s the hope for something better.”
Interestingly, negative ads come across as more believable than wholly positive ones. An ad that cites a drawback about the product or service being sold contains more credibility because it’s not trying to “put one over” on the prospect. Admitting a modest flaw breeds trust.
As Victor Schwab wrote in his How To Write A Good Advertisement: “One of the principal objectives of a headline is to strike as directly as possible right at a situation confronting the reader. Sometimes you can do this with greater accuracy if you use a negative headline which pinpoints his ailment rather than the alleviation of it.”
Humor can also be a potent way to make the negativity go down smoother without diluting the impact.
Master copywriter Gary Bencivenga wrote a magalog for an investment publication with this headline: “LIES, LIES, LIES! Why we investors are fed up with everyone lying to us!” The cover contained caricatures of the scoundrels deceiving us: Slick politicians, fast-talking brokers, rapacious lawyers, and monstrous IRS agents.
By using exaggerated but recognizable portraits of our worst nightmares, the copy resonated more closely with the prospect and actually intensified the connection. As final proof of the effect of combining the comical with the cynical, this became one of the most successful promotions ever.