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Negative Advertising: Effective, Dangerous, or Both?

January 3rd, 2020   ||    by Susan Kuchinskas

Negative advertising is a technique that belittles competitors in order to make the advertiser seem superior. It’s tempting for a marketer to try this: Won’t pointing out the downsides of competitors’ products or services convince customers to switch?

Actually, the answer is no one knows. But there are compelling reasons to avoid this strategy.

Dirty Politics

A mayoral race in Tampa is the latest election where candidates are using negative advertising, according to WTSP News. This is a break from previous elections there, which have stayed positive and focused on issues. That makes Tampa an outlier for political advertising.

Nationally, elections are a hotbed of negative advertising. An article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics reported that only 10 percent of advertisements aired in the 1960 campaign were negative. In a complete switch, in the 2012 campaign, only 14.3 percent of aired ads were positive.

Despite today’s established use of attack ads in politics, it’s not clear whether or not they work, the article said. Sometimes the effects can be powerful, but at other times, they’re minimal.

Brand Safety

Outrage may be a driver for political candidates who promise to change the status quo. But going negative is a minefield for brands. For one thing, it’s hard to get it exactly right. Consumers and the media stand ready to pile on any ads that miss the mark.

Just take a look at Workzone’s commercial Hall of Shame. It’s clear that if an ad can be taken the wrong way, it will be.

The key to making negative advertising work is . . . adding the positive, according to the Content Standard. If the entire ad is devoted to tearing down the competitor, you’ve just left a big hole in a viewer’s brain—and have done nothing to advance your own brand. Instead, fill that hole with positive information about your own products or services. Follow up the negative messaging about competitors with why consumers should consider you.

In fact, the Content Standard said, negative advertising can provoke the opposite reaction you intend if a viewer is a customer of the brand you’re attacking. It’s human nature to get defensive, and these viewers may react with even more loyalty to their current brand because they perceive your negativity as an attack on them personally.

Take a swipe at competitors, if you must, but be sure to use those precious seconds you’ve bought to explain to customers why your brand can deliver.

It may be better to forgo negative advertising altogether, no matter how tempting it might be. HubSpot pointed out that ads that provoke the positive emotions of friendship, inspiration, warmth, and happiness are much more likely to be shared.

Of course, snark or downright meanness are the attributes of a few brands. (We’re looking at you, Wendy’s.) But Adweek noted that it’s a double-edged sword. For most advertisers, it’s better to stick to the sunny side of the street.

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