geert lovink on Thu, 11 Jul 2002 11:50:51 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> ClickZ Today's Creative Message: 'Going Negative' Is the Way to Go

'Going Negative' is 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

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

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

  a.. 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.

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

  c.. 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.

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