Ad concept feel too negative? Read this before you discard it.

Your agency is pitching you an idea for a TV spot. It might start something like: A mom rants about the struggle to feed picky eaters.

Or: A man feels lonely after spending a weekend just watching TV.

Or: A teenager embarrasses himself in front of his crush.

You like the idea, but something is nagging at you: the ad feels negative. You know there’s a marketing rule that you should avoid negative advertising. After all, you don’t want to depress or stress out your audience.

The problem? That’s not what “negative advertising” means.

What is Negative Advertising?

There’s a common misconception that “negative advertising” refers to any ad that features something unpleasant. But the term actually refers to a type of ad that disparages a competitor, either directly or indirectly. A political attack ad would be the most extreme example, while an ad frankly comparing your product to a leading competitor would be on the softer, more acceptable end of the spectrum.

The category would not include the ranting mother, the lonely couch potato or the embarrassed teen. Those are all relatable conflicts any of us may experience – conflicts which can be resolved within the same ad. The mother finds a way to sneak veggies into the child’s diet. The couch potato goes out with friends. The teenager goes to the dance with his crush. All with the help of your product or service.

Understanding the Good Kind of Negative

The Power of Conflict and Resolution

Conflict and resolution are the essence of storytelling. And as researchers and psychologists have established, storytelling is one of the most powerful persuasive tools we have. So powerful, in fact, that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has researched the effects narratives have on human psychology.

The Power of Relatability

Relatability is also crucial – and that includes common life struggles. In a Nielsen survey comparing the impact of different themes in advertising, ads depicting real-life situations resonated most powerfully.

Millennial parents, for instance, prefer seeing the difficult side of parenting. Youth research firm Cassandra reports that 44 percent of U.S. millennial parents felt better about themselves when other parents admitted to their own parenting mishaps.

“They want brands to provide honest marketing campaigns with relatable portrayals of the challenges of parenting, as well as moments that show more performative parenting to provide humor,” said Meredith Hirt, insights writer for Cassandra.

Of course, if your product addresses a sensitive issue, you may find it difficult to tactfully achieve realism. Just be prepared to respond if a customer calls you out for sugarcoating. When a man named Richard comedically objected to the “lies” of “joy and ‘blue water’” in Bodyform’s ads for feminine hygiene products, the brand gave a hilariously candid response. Speaking of which …

The Risk of Excessive Positivity

Too much focus on the positive could even potentially be depressing for some people, who find themselves constantly comparing their own realistically imperfect lives with the shiny fantasies they see in media. Studies have shown that people who have a high number of friends on social media tend to feel worse about themselves when they see all the good news about friends in their feed – promotions, engagements, babies – because they only see the good news, presented in the very best light; they don’t see any of the struggles required to reach those milestones.

A Defense of Negative Language

Sometimes cautious marketers reject headlines and taglines merely for using the negative form of a word – even if the overall message is a positive one. But when every sentence is converted into positive form, copy can lose its punch. “Everybody likes Sara Lee” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as the famous “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.” And “Keep Texas beautiful” has nowhere near as much Texan personality as “Don’t mess with Texas.”

“Conflict and resolution are the essence of storytelling. And storytelling is one of the most powerful persuasive tools we have.”

But Don’t Be a Debbie-Downer

This doesn’t mean that your ads should be overly negative, of course. Ads that illustrate a relatable problem and then offer a solution are best. As Randall Beard, president of Nielsen Expanded Verticals said, “Best-in-class ads share several characteristics: they’re relatable, follow an upbeat and simple storyline, use novel and striking imagery and make an emotional connection.”

The next time you’re afraid an ad concept may be too negative, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the ad disparage a competitor? If so, does it come off as an attack ad, or are you merely comparing features between the two brands (without overselling)? The former could turn off consumers. The latter may be helpful to them.
  • Does the ad insult any particular group of people? Avoid anything that attacks a particular age, ethnicity, religion, gender, orientation, occupation, etc. Use caution even with playful generalizations (consider using a focus group or sensitivity readers to make sure the group you’re referring to finds the joke relatable and not offensive).
  • Is the ad relatable? Will consumers say “Yes! That’s so me!”? This can help convey your authenticity and empathy as a brand.
  • Does the ad use humor? Humor isn’t the end-all be-all, but it is a good sign your ad will get a positive reaction.
  • Does the ad have a happy ending? Do you resolve the problem that was presented in the beginning of the ad? Will your audience see how your product or service can improve their lives? Does the ad move them to action?

Check out these examples of great ads that use negative elements to create humor, relatability and/or an emotional connection:

Tags: Branding & Advertising, Video, PR & Social Media

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