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The wisdom of negativity in advertising

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Marketers readily fall into rule worship. Faith can be blind. There are many false prophets.

One of these was called “The Great god of Negativity” by some of the creative departments I’ve worked in.

This meant that their precious idea had been sacrificed on the altar by someone, on high, in the pecking order, who’d killed off the campaign by solemnly pronouncing it: “too negative.”

Problem/Solution, most agree, is a powerful demonstration technique in any advertising medium.

The issue is, creative people love delving deep into the problem side of the equation and clients –prefer the spotlight to be on the details of their products solution.

Why can’t we be positive, the client high priest chants rhetorically? (After all, everyone knows the song says: “Ac-centuate the positive/Eliminate the negative.”)

Leading Turkish clerics recently raised the same kind of question when it came to their country’s rabid soccer fans.

The clergy asked excited fans to stop sweating at matches and suggested, instead, they use expressions such as “Blessed Allah” or “Allah be praised” while watching football games.

Such phrases seem very worthwhile, of course, but perhaps they are not communicating the same thing as the profanities do: they don’t quite capture the same the emotion, and indeed spirit, that the fans are feeling at the time.

There are many old wives beliefs about effective communication that should be defrocked.

David Ogilvy propagated the notion (since recanted) that humour doesn’t work. He also p-reached that reversed out copy in print won’t be read.

Charles Saatchi, founder of rival international networks Saatchi & Saatchi and later M&C Saatchi, debunked that when he produced his famous Health Department press ad that explained what happens in the moments after a fly lands on food: Long copy, white type, all reversed out of a black background.

Story goes that he actually had it set in both positive and reverse type. He plumped for the negative and the rest is history.

Ironically, there’s another problem with ruling out negativity: that is, it can rule out the use of irony in your ads.

And irony has been one of the most successful techniques in media for many years. Think Seinfeld, The Smpsons, South Park for a start.

The young get irony in the way that an older generation of clients often just don’t. irony is used as a way of making sure that others know that you know. It’s cool code of kind.

There’s a positive tension in ambiguity, like Nike ironically using “ad buster” techniques. Nike successfully ad humorously traded on ironic cynicism, even using the sweatshop allegations in cool ads.

Another irony is that some of the greatest campaigns ever written have been “negative.”
Jack Vaughan, an Australian Hall of Fame copywriter and former creative director of Y&R K, has looked at the pluses ad minuses to see whether this negative prejudice is really a positive thing in communication… or not.

It happened again the other day. A client objected to a headline I’d written that began with the word “Don’t.

The line was in the form of question (another construct to which he objects), yet it had quite a positive point to make. But there the situation lay: as if some sacred rule had been broken and there was no avenue of appeal.

This negative taboo has been with us in advertising forever. I number it among the list of top 10 unwritten laws many (but not all ) clients seem to carry with them about ads.

I’d love to know where they get them from, but they’re precepts seemingly hardwired into so many of those who have anything to do with the commissioning or approval of advertising.

Other persistent beliefs are that the size, frequency or loudness of the product, brand name or logo is directly proportional to the ad’s power to persuade, be remembered or to score highly to branding.

These are also, untrue, as I’ve painfully found over years of creative practice, but they endure. I once made a spot for dog food that had the pack on screen the entire time, but failed to lift the branding score one jot.

The way to achieve high branding is to … but that’s another issue. What’s curious about negaphobia (a word I’ve just coined for this purpose) is that the belief is so dammed tenacious when it come to ads, but isn’t so in any other sphere of life and language.

Even the expression “Let’s not be negative” is, itself, negative – an entreaty to not do something.

Yet it is the most natural and perfectly acceptable way of admonishing other people to not be defeatist, or to put is another way, to encourage them to stop being less than positive, which is in itself a negative (because merely saying, “Be positive” has a different meaning: more a sort of “have faith,” “gird your loins” thing).

The same critics of creeping negativity in ads will feel totally comfortable, when on holidays, to buy a silly T-shirt with the words “NO WORRIES” or “DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY” screened across it.

These catchphrases are the very essence of our cultural mantras about feeling good. Not a problem, so to speak. Certainly, no complaints.

Likewise, it’s high praise indeed when inviting someone to, for instance, try a new wine vintage and they pronounce it, “Hey, not bad” especially if they add … “not bad at all.”

In the same manner we say, “not too bad” in response to “How are you?” Or “not half bad” even though this could literally suggest “half of me (or it) is bad,” or even “not just half bad, but totally bad.”

Compared to these deliberate understatements, “quite good” or even “very good” can seem insipid. And “bad”, of course, means really good in street parlance, as does “wicked” or “da bomb.”

These highly useful, adverse forms of expression give our language power. A placard saying “CONTINUOUS PEACE” is not as powerful as one pleading “NO MORE WAR,” which would be extremely positive if it were ever vaguely achievable.
Sometimes, it’s literally a matter of life and death: “DON’T WALK,” “WRONG WAY, GO BACK,” “NO RIGHT TURN,” “HIGH VOLTAGE, DO NOT TOUCH” are all Difficult to say succinctly and powerfully in any positive construct.

There is even a whole category of English words called Negatives without Positives, or Unpaired Words, like “dismayed” and “inept,” “innocent” and “unscathed”.

They must have something going for them: their positive forms have largely become obsolete. Boringly positive things like “mayed” and “ept,” “gruntled” and “kempt,” didn’t have the will to survive.

It’s interesting that for years, at least in this country, incendiary materials were marked “INFLAMMABLE” or “HIGHLY INFLAMMABLE,” possibly because the wrong negative prefix actually sounded more dire.

“Don’t tell me” means tell me everything. “You don’t say!” means I really want you to say it, even though I can’t believe what you’re saying. As in, “Well, I never.”

The beauty of our language is the way you can stretch it. Two negatives can be combined to make a positive: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

The reverse is also true: I like the story about the linguistics professor who is lecturing that in no language can two positives create a negative.

A sardonic voice calls out from the back of the hall: “Yeah, Yeah” Similarly, “Yeah, right” has also taken on a completely opposite meaning.

In art school, we are often taught to draw or paint the “negative space.” The areas of the scene that aren’t the actual subject itself. Here. The negative helps our spatial perception to fresh, quicker, more accurate.

And chiaroscuro – literally light and shade – help us see objects in the way we do, as planes and masses.

The trouble with negaphobia is that is locks up half our armory. Negatives are powerful. “Why is this ad highlighting the problem?” the client will ask. Because it’s less boring than the solution.

Why are newspapers full of bad news? Because people are much more interested in bad news; perhaps because it helps reassure them of traffic crawls past car accident.

It’s also notable how in matters of romance or passion, the negative is often so vivid. I don’t mean in the sense of the obvious: “Don’t. Stop. Don’t. Stop. Don’t. Stop” … etc.

I mean in many of the expressions we share with our beloved, often captured in popular music. “Never will leave you,” sounds more committed than “I will always stay,” and “The 12th of Never” seems an even longer undertaking than the absolute “forever.”

“Don’t Worry Baby”, from the mouths of the Beach Boys is quite reassuring. Greshwin ain’t necessarily so negative in one of the anthems of porgy and best.

And when 10cc sing the haunting, “I’m being in love (and don’t forget it) because I’m really so badly in love with you, I’ll try any tactic to hang in there.

At the other end of the spectrum entirely, some of the most powerful words spoken in the history of the English language, by their arguably greatest deliverer.

Churchill, are often nothing but negative. “Never has so much …” “We will not rest until …, “ “We will never surrender.” Or ever Kennedy’s “Ask not what your ..”. We’ll ignore Clinton’s, “I did not have sex with …”

Those of a more academic bent than I have reached similar conclusions. Googling around for references on “negative words”, there are, of course, a hundred well-intentioned but predictable passages on how to eliminate negativity from your thoughts/life/Writing/diary/ relationship/ emails/ job, etc. (One earnest polemic on positivism carries the straight – faced headline: “Stop Being So Negative!”).

A few, though, swim against the current created by the Hubbards and Carriegies with some interesting positive observations on negativity.

French philosopher, Henri Bergson, author of the creative Mind (1934, I learn, held that the world contains two opposing tendencies: the life force and the resistance of matter against that force.

Kenneth Burke later built on this by examining the ethical implications of the negative. “No” and “Don’t” are amongst the first words we learn as children: in the process learning not to throw our food on the floor or pull the dog’s tail.

He goes further to suggest negativity is the very basis of human morality. (Eight of the Ten Commandments are “Shalt Notes”).

Cognitive psychology research conducted by Tufts University professor Salvator Scoraci has made advancements in understanding learning and “false memory” – mistaken recall of test words.

It was Previously believed that memory was improved by “generative learning; that people remember better when actively involved in forming an idea around, say a particular word they’re asked to memorise; the theory being that positive collaboration helped it stick.

Scoraci has found people are actually more likely to remember such words when given a negative cue than when given a positive one.

This method of learning, using negative cues, is similar to how we find our way when we’re driving our cars, explains Scoraci.

If we make a wrong turn, we’re much more likely to remember the correct route next time by remembering that we shouldn’t go the wrong way again.

But to circle this back to advertising, my research has also revealed a fellow-sufferer and copywriter, Michael Gebert, in the US.

In his online newsletter, shameless Self-Promotion, Gebert echoes our frustrations:
No COPYWRITER WILL ESCAPE THIS FATE. YOU write a nice, punchy headline – “Nothing Fights stains like spam O.”

Then the comment comes back: “Nothing” is negative. Can’t we turn it into a positive? (Like what? “Spam-O fights stains Better Than Things”?)

Gebert goes on to say: put a sentence with a “not” a “don’t” in it in front of those people, and suddenly, they’ll be impressed by the mystical power of that one single word to repel all customers, regardless of the actual meaning of the sentence. That’s not grammar. It’s voodoo.

What’s most confounding to me about this whole issue is that some of the most negative expressions have long been the very stock-in-trade of the world of hard sell.

How many products have declared themselves “Not your ordinary …” or “Not for everybody” to boost their desirability to many?

“Accept no substitute,” “Don’t buy till you try our …,” “Will not be undersold”. “Nobody comes close to our …”. Just as the much-imitated “Drive away, no more to pay” has recently become.

There are also plenty of specific brands with famous and successful campaigns based on seemingly negative thoughts:

“Lemon” or “It’s ugly, but it gets you there” were never going to be taken literally about Volkswagen, but said a lot about their cleverly self-effacing attitude.

That, along with “You don’t have to be Jewish” for Levy’s bread, more or less started modern, more candid advertising.

More recently, “I never read the Economist. (Management trainee, aged 42)” has helped put that magazine high up the racks.

The Wallpaper Institute of America claims. “Nothing gets your attention like wallpaper,” along with whimsical visuals.

The Village Vice has been honest and successful by declaring its individuality with “Not America’s favorite paper” (and thus yours).

When Everyday Batteries themes their ads “Never say die,” it’s far more declarative than “Always stay ALIVE.” Heineken, in the UK, sold a lot of beer that “Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.”

And there’s no other line like David Jones’, at least in Australian retail. As Michael Gebert says, the arguments against the yea-sayers are obvious:

“So obvious that they always get the same response:’Yeab, I know. But change it, would ja? It’s just one word.”’

Anti-negativity, he claims, “deprives a writer of one of the most effective rhetorical devices in the English language, for no good reason. Would GM still own the car market if only they’d said, “You Would Really Rather Drive a Buick?

I couldn’t agree more. Or should I say, I agree as much as possible. I’ve always thought that Sara Lee’s long-running campaign in the US, “Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee” was so much more charming and approachable than the overblown self-congratulation of it’s underlying sentiment, “Everybody Loves Sara Lee.”

It’s a tradition that goes back to “Nothin’ says lovin’ like something’ from the oven” for Duncan Hines cake mixes. Or was it Pillsbury?

And what could’ve been more compelling than the theme that carried American Express to world popularity, “Don’t Leave Home Without It.”

Would it have conveyed the same indispensability expressed as” Always take it with you when you leave home”?

I think not.

But then, maybe I’m just being negative.

Keywords: advertising, negativity, ads, ad, campaigns, positive, negative, positivism, copywriter, brands,


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