SNAP London's Executive Planning Director says the pressure to think positive is everywhere, but our daily lives are driven as much by negative emotions as they are by positive ones. And we could all benefit from a little bit of negative thinking every now and then.
A few years ago, I helped a client create a highly emotive piece of advertising. A powerful script had secured a three-time Oscar-nominated director, and the finished film was engaging and provocative. Our client, however, wanted to research it using an ‘interest trace’ an electronic measure of a respondent’s level of involvement as he or she watches an ad, peaks and troughs reflecting positive and negative engagement.
When research revealed that the ad contained not just peaks but troughs, the client made a rather unexpected decision: remove all negatives. “We don’t do troughs, Matt, we’re about positives”, she reminded me. So, with drastic editing, we lost the ‘troughs’. We also lost our narrative structure, our director, and any chance of an engaging film.
To the surprise of no-one but the client, the campaign failed.
Such absurd incidents, thankfully, are rare. But the culture of ‘mandatory positivity’ that drives it isn’t. In fact, it wields huge influence within marketing, often at the expense of effectiveness.
There’s no surprise as to where this culture comes from. The pressure to ‘think positive’ is everywhere. Motivational gurus encourage ‘positive visualisation’. Our working culture values ‘radiators’ not ‘drains’. Online, the pursuit of “likes”, followers and shares drives the conversation towards vacuous positivity. And most of us are invited daily via email to help someone celebrate their birthday, work anniversary or whatever positive event it is that needs ‘celebrating’. Positive thinking has become so pervasive that we barely notice the need to radiate what a wonderful time we’re having.
It’s no wonder, then, that such thinking has influenced marketing. Hence, clients who write over-optimistic briefs, who cut ‘negative’ words from creative briefs, and who prefer their positive messages served up unequivocally rather than inferred with light and shade.
Their intentions might be good. However, it’s obvious that in the real world we are governed as much by negative thinking as by positive. Fear, envy, loss, anxiety, jealousy - and a host of softer cousins - all powerfully inform our daily decisions. Our health, our friendships, our working lives are all dictated as much by fears and concerns as they are by their positive counterparts. And the messages that motivate us are just as often those that warn, cajole, or express disappointment as those that encourage or applaud. As we all know from personal experience, there are times in life when realism beats optimism, when warning beats encouragement, when facing into painful truths beats blind positivity.
In marketing too, there are many instances when such an approach is required. When there’s widespread ignorance about an issue. When behaviour is entrenched, but in no-one’s best interest. When a comfortable status quo allows complacency to set in. When negative perceptions need confronting. On such occasions, it is often more effective to challenge or warn than to encourage.
Fear, envy, loss, anxiety, jealousy - and a host of softer cousins - all powerfully inform our daily decisions.
It’s not as if our industry is unaware of this. From politics (“Labour isn’t working”), to health (‘Would you use your heart as an ashtray?’), to our favourite yeast extract (Marmite’s ‘Love It or Hate It’), some of advertising’s finest campaigns evoke the negative. And yet, as practitioners, we rarely practice what we preach.
So, why should we allow ourselves to ‘think negative’?
Because, often, what’s special about what you offer is easier to see when you're railing against something. When asked what they are in favour of, people’s responses tend towards the generic. When asked what they’re against, they speak specifically and passionately, because they want to change something.
By focusing on people’s annoyances and frustrations, you can create a deeper connection. When everyone is waving their positivity flag, another positive message makes you no different from everyone else. By highlighting negatives, however, you can touch on the real problems others gloss over.
By focusing on people’s annoyances and frustrations, you can create a deeper connection.
Sometimes, it pays to admit mistakes, because we respect those who show their vulnerability.
Avis built a brand on coming second. Domino’s Pizzas turned around a reputation issue by being open about poor reviews. A touch of negativity can also be bracing, even funny. If we don’t allow ourselves to be dark, ironic or even pessimistic, then we prevent ourselves from speaking truthfully. We have two clients at SNAP who understand these principles well.
Purplebricks’ success was accelerated by a campaign that warns home-sellers to save themselves from ‘commisery’ – the regret induced by ‘spending thousands on commission and getting nothing more for your money’. Many clients might have asked for a more ‘positive’ expression – perhaps the services offered, or the positive ways in which the money ‘saved’ could be spent. But Purplebricks recognised that in a market where 9 out of 10 people unthinkingly pay large commissions to traditional agents, default behaviour needed disrupting.
Our simple loss aversion strategy recognises the long-established principle that people are more motivated to avoid a loss than they are to secure an equally-sized gain. Yes, it plays directly to people’s fears of doing the wrong thing; but it feels more truthful in doing so, and is delivered with humour that allows us to enjoy the ‘negative’ message. A doubling of market share is testament to this.
In similar vein, Vitality express their highly positive rewards-based insurance model through a sausage dog who epitomises negativity. Vitality’s business model rewards those who stay active. But - aware of the risk of smug, self-satisfied advertising - we instead focused on a ‘negative’.
Stanley hates Vitality because his tiny legs can’t manage activity. Far from championing activity, he spends most of his airtime disparaging the brand. Vitality express their highly positive rewards-based insurance model through a sausage dog who epitomises negativity. But his character exists to acknowledge a negative but important truth: that most of us often can’t quite be bothered. Despite our best intentions, apathy often prevents us from getting active, even when we know it’s the right thing to do.
A message of blind positivity would struggle to jolt default behaviour in a low-interest market; but by acknowledging a ‘negative’ truth about the human condition, we’ve touched a nerve and accelerated success.
So maybe it’s time to ‘think negative’.
It isn’t a mantra for marketing or life but, equally, it isn’t a dark force to be avoided at all costs. Whether it’s owning up to mistakes, shining a light on our less positive selves, or exposing the cost of lazy behaviour, we’d all do better by acknowledging the positive power of ’thinking negative’.
Matt Wyatt is Executive Planning Director at SNAP LDN. Follow them @SnapLDN