Just say no

Why negativity isn't always negative
Matt Brady
by Matt Brady

Sometimes, being negative just works.

  • Stop
  • No entry
  • Don’t jam your fork in the plug socket

Clear. Instructive. Potentially life-saving. But in marketing, saying no is often seen as a problem – even when it’s a negative that frames a positive.

If I write: “New toothpaste with no nasties.”

The likely feedback will be: “If we say ‘no nasties’, people can’t help but think of the nasties. Can we be more upbeat?”

It’s a fair – and sensible – line of thought. And it’s sometimes true. But the real truth is, leaning in to negativity is not always a bad thing. Not for every brand. Not all the time.

The positives of being negative

Using negative ideas to pitch brands and products can be powerful. Here’s why.

Bad things are easy to remember

Humans pay more attention to unpleasant information. The bias is a useful evolutionary trait – fire burns, falling hurts, and lions will eat you.

Now, let’s look at a more abstract fear: failure. An uncomfortable feeling, right? So it’s brave of Pinterest to whack it front and centre in its latest campaign. And then turn the idea around to help people overcome self-doubt.

Dont dont yourself Pinterest campaign

Pinterest's campaign

It would’ve been so easy to come up with a line resembling You’ve Got This! But Don’t Don’t Yourself is genuinely relatable – we’ve all felt that stutter of nerves while trying new things. Pinterest shows us that it understands our hang-ups, then pushes us onwards with a grin.

It can be a laugh

Negativity is often at its best when it’s tongue-in-cheek. Self-deprecation is a great way in. You’re not seen as a downer, and you tap into another great memory trick – using humour.

Take dating app Hinge. A brand that would happily wish itself out of existence, for happily-ever-afters? I’m not sure how much more authentic you can get than that.

Hinge delete ad

Hinge ad

It can make a statement

Patagonia’s famous Don’t Buy This Jacket ad was a call-to-arms against waste, fast fashion, and throwaway mentalities.

No ad has ever been so negative. Or, ironically, successful at being an ad because of it.

The negatives of being positive

Being negative doesn’t always work. But neither does being happy-clappy. Even being perceived as being too polite can undermine trustworthiness for certain audiences.

So, as always, the words need to work in context.

Do I believe the hype?

In real life, no one is positive all the time. When we see brands gleaming with sheen-and-shine niceness… do we believe it?

“It’s a father and son thing” blares one segment in Halifax’s It’s a People Thing campaign. Funnily enough, I don’t recall my bank manager ever showing up to hang out with us.


Father and son Halifax ad

Halifax's ad stretches credulity

Yes, the message is fine – “we’re here for real people and their lives” – but the way it’s delivered isn’t that believable, for me. It’s a thin veneer dangling in front of corporate HQ. (In fact, Halifax proved that by sanitising a street full of empty shops for the ads.)

Being positive can hurt you

Luxury brands that get too friendly with customers are actually undermining their own exclusivity. Being accessible and open on social media makes them worth less to customers.

That doesn’t mean they need to be mean – or snarky. But a touch of aloofness coming from, say, Versace? That’d feel about right.

To be successfully negative, it’s got to be you

You need the whole weight of your brand behind the words.

DeadHappy could’ve looked at this copy and said, “Life insurance was barely alive? Let’s change that. We don’t want people to think bad things about insurance companies.” (God forbid.)

Dead Happy insurance ad

DeadHappy's eyecatching negativity

But they stuck to their guns – and the brand is so much stronger for it.

Defining brands with contrarian thinking can also express firm stances. Have a peek at Reed Words’ work for Goodfind.

Goodfind image

Our Goodfind tone of voice

“Mess up the economy for good.” A direct, negative statement that undercuts expectations and speaks with a voice you can’t ignore.

And by deliberately defining Goodfind in contrast to consumerism, we left the brand free to focus on ethical shopping.

Negativity is tricky to navigate

Not many brands could get away with telling me not to strip off at dinner time. KFC gets away with it. Because it’s KFC talking.

Other brands couldn’t pull it off, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just not for you.

But if you are going to be negative, go the whole hog. (Or chicken.) It takes guts to break the ‘be positive’ mantra. But when you’re brave with it, you get a whole lot more creative freedom. And that means more chances to hit home.

This article was originally published in Brandingmag.

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