Negative Advertising – Differentiate Your Brand In 6 Steps

April 28, 2022

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“Great ads are built on insights. And insights are always honest. But the truth isn’t always positive. The world isn’t always good.”

The thing I love about the JumpStory site is that it focuses on realism – not false perfectionism. It’s the reason why the imagery speaks to you on a human level. If you’re smart enough to realize this, then your ad copy needs to do the same thing to give you an upper edge. Here’s the “Why” and “How” of “negative advertising”.


The Why:

Negative advertising separates your brand. The world is obsessed with always being positive and so marketing says every brand’s glass must always be half-full. But the world isn’t in a good space emotionally. If your brand always looks at the bright side, you no longer just come across as being optimistic – you can come across as being out-of-touch.

To define it: “negative advertising” doesn’t mean “bad”. It simply means acknowledging reality WITHOUT being destructive; offensive; or defeatist. That makes it so strong because we are geared more toward the negative. As a human, you really must work hard to keep me happy, but I can ruin your whole day with one sentence. It’s bred into us. The cavemen who were paranoid got eaten a lot less than the “go-getters”. So, now we are more likely to believe negative news, dwell on negative comments, or be moved into action because we’re angry.

Also, let’s be honest, why always target those proactive, ambitious hustlers? There are far more underachievers just trying to get through the week.

The How:

There are several techniques for negative advertising and even a subtle shift in tone can change your brand’s engagement levels.

Two guys enjoying viewer

1. “Shockvertising”

Highly impactful and unforgettable – it’s the PSA’s bread and butter. As an example: To avoid people driving drunk, simply show the after-effects of a car accident. To really land the copy you need to make a strong juxtaposition – couple that horrific image with something flippant, light, or irreverent like the famous campaign: “If you drink, then drive, you’re a bloody idiot”.  

Shockvertising is good if you have a message that saves lives or does something equally worthy, thus the good the advert does makes up for the trauma it causes. Some brands will take the risk and use it for standard products. It worked for Benetton but most of the time, it just makes you seem willing to assault the public mentally to sell some jeans.

Guy shooting ads

2. Self-deprecating

Self-deprecating humor is a sign of a high EQ. You don’t want to go too far, but accepting you have weaknesses as a brand, while acknowledging your strengths, makes you “human”. You’re more relatable when you joke about your failings – and people love you for it. More importantly, it means you’re honest and thus trustworthy. Smart Car did an amazing campaign where they drove their tiny vehicle into 4×4 territory and showed it failing dismally at every task.

It was cute and fun – and left the viewer wondering why they were having a go at their own brand. The copy for this kind of advert needs to highlight your strength while being a little tongue-in-cheek. For Smart, the line was “As good off-road as an offroader in the city” and ended showing their car topping a massive 4×4 to a tiny parking space. Perfect target marketing.

Advertising of dog wear

3. Insult the Viewer

Some brands will go as far as to have a dig at their consumer. It really must be subtle, generic, and non-exclusionary. You can never go after a cultural and racial difference – but you can go after “shared stupidity” – such as how we procrastinate at work or act in traffic.

These are observational insights– finding the things “we never knew we always do” and a shared experience is a shortcut to understanding which helps when you only have 30” to land a campaign. A good example is the economist’s quote: I never read The Economist – by a 42-year-old trainee or the Short Film Festival that targeted people with a short attention span. Both ‘attack’ people in the real world, but land on their feet because the ads are generic enough to avoid offense.

woman and a clown

4. Admit that maybe life can be better

We’re not all perfect and admitting that, works. It costs you nothing – everyone already knows it – so focus on the realities of daily life and your brand becomes more relatable. I suggest you stand for the “little guy”. Fedex tended to rest its campaigns on office workers struggling to stay ahead with a little help from Fedex.

These consumers weren’t the corner-office kings, and the brand looked like it stood for the everyday rat racer.

5. Champion the jerk

People love the villain. They’re more fun, daring, and willing to do what we wish we could. TV shows do it all the time – The Sopranos, Breaking Bad – they focus on the bad guy. But this feels like the last person you can make the spokesperson for a brand. Which is why it differentiates you and demonstrates you’re a brand that is fearless.

The greatest example I know of this is Horlicks – where a bus driver deliberately closes the door and leaves behind a struggling woman sprinting to get on board. The line is perfect: “How does he sleep at night?” with the answer being him sipping his Horlicks. Fair warning though: championing the jerk is HARD because it’s easy to offend and it can backfire. Get experienced eyes on your executions before you launch.

woman showing a victory sign

6. Be brief

If you can’t land the concept immediately, don’t be negative because no one will give you a chance to defend your choice. It needs to alleviate the building tension quickly. Almost all the adverts I’ve mentioned – are funny to ease the discomfort, and the writing tends to be very high-brow, short, and on-point.

Last thought

Why do these adverts tend to be funny? Laughter is often a stress reflex. It is in typically seen in response to a negative scenario – witnessing someone falling, being in an awkward situation, having a person embarrass you, etc. We laugh when we’re relieved or under pressure. That is why some people may giggle at a funeral and not a wedding – it’s not that anything is funny, it’s because there is a tremendous amount of stress on them and it has to be released somehow.  The more they giggle – the more people get annoyed – the more stress there is – the more they giggle.

So, a negative situation is an easy way to get a laugh. If you try to be positive and funny – you need a solid performance or a perfect visual. (Again, I’m sure JumpStory can help here) This does not mean negative advertising is a shortcut.  It’s easy to show the positive and attach a brand to it. It doesn’t make you stand out, but it doesn’t hurt you either. To attach your brand to a negative and still come out looking golden requires a lot of skill and experience.

You need to wield sarcasm, smugness, arrogance, insults, and cutting wit – traits people hate – yet you still need to make people love you for being a bit of a jerk.

There is risk involved but when it all comes together, the result is amazing. Don’t ignore the world around you – talk to the hurt.

About the author

Clint is an award-winning Creative Director Copywriter with more than 20 years of advertising experience. His background covers everything from traditional ATL advertising to digital and shopper marketing.

Clint Bechus

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