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Negativity in advertising

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In this post I try to spotlight few negative expressions we use in our day to day life and present how they can be related to the advertising world.

Many of our most important day to day negative expressions might not be as powerful as they are if they were said in positive. Let’s see some examples of expressions associated with high risks: “HIGH VOLTAGE, DO NOT TOUCH” are all difficult to say in a few words and powerfully in any positive construct.

It’s interesting that for years incendiary materials were marked “INFLAMMABLE” or “HIGHLY INFLAMMABLE,” perhaps 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 joined to make a positive: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” The reverse is also true.

Why are newspapers full of bad news? Because people are much more concerned in bad news; maybe 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 encouraging. 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.

Googling around for references on “negative words”, there are, obviously, a hundred well-intentioned yet predictable passages on how to eliminate negativity from your relationship, etc. (One earnest polemic on positivism carries the straight – faced headline: “Stop Being So Negative!”).

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 formerly 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 in fact more likely to remember such words when given a negative indication than when given a positive one. This method of learning, using negative reminders, is comparable 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 way next time by remembering that we shouldn’t go the wrong path again.

Yet 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 repeats 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 unexpectedly, 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 increase 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 well known and flourishing 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, however 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 states. 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 apparent: “So clear 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 possess 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 amenable than the exaggerated 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 persuasive than the theme that carried American Express to world fame, “Don’t Leave Home Without It.”

Would it have suggested the same indispensability expressed as” Always take it with you when you leave home”? I think not. But then, perhaps I’m just being negative.

Try to inset “Nobody Doesn’t Like” and “Everybody Loves” in Keyword Donkey and see the difference.


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