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Sock It to 'Em

Can a negative marketing campaign have positive results? Here's what to know before you strike the first blow.

Mudslinging, name-calling, accusations and counterattacks. Sounds like a bad way to run a marketing campaign-particularly during a presidential race-but all those negative ads may have a more positive result than you think. What many of us call "negative" or "attack" ads are termed "comparative" ads by those in the industry, and the bottom line is that they appear to work.

"They're very effective," says Rick Farmer, Ph.D., an assistant professor of political science at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio, who has studied the impact of comparative ads. Farmer, other researchers and campaign consultants agree that negative ads are more memorable than positive ones, provided they reinforce a belief and remain relevant to the central issues of the marketing campaign. In political campaigns, comparative ads work because "people have a cynical view of politics and tend to believe the negative very quickly," says Farmer.

Though many Americans say they don't like negative political ads, research by faculty members at the University of Georgia found that not only are attack ads initially effective, but their impact increases over time, perhaps because they produce an emotional response. And positive ads used to counter them are not as effective because they're ultimately less powerful than the opponent's attack ad.

Weigh the Risks

When it comes to marketing products and services, comparative advertising is happily tolerated, even enjoyed, by audiences-just so long as it's dished up with a healthy dose of humor. Plus, the claims must be true and documented. For example, attack ads launched for underdog Miller Lite, which had half the sales volume of Bud Light, turned around its decade-long sales decline by focusing heavily on Miller Lite's lower carbohydrate content. They also forced industry leader Budweiser into a defensive posture.

Negative ads featuring direct comparisons can successfully educate and motivate target audiences, such as the way TV spots for Total brand cereal humorously demonstrate its benefits by showing how many bowls of another brand you'd have to eat to equal the nutrition in one bowl of Total. But before you undertake this type of campaign, it pays to know its risks.

  • While attack ads cause audiences to experience negative feelings about the company being attacked, negative impressions also go up for the attacker. So while a two-company fight launched by the underdog may prove successful, if there are multiple companies vying for dominance, launching a negative campaign could give lesser competitors an advantage and the opportunity to leap ahead of you.
  • If you're the market leader, launching attack ads may actually give your lesser-known opponent name recognition. When No.2 soup brand Progresso went on the attack against No.1 Campbell's, the leader responded by placing a blue can resembling Progresso's next to its own to describe the differences-which some believe only served to help consumers remember the challenger.
  • When making a direct comparison, the tone and execution of your campaign must expertly sidestep any possibility of being considered meanspirited or unlikable, to avoid having your campaign backfire.

The High Road

A safer route is to skip the attack ads altogether and use implied comparisons. Avis doesn't directly attack Hertz, they simply "try harder." Wendy's legendary "Where's the Beef?" campaign never directly named McDonald's or Burger King but humorously implied that other burgers were smaller. In response to Kmart's campaign exhorting female customers to clip coupons, Wal-Mart adroitly ran spots showing busy women who had no time to clip coupons enjoying the convenience of low prices every day without them. No mudslinging necessary-just build a campaign around the comparative benefits of working with you, and your customers will make all the right connections.

Kim Gordon is the owner of National Marketing Federation and is a multifaceted marketing expert, speaker, author and media spokesperson. Her latest book is Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars.

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This article was originally published in the November 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Sock It to 'Em.

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