Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Does negativity sell?

If you think that negative messaging never gets results, you positively need to read this article.


One of my many weaknesses is writing letters to The Times. Just before the Scottish independence referendum I penned one about how the ‘No’ campaign was all wrong because negativity didn’t sell. Anyone in advertising will tell you that. They rarely use knocking copy as it turned audiences off.

The famous Saatchi & Saatchi campaign ‘Labour isn’t working’ is the exception that proved the rule. Yes, it helped the Conservatives win an election. However, it was also more positive than is often remembered: it actually had the tag line, ‘Britain’s better off with the Conservatives’.

“Even I think they’re too negative”
There’s nay positivity
Back to the Scots, everyone at the time, even tennis ‘personality’ and superstar Andy Murray were echoing the same message. The ‘No’ campaign had failed to enflame the voters of Scotland because it was just too much of a downer.

Dear Sir, I was wrong
The ‘No’ campaign, of course, won. Thankfully, my letter didn’t get published. But what’s the truth? Does negativity work or not? I turned to my current favourite book, YES! 50 Secrets from the science of persuasion for a conclusive answer. As anyone who read our September post will know, this gem of a book is based on a lifetime’s analysis by one academic of all the scientific research into persuasion. This is the gist of his findings:

I can’t see a problem
Warning of a danger does encourage people to avoid that danger if – and only if – you quickly offer them a solution. Provide no way out of the problem and people go into denial. This not only helps them avoid action; it also stops them being responsive to any solution that presents itself further down the tracks. The denial presumably allows them to pretend the problem no longer exists.

That’s a pretty useful insight. If you have to tell your CEO some bad news, make sure you offer up a solution at the same time. Perhaps one of the reasons the green lobby is failing to muster support for its cause is because they spend a lot more effort pointing out the dangers of modern living than explaining what we can do to change things for the better.
That’s what probably made the ‘No’ campaign effective in the end: they offered a clear solution to the problems they’d raised: stick with the Union.

Maggie’s pet
This ‘problem plus solution’ principle brings us neatly back to the Conservatives. Margret Thatcher was once asked to explain the appeal of Lord Young, a minister in her cabinet, she replied, ‘everyone else comes to me with problems; he brings me solutions’.

A beacon of positivity 
Just after drafting this post, an interview with Tim Bell, Thatcher’s advertising guru responsible for the ‘Labour isn’t working’ ad, appeared in The Times. In it, he explained why he wouldn’t now recommend negative campaigning about Miliband to the Conservatives:

“We had this great poster worked out,” he recalls. “It showed Michael Foot, duffle coat, stick, walking bent over Hampstead Heath and the slogan was: ‘Even pensioners are better off under the Conservatives.’ But Margaret ruled it out straight away.” That was the right call, he says, even though Mr Miliband has left plenty of hostages to fortune. “We are living in a generation of abuse,” says the PR guru, who has described Twitter as the end of civilisation. “The carrot is ten times more valuable than the stick. That’s what she believed too.” 


So, there you have it. The negative isn’t always a no-no, as long as it’s swiftly followed by a solution. However, nine and a half times out of ten, it pays to be positive.

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