Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Don't Read This, It's Way Too Long.

Way back in 2002, I was rightfully fired from TBWA Chiat/Day.

Why rightfully? Because I was an arrogant ass. Hard to believe, right? I was so misguided that when I wasn't berating Account Managers for not managing, or ripping apart Planners for not planning, I took it upon myself to start writing so-called White Papers, pseudo-intellectual tripe, about what was wrong with the industry.

They're all gone now. Sitting on a beat-up hard-drive buried in a smelly landfill somewhere in Riverside. But, my friend Susan Alinsangan, an admitted hoarder, saved one and sent it to me.

So today, in honor of legendary copywriter Bob Levenson (who passed last week) and inspired by a fellow blogger's briefer treatise on the topic, I'm reprinting it here. 

I'm tempted to fix it. Or to give it an edit. But then decided to display it, warts, outdated references, and all.

Why We Should Never Not Use Negative Advertising.


A White Paper On Negativity.

“Does it have to be so negative?”  Ask any copywriter or art director and they will tell you these are easily the seven most dreaded words ever uttered by a client reviewing work.

Dreaded, for two reasons.

First, because it's a rhetorical question. It’s not a question at all. What the client is actually saying is, “I don’t really want an answer and any reply you do give me will be sadly insufficient and met with an uncomfortable, stony silence. Though I will thoroughly enjoy watching you hem and haw, stop and start, and generally make an emotional ass of yourself.”

The second reason it is dreaded is…oh, who cares what the second reason is, the work is dead.


Once work is labeled negative there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Or is there?

In tenth grade, a geometry teacher proved to me that the hypotenuse of a right triangle was the square root of the sum of the squares of the other sides. What’s more amazing is that the Pythagorean theorem can be proven 417 different ways.

Unfortunately, the great Euclidean thinkers never got around to dissecting the mysteries of advertising or how to do an end-around a myopic CMO.

That does not preclude us from an equally rigorous, though admittedly, more anecdotal proof of why we should embrace ‘negativity’ or what I like to refer to it as ‘reverse positivism.’

Guess what? It works.

Ask 100 people to name the greatest single television commercial ever produced and 95 of those people will cite Apple’s “1984”, a nightmarish trip into an Orwellian future inhabited by IBM-drones. The tone was dark. The people were unattractive. The environment was oppressive. And probably to the product manager’s dismay, there was not a single word about any product attributes or features or benefits or anything. The copy simply said that with the introduction of the Macintosh, “1984 won’t be like 1984.”

Can an ad get any more negative than that?

Probably not. And yet despite the fact that the spot aired once during the Super Bowl (though countless times on unpaid news programs), many will tell you that this spot not only launched Macintosh, it launched the Apple brand. During the course of the next few weeks following the Super Bowl, Macintosh inventory ran out and Apple had to reconfigure their entire manufacturing process.

What about print you say?

Ask any student of the advertising industry to name the greatest single print ad and many, OK many older ones, will point to a Volkswagen newspaper ad from the 1960’s. There was a simple picture of the VW bug and a one-word headline that read, “Lemon.” (In the automotive vernacular, there isn’t a single word that carries as much negative baggage as the word, “Lemon.”) The ad is about a VW bug that didn’t pass its final inspection because of a blemished chrome strip.

Today, Volkswagen is a household word in Germany and in America, because a brave client who understood the power of ‘reverse positivism’ approved ads with negative headlines like, “Lemon”, “Think small” and “It makes your house look bigger.” 

Need more examples? I’ll name the brand and I’ll bet within seconds you can think of their commercials. Alaska Airlines. Federal Express. IBM. All employ so-called negative advertising, whether it is portraying how their competitors operate or illustrating a situation that can benefit from their product or service.

Would anybody argue that these commercials are not successful?

Why? Would somebody tell me why?

Trying to explain why negative advertising works is like asking someone to define the number three without using your fingers or a pencil or other numbers. In Luke Sullivan’s book, “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This” he writes:

Negatives have power. Try writing the Ten Commandments positively…It would not fit on two stone tablets. Negatives are a linguistic construction we’re all familiar with.

And how did we become so familiar with this particular linguistic construction? From our books, our magazines, our shows, our films, our stories.

Think about it. If we expressed everything in positive terms, our nightly news wouldn’t last three minutes much less thirty.

If you took away the negative linguistic construction from a stand up comedian, how long do you think it would be before he or she was back to bussing tables or driving a cab?

And what about the movies? Years ago, the powers that be at Paramount Studios, put Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a small movie called, “Sleepless in Seattle.” Probably for the same reason that peanut butter goes with jelly, people love to see Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan together. But here’s the deal, the movie runs a little less than two hours long, and yet the two superstars are together in just one scene for three minutes. THREE MINUTES.

Did somebody in research say, “we have to change the script, they keep missing each other.” Maybe they did, but fortunately that person was sacked. Because it is the very tension, the conflict, the situations that keep them apart that make their union at the end of the film so gratifying.

Syd Field, in his book SCREENPLAY, writes:

All drama is conflict. Without conflict you have no character; without character, you have no action; without action, you have no story; and without story, you have no screenplay.

Though we are not writing screenplays (OK some of us are, after hours) it can be argued that TV commercials need to work even harder at telling our stories: the story of our product.

And why would we not use the very same tools, drama, conflict, tension, humor, that have served great storytellers since the first markings were put on a cave?

“This White Paper isn’t all that convincing.”

Some researchers at Cleveland State University made a startling discovery.

The researchers created two fictitious job candidates –Dave and John – two identical resumes, and two almost identical letters of reference. The only difference was that John’s letter included the sentence “Sometimes, John can be difficult to get along with.”

The researchers showed the resumes to personnel directors. Which candidate did the directors most want to interview?

Sometimes-Difficult-to-Get-Along-With John.

The researchers concluded that the criticism of John made the reference’s praise of John seem much more believable, and that made John look like a stronger candidate. Showing John’s warts actually helped sell John. (Excerpted from “Selling the Invisible” by Harry Beckwith)

The point is, sometimes we propose headlines or copy that, at first blush may not seem all that appealing or flattering. But honesty has a unique disarming quality. Particularly when it comes unexpectedly from a large organization.

And as the Cleveland State University professors pointed out, honesty can go a long way in the eyes and minds of consumers we are trying to persuade.

Persuasion. Persuasion. Persuasion.

In the end, why we do what we do is to convince other people to do what they sometimes don’t know they need to do or even want to do.

This is complicated by the fact that human beings are as Harry Beckwith states, “unpredictable, frustrating, temperamental, often irrational, and occasionally half mad.”

If using ‘negative’ advertising can get make for a more persuasive argument, and I believe that historically it has, we would be screaming, lobotomized, half-wits not to use it.

I'm sorry, is that too negative?   

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