Why You Might Want to Be More Negative in Your Marketing

As digital marketers, we‘re often told to "be positive". Build affinity with uplifting content. Inspire customers with messages of hope and optimism. Make people feel good about your brand.

But let‘s be real. The world can be a dark, scary, frustrating place – and sometimes consumers want to know that you get it. That you‘re not afraid to acknowledge the struggles they face. That you‘re willing to call out the bad actors making their lives harder.

Enter negative marketing.

What is Negative Marketing?

Negative marketing is an approach that taps into so-called "negative" emotions like fear, anger, disgust, or sorrow to capture audience attention and spur them to action.

This could take the form of attack ads lambasting a competitor‘s flaws, messaging that plays on customers‘ anxieties and insecurities, or campaigns that unite an audience against a common enemy.

A classic example is Apple‘s iconic "Get a Mac" commercials from the 2000s, which personified Microsoft as a bumbling, awkward, unstable PC in contrast to the sleek, easy, dependable Mac:

Apple Mac vs PC Ad

The goal of negative marketing is to make the consumer think "I don‘t want to be that or buy that" and instead seek the solution your brand provides. You position yourself as the hero rescuing customers from an unsatisfactory or undesirable alternative.

Why Use Negative Marketing?

So why would a marketer want to embrace negativity when we‘re conditioned to be positive? There are several strategic reasons.

1. It grabs attention.

In a cluttered media environment, people have become desensitized to cheery, inoffensive messaging. But bold, shocking, controversial content? That turns heads. Studies show that negative headlines get 63% more clicks on average than positive ones.

2. It spurs strong emotions.

Content that taps into visceral feelings like rage, rejection or revenge tends to get a stronger reaction than blander, more neutral messaging. Research has found negative emotions lead to more sharing, engagement and virality online.

3. It differentiates you from the competition.

If everyone else in your space is playing nice, a daring, disruptive stance can make you stand out from the crowd. You‘re showing you‘re not afraid to be bold and pick a fight. For example, Dove‘s "Real Beauty" campaign took on the beauty industry‘s toxic, unattainable portrayals of female perfection.

4. It creates an "us vs. them" unity.

Making an enemy of your audience‘s problems and frustrations – whether that‘s a reviled competitor, a broken industry, or their own limitations – forges a sense of shared purpose. You‘re all in it together fighting the good fight. Apple famously cultivated a die-hard tribe by attacking PC users and inviting people to join the Mac revolution.

When Negative Marketing Goes Wrong

Of course, building a marketing strategy around negativity is like playing with fire – wield it carelessly and you‘re sure to get burned.

For a cautionary tale, look no further than Pepsi‘s infamous 2017 ad starring Kendall Jenner:

Pepsi Kendall Jenner Ad

Pepsi clearly intended to tap into the cultural energy around protest movements and position itself as a unifying force for positive change. But the ad was so glossy and tone-deaf in its depiction of police/protester conflict, it sparked immediate backlash and mockery. Pepsi pulled the ad and publicly apologized within 24 hours.

The lesson? Negative marketing is extremely tricky to get right. It requires you to deeply understand your audience, their emotions, and the cultural context you‘re operating in. If you appear out of touch or opportunistic, people will roast you for it.

When to Use Negative Marketing (Carefully)

All that said, when deployed strategically and judiciously, negative marketing can be a highly effective tool in your arsenal. Here are some scenarios where it can work:

  • Punching up, not down. Negative marketing works best when you‘re targeting a perceived powerhouse or leader, not punching down at an underdog. Taking aim at a struggling upstart is just bullying. But knocking an entrenched giant down a peg or two? People love to root for a scrappy contender.
  • Maintaining the moral high ground. If you‘re going to sling mud, make sure your own brand is spotless. Attacks on a competitor fall flat when you‘re guilty of the same issues. Audiences can sniff out hypocrisy.
  • Balancing with positivity. Relentless negativity is a turnoff. People will start to tune you out (or worse, turn on you). Use negative messaging sparingly and strategically, tempered with more upbeat, inspirational content.
  • Picking battles wisely. Not every issue or insult is worth making a stink about. Getting riled up over a minor grievance or shooting down a harmless troll just makes you look petty and insecure. Choose the negative stances you take carefully to protect your brand‘s reputation and credibility.

Negative Marketing in the Age of Social Media

The necessity for discernment with negative marketing is especially true in our current social media era. Online discourse rewards hyperbole and outrage – pile-ons and "cancellations" can arise with startling speed and virality.

As a brand, that means any negative message you put out is liable to get amplified (potentially to extremes you didn‘t intend). An edgy joke or playful jab at a competitor can spiral into a PR crisis if the wrong people pick it up and run with it.

At the same time, social media has increased the demand for "authenticity" in marketing. Consumers, especially younger generations, want to see brands acknowledge hard realities and take principled stands. Always playing it safe and positive can come off as bland and out of touch.

So how do you walk the line? Here are a few tips:

  • Be crystal clear in your brand values. The more well-defined your principles and boundaries are, the easier it is to deploy negative marketing that feels justified and on-brand rather than gratuitous.
  • Humanize with humor. Self-deprecating jokes and wry observations are a safer way to go negative than cutthroat attacks or grim pronouncements. Keeping things witty defuses tension.
  • Punch within your weight class. Sniping at a close rival with whom you have legitimate beef comes off better than random potshots at any brand that annoys you.
  • Read the room. Pay attention to the cultural climate and audience emotions. Negativity that might fly in snarky peacetime could hit very differently during a sensitive cultural moment (like say, a global pandemic).

The Future of Negative Marketing

As digital marketing evolves and audience expectations shift, the role of negative marketing is ripe for re-evaluation. Rising consumer skepticism, online polarization, and the demand for bolder brand activism all point to strategic negativity becoming a more powerful tool.

We may see a surge in:

  • Bolder competitive marketing. With trust in institutions declining, brands have more leeway to openly challenge and criticize industry giants without looking like a bully. In fact, it may make them look more honest and authentic.
  • Harsher retaliation to attack campaigns. With online outrage culture in full swing, brands may feel more emboldened to punch back hard when attacked or trolled by haters and take even competitors to task in the public square.
  • More raw, authentic negative content. The polished, filtered, relentlessly sunny depiction of life in traditional advertising is giving way to a preference for realism, struggle and even darkness. Brands may embrace more daring negative themes and imagery.
  • Rising risk and potential backlash. Of course, the more negative marketing out there, the higher the risk of audience exhaustion and blowback. Brands will have to tread carefully to avoid adding to the toxicity and alienating consumers.

Wield Negative Marketing Wisely

As the cultural tides change, marketers can‘t afford to keep their messaging all sunshine and rainbows. Thoughtfully tapping into negative emotions, taking controversial stands, and picking principled fights has the potential to make your brand stand out and forge deeper audience connections.

But wield your negative tactics wisely. The line between edgy and offensive is razor-thin. Too much indiscriminate negativity backfires fast.

When in doubt, fight for your customers, punch up at the powerful, and balance a salty jab or two with plenty of sweetness elsewhere. Like adding a dash of soy sauce or hot sauce to a dish, a little strategic negativity goes a long way.