The Difference Between Negative And Competitive Advertising—And What Really Works

If you live in a hotly contested Republican primary state, you’ve already seen lots of negative advertising this year. And unless you’ll be trekking in Nepal between Labor Day and November 6, you’ll see plenty no matter where you live. Like it or not, negative political advertising works, and both the Obama and Romney camps (not to mention the PACs) are grandmasters of the dark political advertising arts.

For mainstream marketers, however, the coming barrage will once again blur the distinction between "negative advertising" and "competitive advertising." There are big and important differences, and brand marketers remain confused, to their peril.

So what are "negative ads"? In the political realm, they’re focused almost exclusively on "the other guy," not on the paying candidate and his or her bonafides. They can be laden with half-facts, unflattering pictures, misleading edits and creepy music. And they rely almost exclusively on emotional, not rational, appeal.

Why do they work? Whether we care to admit it or not, people tend to vote emotionally, not factually. Just Google "voting with emotion" and you’ll be buried in hours of fascinating proof.

In the brand world, how does a "competitive" ad differ from a "negative" political ad? They tend to be less vicious, less personal, and if running on the networks, they must be more fact-based, since national advertisers must still substantiate every claim for network clearance. (If only political ads had to pass through the Network Gates of Substantiation!) The best example in recent years of a competitive brand campaign was Apple’s "I'm a Mac vs. I'm a PC," which used a smart combination of facts wrapped in humor and strong brand imagery to tout Apple’s superiority over Windows-based PCs.

Campaigns like this can work wonders for brands. But many brands get derailed from competitive claims or head-to-head competitive advertising for two emotional reasons: False-negative evaluation of competitive ads by focus group respondents, and the marketing team’s acceptance of these reactions as "fact."

  1. The consumer "false-negative trap": When brand marketers expose consumers to competitive ads in focus groups, the respondents usually declare instant and vocal hatred for them. The trouble is, how people respond to competitive advertising in focus group settings has little to do with how they are actually persuaded and behave in market. But marketers who know their way around quantitative research know that, just like in the political realm, people may dismiss negative ads, but well crafted competitive advertising in the brand realm works.
  2. The "emotional transference trap": The client/agency group dynamic behind the focus group mirror is usually an "emotional transference" of the consumers’ negative reactions. We’ve seen it dozens of times, as client and agency folks nod, agree, and accept at face value the "false negative" reaction in the focus group room. (And hey, who wants to champion an ad strategy in front of his or her client/agency peers that so clearly puts off a roomful of the target respondents?)

But if you move from a group-emotional reaction to the right kind of clinical "ad lab" and do the right kind of strategic message development for your brands—quantitative research among the "swing voters" in your category (the persuadable consumers whose loyalties are up for grabs)—you might be very surprised how effective truthful, comparative advertising can be.

So here’s to well-thought-out, fact-based competitive advertising, developed and evaluated in the right setting—and may the coming slash-and-burn political maelstrom not put us all off this highly valuable technique.

[Image: Flickr user Powerhouse Museum]

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