When Mitt Romney won Florida this year in the GOP primary, Kantar Media reported that just 0.1% of his $15 million in ad spending went to pro-Romney ads. Which basically means that voters saw one measly positive ad while all others were negative, pointing out the flaws and irresponsibility of his opponents.
And yet, he won.
Most political marketers concede that negative advertising works. But why? And if it works so well, should marketers use it more for their brands?
The Passive Audience
Negative political advertising is largely targeted to the casual observer. A well-crafted visual or soundbite--swift boats or Ronald Reagan's bear--can really stick with people. Such was the case in California's 2010 Gubernatorial race when negative Meg Whitman ads showed a vulture picking at a carcass while a voiceover talked about her support of Goldman Sach's so-called vulture funds. Very visual.
While voters always report to disliking negative ads, sadly, they are the ones that tend to stick in the mind during campaigning, counting on the fact that voters are not paying much attention to the facts and policies of the candidates.
Consumers, like voters, are passive, too. We quickly make our choices at the store and in the mall without a ton of thought. On this level alone, using the political ad model might work.
But for brands it's not that simple.
Components of Negative Brand Marketing Campaigns
Chevy struck at Ford on the 2012 Super Bowl. Interestingly, people didn't overly embrace this particular spot. This is largely because if advertising is going to attack a competitor there are two cornerstones of negative advertising that have proved to work in politics that Chevy didn't do.
First, the Chevy ad wasn't based on any factual evidence. For negative ads to work they need to be based on some negative data point, not just opinion.
Secondly, the Chevy ad was polished and well-produced. Negative political ads typically look like they were cobbled together for fifty bucks. This allows them to convey the feeling that the negative information the audience is hearing about has been unearthed quickly and is incriminating. In society it's always the candid photographs and the grainy videos that reveal the sneaky stuff going on.
Those two elements are key for negative advertising and most marketers, thankfully, don't want to produce work like that for their brands.
Sometimes brands do reach for negative facts and produce less costly work that's negative. The soup category did this in 2009. Campbell's attacked Progresso. Progresso then said Campbell's used MSG and both companies reported sales increases around 5%.
But before people cite this as support for negative brand advertising it's important to remember the year and the category; 2009 was a recession and categories like canned soups, meats, dry grains and pastas were all up between 3% - 7% as consumers cocooned at home and saved money by eliminating other products from their shopping lists. Was it the negative ads or the category growth that was responsible for the +5%?
Then there's the classic 1996 fight between Advil and Tylenol. It got nasty. Advil started the attack about how Tylenol could cause liver damage in heavy drinkers. Tylenol responded and increased their ad spending that year to $212 million. The brands went so hard at each other that people were scared away from the category. Networks refused to air the work. The results? Before Advil proactively attacked their 1995 sales were off 5.6%. After their 1996 attack campaign they were down again 6.8%.
Unlike politics, the evidence supporting brand sales success from negative advertising is thin.
It's important to note that politicians don't have the litigation that brands do over false claims and misleading information. In politics, a voting record is a voting record. They're also open to the public as public figures. Brands are different. Litigation is a business tactic and an expensive distraction. Does it make sense to spend money on ads and then spend again--oftentimes significant legal fees--in defense of the ad?
Brands are extremely litigious. General Mills, Whirlpool, Cadbury, Pepsi and the like all challenge claims made about them by their competitors.
The likelihood of legal fallout over negative attack ads is strong. So a portion of any increased sales would need to be planned for such defense. The evidence doesn't prove significant sales gains from negative ads themselves but it does prove an increased likelihood of litigation which comes out of the bottom line.
This is why when attacking a competitor it's important to stay positive and keep the facts away from things that could hurt the whole category. Like this.
Politicians And Brands Are Asking For Different Behaviors
In politics the consumer action is unique; one candidate will end up obliterating the other from contention. The end goal is to make one decision (a vote) where the victor takes all while the loser goes away. And it is in this nuance that political advertising is different from brand marketing... Coke cannot suddenly obliterate Pepsi on November 6th.
That's good. When it comes to products and services consumers actually want multiple products. As Martin has showed us time and time again, consumers are not monogamous; we buy multiple brands within a category. And while we do have a preference for one brand we typically don't "hate" the other. We like choice. And we like to feel good and positive about the things we shell out our cash for.
Attack Ads Aren't Necessary For Brands
So let's recap. When it comes to attack ads, in order to be successful a marketer should produce a crappy-looking ad in order to be taken seriously. When they do that they need to painstaking craft facts that somehow hurt the competitor but not the category. Then they have to plan for and fund probable litigation to defend it. And once it's all finished the competitor is still there, which we, as consumers, kind of like. All of this in addition to the fact that negative ads don't rally a company internally around the purpose of the organization, a key element of successful marketing.
Negative brand ads just aren't necessary. Leave it to the politicians who are convinced they need them. The world is chalked full of successful marketing case studies about brands who get close to their customers, put forth innovative products worth talking about, find motivating insights and use positive creativity to build their business.
And by the way, much like the Advil vs. Tylenol case study, one can't help but wonder if all that negativeness is indeed hurting the category: as negative political advertising has continued to rise, voter turnout has continuted to decline.