By Mark Margulies
Here’s what you WON’T get in this article. You WON’T get a lot of gooey talk about how positive advertising is the only style to use. You WON’T find a lot of fluff about the fact that you have to frame everything you say in a positive way in an ad. And you WON’T find an overabundance of overused, so-called “power words.” What you WILL find are some ideas I’d like to share with you this month about what some people call “negative copy.”
A short time ago, I reviewed a request for copy changes for a health club spot that featured a reversal of the same flavor you just read in the beginning of this article. Its structure was basically the same, with the idea being, “Here are a couple of things you WON’T find at (CLIENT NAME). You won’t find a long term contract to lock you in and limit your options. And you won’t get a bill for an enrollment fee, like other health clubs charge,” yada, yada. The spot was promptly returned with the Account Executive’s admonition, “Beginning too negative. Take out those few lines. They really don’t want to go after other health facilities.” The problem I had was, where was this offensive negativity? The spot was framed as a reversal, pointing out general policies other facilities legitimately engaged in, then going on to explain how our client intended to be different. That’s not “going after” anyone—that’s a benefits reversal, simply a different way to attract the audience’s attention and explore the benefits of our client. To call that opening "negative" is to probably be upset at the Department of Traffic because of all those “Stop” signs around town.
There IS place for negative advertising, but we are not big proponents of its genre. What IS an effective tool is the reversal. We use reversals, so I’d like to explore what negative COPY is, and how the difference is important.
You can’t miss it when a spot “goes negative.” Usually, it involves berating a competitor or group. Going negative would involve creating copy similar to this: “Those other Yugo dealers in town will overcharge you hundreds or thousands of dollars for the same item. Not us.” “If you go to the Home Fix-Up Mega Store, you’re only going to find you’re ignored, you’ll never get your questions answered, and they have no idea what service is.”
Negative ads, by and large, usually attack your clients’ competitors, without offering the benefits of what your clients offer. So, instead of extolling your client’s benefits, you rip the competition, subliminally indicating your client is better because they DON’T do all those horrible things. Hey, I’M NOT A BIG SUBSCRIBER TO THE THEORY, but there are dozens who do this for a living and create effective ads based on it. Ask anyone who writes political campaign spots. They’ll tell you war stories that will stand what’s left of your hair on end.
But negative copy isn’t copy reversal. Copy reversal comes from the idea of taking the window and looking outside/in rather than inside/out. And, as a different approach, it’s something to refresh the listener’s ear, giving you the chance to redirect attention to your message so they capture it, amidst all the clutter. Using a reversal in a positive way is just utilizing another weapon in your creative arsenal. But the confusion Account Executives and clients have, with regards to what is “negative” advertising, is understandable. And face it, some clients are hypersensitive. So, like other situations you’ve encountered in the past, this one can easily be moderated with just a little explanation of how and why you’re approaching the ad from a different point of view.
Reversals are designed to hook the listener and maintain their attention until the benefits of your client can be extolled. A negative ad never addresses benefits of any type. All it does is try to create good will for the client by creating bad will about the competition. Again, I’m not a proponent of negative messages. I think, in the long run, you alienate audiences with them, and they age and burn out faster. But a copy reversal helps to bring those benefits to light in a different way, so that the commercial doesn’t become another “been there, done that” spot to the listener. That’s what separates them from “negative” ads—and in the listener’s ear, the difference is noticeable.
The idea is to stand out, to capture attention, to highlight the important aspects of your client’s message, and to influence those who are ready to respond to the message. Copy reversal is just another weapon to help you do that.