I’ve been a web copywriter for over 12 years now, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told to avoid ‘negativity’ in copywriting.

I think this fear of negativity has something to do with supposed a ‘rule’ of marketing that positive benefits are better to show the customer than negative benefits.

In many cases, that is true. It is better to show people how good their life will be when they do X or use Y.

But life isn’t roses. People don’t believe what advertisers tell them precisely because most products are over-hyped and falsely portrayed in a positive light.

To them, all this positivity is abnormal.

People like controversy, antagonism and bad guys.

Just think of all the good stories you’ve ever read. If there wasn’t something negative happening to the hero that she or he had to overcome, would you have enjoyed it so much?

I believe that sometimes, we copywriters need to shirk convention and get really comfortable with being negative.

Take this example:

Do you do these <negative things> when you <do this normal thing>?

This little beauty of a headline technique has worked its magic for copywriters for decades now. Take a look at Copyblogger and you’ll see many of these kinds of headlines (Are You Making These 7 Mistakes With Your About Page, for example).

It’s inherently negative isn’t it? It asks you to look at yourself and to ‘realise’ that you are doing all these things wrong.

It plays to our fear of doing things the ‘wrong’ way.

Negative.

But it’s the promise of an improvement in ourselves that really makes it work, because by pointing out all our faults, we are learning what TO do instead.

The benefit is in stopping the negative. Not rosy, but it works!

Using negative emotions

Anger. Rage. Jealousy. Fear. Heartache. Sadness.

Conventional wisdom would advise avoiding these altogether in advertising and copywriting.

But why?

People feel these emotions regularly.

One campaign stands out in my memory that took the negative emotion of anger and turned it into a powerful statement of the product’s benefit.

Rug Doctor.

I grew up in Canada and for years, Rug Doctor’s strapline was “Steaming mad at dirt!”

The characterisation of the machine in the ads showed it with angry eyebrows and gritted teeth, steaming out its ‘ears’ at the dirty rug.

Brilliant use of a negative emotion in advertising.

People don’t like dirt.

Never will.

They might not feel angry at dirt, but the positive benefit of ‘clean’ is difficult to make interesting or exciting.

Anger has more power and being positive would never have sold so many steam cleaning rentals as focussing on the negative.

Imagine it – “Easy home carpet cleaning” or “Gets out all the dirt” – it just doesn’t have the same power.

A personal note on negativity

I recently went to update one of my favourite apps on my iPod Touch. It’s a first generation unit, so I’m always a little hesitant about updating.

I’ve been burned more than once when the developer has dropped support for earlier devices. But not with my favourite app; the update message said something this effect:

WARNING: iPod Touch first generation owners and iPhone iOS 3.x owners – don’t update with this version, the app crashes and won’t load. We’re really sorry for letting this get through and are working on a revised update.

By pointing out the negative (that they screwed up) and taking responsibility for it, I’m now an even bigger fan and will happily keep on paying for my service (and apps).

Honesty is something that we miss in our pursuit of always-on-positivity.

Don’t be afraid of pointing out the negative.

It can be a powerful ally when used correctly.

by Steve Kellas

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One Comment

  • Lost count of the number of times I’ve had the ‘you shouldn’t use negatives’ argument. It’s usually put forward by people who’ve been on a course somewhere. It’s utter bollocks. Sky, who know a thing or two about advertising, are currently running a cross-track poster campaign with a headline that reads (I think) ‘You can’t lose a signal if you don’t need one’. It’s for some mobile app – not sure as I have a built-in dislike of everything Sky. But the logic is infallible, and there’s no way the line could have worked any harder as a positive message.

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