, April 22, 2024

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Negative versus Positive Messaging

  •   6 min reads
Negative versus Positive Messaging

By Vincent R. Pozon

What if the commandments were written as “thou shalt” instead of “thou shalt not”?

The topic of negative advertising has been a difficult and never-ending debate, with me standing on the side of negative ads.

"Bawal Magkasakit" was a target of attempts at revision innumerable times in its two decades of existence.

"Clients are often very reluctant to entertain any kind of negativity in their messaging -- to the point that even words like "no" and "never" are rejected... marketers seem to be fearful of attaching the slightest hint of negativity to their brand, and are convinced that a positive message is always stronger than a negative one." (Negative Ads Might Just Be Positive for Your Brand, Adage India).

It is ‘a most requested song’, so to speak: “I want my ad warm and friendly, with everybody in love with it.”

Call it a bias. Somebody, somewhere, at some time in your past, taught you that ‘bad is bad’, that you should promote your brand with a halcyon spirit; that you should never use black or dark limbo backgrounds; that you should dab it with sunshine, and deliver your spiel like Pollyanna.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t make your product fly off the shelves.

“Research in neuroscience and human behavior has determined that -- while we may not be consciously aware of it, or even want to admit it -- we humans are much more influenced by bad than good”, continued the Adage article. (If you want the actual science, I am sure Google can cough it up).

Negative ads work well, very well

‘Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker’, the latter representing the negative.

Every journalist knows whereof I speak. You could even say that they know the principle better, as the point is proven every day, on every headline of every article: bad news is read more.

Cursory riffling through newspapers will show that most headlines are dark and bad and negative, many with malice. “Studies showed that headlines with “negative superlatives” vastly outperformed those with positive words”. So said a blog of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school. “The average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives was a staggering 63% higher than that of their positive counterparts.”

But you knew that. That didn’t need research for validation.

'Thou shalt not...'

There is inherent drama in the negative framing, and it cannot be ignored. You can imagine how tepid and unauthoritative the Ten Commandments would be if writ positively. If I am working with but seconds, trying to produce a commercial that will grip the consumer, I will choose to use the most powerful image and idea allowed me, and usually that would be a negative concept.

It starts with the need: what is it that I need to expose? Marketing plans have “Problem” as the first blank to fill up. The promise of the product is to solve that problem, which automatically requires us to dramatize the predicament.

If the problem is body odor and the product is an antiperspirant, it will be sold with copy that fleshes out the bad.

“If it’s you they’re talking about, you need Veto.” (Very old copy comes to mind because, well, it’s that powerful).

Does that mean we should always use the negative?


The concern of brandmen that consumers should love their brands is a valid one. We have always espoused the need to create bonds. For instance, I have always recommended that clients consider smaller packages, designed friendly, so the prospective customer or user has something to hold and read and caress. And love.

Advertising is just one of the instruments in the creation of that bond. On the whole, the product must be seen in a positive light. It must be loved, because only then can we begin to create brand loyalty. It is the totality of the brand image that must be seen positively.

The campaign “Bawal Magkasakit”, born during the Asian Crisis, sought to remind customers that getting sick, especially during bad times, is like throwing money out the window. Now this was exactly what we did in our first commercial — throw bills out the window, a visual so startling, it was almost painful to watch.

In a largely poor country, a country with no healthcare to speak of, the number one personal concern then, according to research, was ‘to avoid illnesses and to stay healthy’.

The campaign presented getting sick as a quagmire that undermines the working man’s personal and family future. The brand suddenly became ally -- necessary to survive the crisis. This is raison d'être of vitamin consumption: that people become a little sturdier. The brand was seen positively, was beloved, and it gained loyalty.


CLUSIVOL "Bawal Magkasakit": The power of the negative. Several attempts were made to change the campaign, simply they wanted a more positive sell.

The results of that first, inexpensive production? 34% increase in sales after 6 months. Again, during a crisis.

The reintroduction of RiteMED had Susan Roces castigating consumers: “It’s wrong to buy expensive medicine”. It was a powerful spot. On the first take of the first commercial of the campaign, Susan Roces shed a tear.


RITEMED: The rich don’t have problems asking for less expensive medicine. But the poor are embarrassed to ask. And we are a poor country. So we thought of fixing that -- address the “barrier at the counter”. The insight comes from the urge to intervene

We had the Queen of Philippine Cinema frowning on our patronizing the multinational’s exorbitantly priced medicines with an emphatic “Bawal ang Mahal”; and we have communications pieces that have her dancing and singing, “Huwag mahihiyang magtanong...” The over-all spirit of the campaign told the consumer that the brand has their interest in mind and at heart.

If Centrum spoke of weak knees and a life of languor in the campaign “Not Enough Vitamins, Not Enough Life”, the overall message was that of completeness, everything you need for the energy to spend with family.


CENTRUM: The consumer insight was gold: Lack of heart makes for poor quality of life, mediocre accomplishments, and sick relationships. Science tells us that lack of heart, or a general lethargy in life, can come from a deficiency in nutrients.

The principle applies to the selling of candidates as well. It is always best to present a total campaign. Efforts to undermine or attack competition are just part of the arsenal. The entire image of the brand should never be negative. You do not leave the voter or buyer with a negative thought. Voters punish candidates for sponsoring attack ads.

If a politician wishing to replace an incumbent does so by undermining and attacking the latter’s reputation, the campaign must end on a high note, a story people will like to remember him by.


BINAY: We mine the background and sad life of Jojo Binay to explain why the poor are close to his heart.

Binay spoke of how he felt when their house burned down, when his mother died, and how poverty was an ever-present companion growing up, reasons why he sought to provide free education, free healthcare, social services. The large story was “Ganito Kami sa Makati, Ganito Sana sa Buong Bansa,” a story of hope that brought him from 1% to vice presidency.

The JV Ejercito campaign reminded people of the corrupt (“Doon ako sa mabait”) and the inept (“doon ako sa magaling”). We didn’t stop there: there was a positive story — “JV good, JV good, JV is the good one.” And the country sang along and felt good about him.

An example of what not to do is provided us by the angry candidates of Otso Diretso. They had no individual images to lean on. They were livid and ‘only Anti-Duterte’.

Best to look at negative as tactical, positive as thematic

Do not avoid the negative, but do avoid not having a positive in the campaign. Do not look at advertising as one ad; see it, as we do: just one in an integrated marketing campaign. Your many messages for your many audiences should soar on many platforms.

This article was first published as the author’s column in the Manila Times

Vincent R. Pozon

After a year of college, Koyang entered advertising, and there he stayed for more than half a century, in various agencies, multinational and local. He is known for aberrant strategic successes (e.g., Clusivol’s ‘Bawal Magkasakit’, Promil’s ‘The Gifted Child’, RiteMED’s ‘May RiteMED ba nito?', VP Binay's 'Ganito Kami sa Makati', JV Ejercito's 'The Good One'). He is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists, causes and candidates. He is co-founder and counselor for advertising, public relations, and crisis management of Caucus, Inc., a multi-discipline consultancy firm. He can be reached through vpozon@me.com.

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