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Negative Advertising: A PR Dilemma

Posted At: March 24, 2010 1:57 PM
by Kassandra Hannay

In today’s media-filled world, we have grown accustomed to promotional advertising. In a single commercial break, we listen to adverts tell us which products to buy, which politicians to elect and which companies are the best. As consumers, we decide to either take the suggested action or change the channel. As public relations practitioners, we use ads to motivate our audience and encourage action. However, one thing throws us all for a loop and leaves us confused, hesitant and sometimes a little upset: negative advertising.

Many public relations professionals, it seems, flinch at the thought of using negative advertising. It has been viewed as an unethical, ineffective and detrimental form of communication. In the past it has been referred to as “mud-slinging” — a term that defines the use of negative advertising as the practice of making malicious attacks against an opponent or opposing company for one’s own benefit. However, there have been cases where companies have used negative advertising to successfully build their brands.

Negative ads can be a success

In 2006, Apple launched its “Get a Mac” campaign, a campaign that negatively depicts the Microsoft PC as the outdated and troublesome computer. We’re all familiar with the commercial series showing the cool and updated Mac user poking fun at the conservative and boring PC user. The campaign caused Mac’s market share to grow by 42 percent, and in 2007 the campaign won the Grand Effie at the39th Annual Effie Awards, an award honoring the most significant achievement in the business of marketing communications.

What makes the Mac negative ads effective and not destructive? According to Bob Steinkamp, owner of Finger Lakes Media Strategies in Ithaca, NY, the Mac/PC ads are the way to go if you absolutely insist on going negative.

“I perceive those ads as Apple lightheartedly poking fun at and pointing out the known issues and problems with PCs,” Steinkamp said. “If you’re going to go negative, do it in a lighthearted, fun way.”

Apple isn’t the only one who got it right. The AT&T versus Verizon battle is seen regularly in both of their current ads as well. Verizon’s “Map for That” ads claim AT&T’s 3G network to be inferior to Verizon’s. AT&T retaliated with ads featuring Luke Wilson, claiming AT&T’s 3G service to be superior to Verizon’s.

“There is nothing unethical about Verizon saying their coverage area is more complete than AT&T nor is there anything unethical about AT&T basically saying the complete opposite,” said Rick Sheehy, a freelance communications and marketing expert in Boston, MA. “They base their information on their own sources and it is up to the consumer to make the best informed decision.”

Does this mean that PR practitioners should be thinking more negatively than positively, and, if so, what are the rules that should be followed?

The debate

Although negative advertising can have positive results for companies, public relations practitioners must be able to use them strategically. Going negative at the wrong time in your campaign can create more of a mess to clean up later. Instead of focusing on the competition’s weaknesses, PR practitioners should be focusing on building their brand’s reputation and fostering relationships with their audience.

Marisa Sharkey, director of marketing and public relations at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, said advertisements should promote the company’s strengths.

“Include areas where you ‘beat’ your competitor,” Sharkey said. “For instance, if service from your competitor is often slow and yours isn’t, then your messaging should include fast service.”

Still it seems that going positive is the safer choice when it comes to promoting your company. Marina Shapiro, a social media intern at Eric Mower and Associates, thinks negative advertising can be ethical when used correctly; however, it doesn’t have the same effect as positive advertising.

“You can get more of a response by putting a brand in a positive light than putting another brand down,” Shapiro said. Public relations practitioners shouldn’t necessarily be thinking negatively but instead thinking of the reputation of their company.

Although negative advertising has proven to be successful when used correctly, others still believe it to be an unethical form of communication.

Sheldon Alexander, a marketing director and business professional from California, said negative advertising is not appropriate when you’re trying to build your brand’s reputation. “It’s best to highlight how your products and services benefit your target market in your advertisements so that prospects perceive that as an answer to their problems,” Alexander said.

Regardless of what public relations professionals think and what media strategists say, what really matters is the effect negative advertisements have on consumers. When used correctly, negative ads make your brand memorable and leave a positive impression on your audience. On the other hand, it can cause your audience to feel uncomfortable, and, although they may think more negatively about your competitor, they may also think negatively about you.

According to Stefan Green, a consumer from the United Kingdom, negative advertising says nothing positive about your company. “In my opinion, negative advertising is the last refuge of an organization that has nothing good left to say about itself or its own products,” Green said. “’We can’t sell this on its own merits, so we’ll just have to pull down the competition.’”

Richard Stone
, owner of Stone Junction, a public relations consultancy for engineering companies in the United Kingdom, said telling the truth is the bottom line when it comes to creating advertisements. Stone said, “It’s not really an issue of negative advertising, but rather accurate advertising.”

Public relations professionals still debate over whether or not to use negative advertising, but everyone seems to agree that advertisements are most effective when they build on your brand’s strengths. Sometimes building on your brand’s strengths shines a negative light on your competitor. As long as you’re honest and truthful about your claims, it shouldn’t have a harmful effect on your audience.

Do you think negative advertising is appropriate for public relations?

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