“Negative Advertising” is the subject of Chapter 18 of the copywriting classic “Scientific Advertising” by Claude Hopkins.
In this short chapter, Hopkins discusses two types of negative advertising.
The first is what is usually called “knocking copy” or directly criticising the competition.
Hopkins strongly discourages this…
“To attack a rival is never good advertising. Don’t point out others’ faults. It is not permitted in the best mediums. It is never good policy. The selfish purpose is apparent. It looks unfair, not sporty. If you abhor knockers, always appear a good fellow.”
I’d suggest there is one instance where you can depart from this general rule. That’s where you use the device of “The enemy in common” to create empathy with the reader.
That’s where you rail against “greedy stockbrokers”, “the medical establishment” and “marketing gurus who don’t reveal what they really do to make money”, for example.
But note that in these cases, the “enemy” is impersonal. And, importantly, you need to tap into a genuine sense of anger or frustration in the reader. This device needs to be used very carefully.
The second type of negative advertising is what might be termed “fear” or “revulsion” copy.
Here’s Hopkins again…
“Show the bright side, the happy and attractive side, not the dark and uninviting side of things. Show beauty, not homeliness; health, not sickness. Don’t show the wrinkles you propose to remove, but the face as it will appear. Your customers know all about the wrinkles.”
Was Hopkins being a little “prissy” when saying this? Perhaps not wanting to get his hands dirty?
Here is his reason…
“You will find that the positive ad outpulls the other four to one if you have our experience.”
In other words, Hopkins had tested both approaches and, as always, based his advice on results and objective experience.
However, I was somewhat surprised at this comment about the classic device of “Before and after” pictures…
“The ‘Before and after taking’ ads are follies of the past. They never had a place save with the afflicted. Never let their memory lead you to picture the gloomy side of things.”
In markets such as the diet market and cosmetic surgery, the “Before and after” pictures are almost always included. The reason being that they are a very strong proof element. Plus, of course, the “After” shot shows the “Bright side”.
I’m inclined to (respectfully) disagree with Hopkins on this point. But, of course, testing is the way to determine what’s going to produce the optimum results.