Marketing’s Least Loved: the negative

In her regular column for Mumbrella, VMLY&R chief strategy officer Alison Tilling urges marketers to reassess the emotional range and rediscover negativity in a positive way.

I’ve found myself in a trough of despond recently. Well, that’s too dramatic. More of a gentle dip of despond. Either way there’s been a bit of despond, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. My dip has proven one thing in glorious technicolour, or more appropriately, in glorious shades of grey:

Marketing hates the negative.

Truth is, that’s a shame.

Not all negativity is created equal

While we’re improving, we’ve struggled as an industry to support those with mental health challenges, whether dip, trough or gaping chasm (and if you haven’t read Brittany Rigby’s piece on alcohol in adland, please do). I’m not belittling those experiences or suggesting we invite more of them in. Yet the many and insidious ways our industry worships at the altar of the positive is likely to be making those challenges even harder to overcome.

Beyond negativity as an advertising construct

It’s not like negativity has never been used in advertising. From social impact advertising to brand ads, it’s a proven avenue work with impact. Marmite is just one example of negative feelings about the product working hard for the brand, through creativity, and to excellent effect.

But what about embracing some constructive negativity in the ways we work, or at least, recognising how empty a continual insistence on the positive can be? Here are three ways to do it.

First, get real: ‘positive’ is not a tone of voice 

I’ve written and reviewed more client and creative briefs than you’ve had hot dinners, and here is something I know: the word ‘Positive’ positively does not belong in the box marked ‘tone of voice’. (Neither does ‘authentic’, but that’s a topic for another day).

If you must insist on positivity as a sentiment, make it clear what brand of positivity you’re after. Do you want people to get a sense of joy? Or should they be inspired? Is yours the lovable positivity of a two-month-old puppy or the relentless chirp of Emily in Emily in Paris?

A good tool to check on tonal words is to think about their opposite. If that would be a definite ‘no’ then the tonal concept you have is not specific or strong enough. That’s why ‘irreverent’ and ‘candid’ help and ‘positive’ does not – because no brand wants to be entirely negative either.

Insight requires us to look negativity in the eye

It’s odd that more negative tonal words rarely get a look-in in briefs, yet humans are so often sad, angry, jealous, disgusted or just plain old bored. Okay, so those might not be the emotions or tone your brand should own, but ignoring them means ignoring what it is to be alive. That won’t make for great marketing.

“Tell all the truth”, Emily Dickinson wrote, “but tell it slant”, and that’s what insight should do. This is bloody hard work. I know I need to do better at jettisoning “the dull, vapid representations of real people’s lives that look like they were sourced from a stock art library”, as Martin Wiegel puts it, “airbrushing out all the contingency and strife”. Stock positivity doesn’t make for good marketing either.

Finally, the golden rule: no middle distance

A few years ago, I spent an afternoon wandering around Bradford with my then four-month old. Soaked by the sort of rain only Yorkshire can provide – “a reet wetting”, as a local would say – I took shelter in a museum that happened to be running a photography exhibition on Tony Ray-Jones. He was an ethnographer, too, and along with his wonderful pictures, his ‘notes to self’ were on display. Scrawled on one page, in block capitals, underlined three times, was his golden rule:

No middle distance

…which holds true for marketing as much as it does for photography.

Positivity, at its worst, is a middle-distance concept. It denies both macro reality and individual difficulty. It gives us empty quotes on sunsets that deny truths. Negativity alone would have the same effect; but our positivity fetish is so universal that its expression can often become mediocre, neither grand landscape nor glorious detail, but a middle ground of montage in briefs and in the work itself.

None of this is to say that marketing shouldn’t be a positive force and that marketers shouldn’t be positive people. Yet an industry finding its future amid the AI and the adtech and the Programmatic needs to be more open to our lesser loved shadowlands: in the work, in how we do the work, and in how we understand those for whom we do it.

Alison Tilling is the chief strategy officer at VMLY&R. Marketing’s Least Loved is a regular Mumbrella column.


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