It must have seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. In the waning days of the 1993 federal election campaign, Jean Chrétien’s personal popularity was vulnerable compared to that of his opponent, Kim Campbell. But for this one weakness, the Liberal party seemed otherwise headed for certain victory. I’ve had dealings since then with some of the decision-makers behind the infamous attack ad that mocked Chrétien’s facial paralysis; they are intelligent, reasonable and moral people. But somewhere in the heat of battle, when there seemed little to lose, when doing whatever it took felt more heroic than sticking to your guns, for one unfortunate moment at the 11th hour, it made all the sense in the world to ask, “Is this a prime minister?”
It didn’t work. It almost never does. In this case, the Progressive Conservatives were reduced to two seats and lost official party status, permanently changing the political landscape in this country. It was, if not the highest, then certainly the most public price ever paid for marketing by mocking. Yet it’s a lesson marketers seem to need to constantly relearn. Over and over again, the cathartic satisfaction of taking the gloves off blinds marketers to the fact that it’s something you only do when you’re on the ropes.
The world of marketing seems to be experiencing just such a spasm of desperation these days. Microsoft, for example, has reduced itself to heckling Google with two campaigns: “Scroogled,” about the alleged evils of Google’s e-mail advertising policy (something that consumers have met with a shrug ever since Gmail’s introduction nearly a decade ago); and the “Bing It On Challenge,” in which people on the street pick the search results they like best (which apes the old Pepsi Challenge—a campaign that defined Pepsi by what it isn’t, and thus condemned it to being Coke’s bridesmaid forever).
Arby’s has meanwhile launched an attack on Subway’s meat supply chain with its “Slicing Up the Truth” campaign, which has produced no discernible change in its fortunes—although it did have to apologize to the state of Iowa for impugning its residents’ meat-slicing skills. And TurboTax is running ads accusing H&R Block of employing plumbers and sales clerks instead of accountants, which must have seemed delightfully cheeky right up until H&R Block sued them for it.
Unfortunately, this kind of thing does occasionally work. Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign danced right on the edge of insufferable smugness and ultimately sold a lot of computers. Dove’s 1991 litmus test campaign vaporized P&G’s Ivory brand. Self-styled marketing street fighters hoard these cases for the day when they get their own Rambo moment, but they’re exceptions whose fame is testament to their rarity. Mostly, this kind of thing simply destroys value. It turns consumers into disengaged mercenaries, and it debases a brand by essentially confessing that it possesses no attribute impressive enough to speak for itself.
It’s all very entertaining to the consumer, in the way that, say, pro wrestling is. If pointing and laughing were a business result, then it would be a valid strategy. But it’s not. The closeted boardroom bullies who resort to this kind of thing always get a reaction, but they rarely get results.
The futility of negative advertising is, if nothing else, a reminder of what advertising is really for. Yes, attack ads get remembered. They are also sometimes even liked. But neither of these outcomes puts any money in the bank. Advertising is only worth what it costs when people willingly personalize what it says to them. When they are persuaded, rather than just amused.
People let a brand into their lives on the basis that there is some common ground between them, even if that common ground is simply an obsession with whiter gym socks. When a brand acts desperate and insecure, it’s not in the common-ground business anymore, and it’s certainly not offering anybody a badge they’d want to wear. Like most acts of self-gratification, negative advertising usually offers only a moment of cathartic satisfaction, followed by a lingering sense of embarrassment.
Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award