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Accentuate the Negative

What tone should you strike in your marketing copy?

“Get here early for the best selection”?

or “Don’t miss out”?

Conventional marketing wisdom often holds that a positive message is always best, because it puts the consumer in a positive frame of mind.

But the thing about conventional wisdom is that it’s not always so wise.

The question of positive vs. negative messaging – known as framing – is more complicated than that. Researchers say negative words can actually work in your favor, depending on what you’re selling and what the consumer is looking for.

There’s a thing called “the blemishing effect,” discovered by the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Its study explains that a small “blemish” – negative information – can highlight the more positive elements and make the subject look better.

For example, the researchers said, suppose someone is reading reviews of a restaurant they want to try. Everyone praises the place for its exquisite food, charming service and enticing décor. But one reviewer also reports that there’s no parking nearby. Rather than turning off the reader because the parking issue stands out like a big zit on the subject’s nose, this fact is a tiny blemish on an otherwise flawless complexion. And so, to further flog the metaphor, the reader takes the restaurant to the dance.

This only works when the negative information isn’t a deal breaker, and only if the positive message comes first. Open with the bad parking and you’re going to lose the customer who’ll only eat at a restaurant with its own lot on site. But if you open with the delicious food and delightful service, by the time they get to the parking they may not care as much.

Success doesn’t always come in spite of negative words; sometimes it comes because of them. The International Journal of Communication reports on a study finding a positive message works when the message is a promotion, but negative works best with prevention messages.

So, if you’re promoting something that will improve your customers’ lives – wellness products that enhance health, for instance, or a smart way of saving for retirement – accentuate the positive.

If you’re selling a solution to a problem – a cure for an illness, say, or a program to prevent fraud – emphasize the negative, the threat that looms over your prospective customers.

And what about your sale promotion? There’s nothing like the fear of scarcity, of missing out on a good deal, to get people through the doors. Just make sure there really is something to fear.