Facebook, Subway Highlight the Dangers of Negative Marketing


Advice for any marketing teams thinking about using negative marketing tactics: Don’t.

Admittedly, it can be tempting to disparage other companies in your sector.

After all, it seems like an easy way to kill two birds with one stone: You inform the public about your competitor’s flaws while simultaneously showcasing why you provide a better service or product.

In reality, though, trying to tear down competitors rarely achieves its desired outcome. Such offensive marketing strategies often backfire and can even bring negative attention to their source.

I know that some marketers won’t agree with me. I get it.

I’ve spoken with plenty in the sector who feel that even though an offensive article or advertisement may not be well received by the public, the subject of that content would still have a lot more to lose anyway.

It may be hard to believe, but that opinion is incorrect. Attack ads can easily strike discord with their audience for any number of reasons, turning people first and foremost against the aggressor.

Moreover, why bother taking that risk in the first place?

Subway learned this painful lessonOpens a new window earlier this year when it came under heavy online criticism from people who felt the sandwich chain’s recent commercial – in which it overtly painted McDonald’s as unhealthy and even potentially deadly – was tasteless, annoying and inconsiderate.

As Subway found out, if the tone isn’t just right and the message perfectly delivered, negative ads can often be seen as insensitive, overly aggressive or just too mean. Plus, don’t put it past the public to construe such content as an unnecessarily shady tactic.

In an era when social media spreads information like wildfire, angering the public can badly hurt brand reputation.

Another proof point: the fallout from the recently-published New York Times investigation into Facebook’s operationsOpens a new window . Among the many disreputable practices uncovered by the reporters, it was revealed that Facebook had been working with a PR firm that wrote and published negative articles against the internet giant’s competition.

The Republican opposition research firm, Definers Public Affairs, didn’t just go after other tech companies like Google and Apple – several days before Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg testified to Congress in September, the PR company even attacked the senators who were scheduled to question her.

In the few days since the New York Times piece was published, the fallout has already been severe. As people – and more importantly, the media – discover the extent of Definers’ dark arts PR strategies, Facebook is coming off increasingly worse.

Objectively, it’s not hard to understand why the PR firm employed offensive marketing tactics. In recent years, Facebook has faced a litany of scandals, and trying to shift negative sentiment towards Facebook’s competition isn’t actually that bad an idea.

Although it may seem like a good strategy on paper, though, it’s important to consider that everything needs to go exactly to plan for the desired impact.

As Facebook is learning, in marketing attack is rarely the best form of defense.

What happens when the other shoe drops? When people find out that the content is nothing more than an attack ad? Or when that commercial or article misses the mark and only serves to anger audiences?

Psychology and negativity

Nobody likes to be bombarded with negativity.

Trying to sway consumers away from a specific product or service by telling them why it’s awful doesn’t actually work. In fact, people tend to take it as a personal affront when something they use or own is criticized.

This defensive knee-jerk reaction is a cognitive bias known as post-purchase rationalization, and it’s a large part of consumer reaction to marketing. Simply put, we are inherently predisposed to rationalize any purchases we’ve made, especially when it feels like we are being criticized for buying or using them.

In other words, rather than convincing people why your company or brand is better than the competition, the opposite occurs when using negative marketing strategies.

Brands that attack their competitors can easily come off as desperate: If they are as good as they say, why are they spending so much time and resources criticizing others?

Marketers should focus on showing consumers how their company, product or service offers value, rather than pushing negative marketing messages. Buyer behavior is most heavily influenced when they feel a product or service will meet their needs – attacking other companies won’t help achieve this.

Focus on why you’re better, not why they’re worse

That said, it pays to stay informed about your competition – know who they are targeting and how they are reaching those audiences. That way when they mess up, you’ll be ready to pounce.

It’s important not to use these mistakes to paint them in negative light. Rather, them to highlight your strengths.

For instance, if your competitor is under scrutiny for the way it handles sexual harassment issues (wink-wink, nudge-nudge, Google), create content and push campaigns that show how inclusive and diverseOpens a new window your company is.

If your competitor is at the center of a scandal about data misuse (wink-wink, nudge-nudge, Facebook), highlight how important your clients’ privacy is to your business.

Ultimately, marketing departments are supposed to convince consumers that a specific product or service is the right one for them. Their time and money will be far better spent finding new and innovative ways to advertise the value of their service or product than trying to hit out against other companies.