Subliminal Negativity Works


People hate negative advertising. So why do advertisers (notably political campaigns) keep doing it, and why does it work? We covered this in Why Negative Ads Work, but our brains hold yet another answer, as a test with subliminal messages shows. Researcher Nilli Lavie of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience states,

There has been much speculation about whether people can process emotional information unconsciously, for example pictures, faces and words. We have shown that people can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages and have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words. [From Science Daily – Key To Subliminal Messaging Is To Keep It Negative, Study Shows.]

The study flashed negative (e.g., “agony,” “murder”), positive (“cheerful,” “flower”), and neutral words (“box,” “ear”) at subjects for a fraction of a second, too quickly for them to actually recall the word. When the subjects were asked to guess what emotion the word they “saw” represented, they were far more accurate at guessing the negative words.

So what’s the Neuromarketing takeaway? I don’t think the FCC will start letting advertisers start flashing “killer” or “cheater” when describing their competitor, but there’s still a useful message here. What this study DOES show is that our brains are programmed to react quickly to negative messages. Lavie speculates that it is an evolutionary advantage to respond rapidly to threats, even before a conscious thought process can take place.

In Love Branding, author Carolin Dahlman suggests that in light of this research advertisers choose their words carefully and avoid negative words. She thinks that the negativity may attach itself to the advertiser or brand, and hurt sales rather than helping.

Stepping away from Dahlman’s positive spin, one can also see why negative messages in advertising are memorable. My advice: if you are going to use a negative message, either to describe a competitor or to illustrate a customer’s pain point, be sure there is a significant change in tone when you present the solution (i.e., your candidate, brand, or product). Let the negativity transition into a positive message before rushing in with the solution. This will leave the memorable negative emotion attached to the competitor or problem and reduce the chance that it will stick to your brand or product.

  1. says

    it’s a cliché. Just follow the classic infomercial script:

    Announcer: “Isn’t it awful when X happens?”
    female [suffering while doing x]: “there’s got to be a better way!
    Announcer: X is never a problem when you use PRODUCT!
    Female, with clean/complete version of X “PRODUCT works! It really works! Huge smile, hug product “Thanks, PRODUCT!”

    …and scene!

    Yes, cliché, but it’s worked so well for so long, someone’s obviously seeing results from it.

  2. Custom Logo Design says

    competition has put companies to a level where ethics and moralities seem to decay or we can say that companies have put them to that level in sake to pursuit the competition.
    It is emerging trend to use negative words (and it has surprising results in creating awareness about the product in the market).
    but at the same time this negativity is punched to your brand and destroys value in the long term..
    Great article..
    keep writing for awareness

  3. Judith Dudley says

    Your blog reminds me of Stanley of Decor My Eyes who said “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.” It’s all part of a sales strategy, he said. So much for being sublimital…or “sales strategy.” Not the way I would attract LONG TERM fans. Thanks for a great blog!

  4. Ken Montville says

    I suggest this is not exclusive to advertising or marketing. Just look at the daily newspaper and/or evening newscast. Further, our daily conversations tend to revolve around negative aspects of our job or spouse or the impending snow storm.

    No amount of “positive thinking” books, DVDs, seminars, etc. seems to be able to alter the default position of responding to the negative first.

  5. Wes M says

    Ken got point. Negativity have significant presence in majority of the people. I mean when I go to social venues most of the time I will hear someone complain or discuss something negative rather than positive.

    The “emotional hot buttons” is golden and will probably work for as long as we feel emotions. However to use that you have to know your target customers very, very well. Better than they do.

    And at the end – the tools we all use are similar if not the same. The question is for what purpose we’ll use them. To actually help the people, or just take their money? 🙂

  6. Jack van den Burger says

    Hi roger,

    Maybe I can shet some light on the issue. During my final year consumer psychology at the State University Groningen (the Netherlands) I did research @ Y&R Amsterdam of how emotional advertising is appreciated and recalled. (using mix of fysiological GSR measurements and questionairs) we made dinstinshion between high and low emotional and postive and negative content ( TVC’s). As we found out: the attention for highly negative content is far greater than voor less emotional or positive ads (this probably has to do with fact that is more threating for person). However, we also saw that these high emotional negative TVC’s (in time ; we did repeated measures after a day and 2 weeks) were less spontniously remembered than the positve ones. This also got’s to do with the threating character of the content for the individual; this content was surpressed in memory and could only be recalled by specific priming.. For example using 1:1 visuals from the specific TVC.

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