Advertisers must accentuate the positive

by Nigel Hollis | April 23, 2018

When researching Brand Premium I interviewed a well-respected agency planner who told me that the most effective marketing campaigns traded on people’s anxieties and insecurities. I am not convinced their assertion is true but in today’s turbulent times perhaps brands should have a responsibility to accentuate the positive not add to the negative?


I have little doubt that trading on people’s anxieties is a powerful sales device. Ever since James Young realized the key to selling antiperspirant was to make women believe that sweating might lose them the man of their dreams, advertisers have traded on people anxieties, real or invented. But it does not have to be this way. Successful campaigns like those for Dove, Always and Nike have chosen to take a commonplace anxiety and help empower people to face it rather than turn to the brand to assuage it.

If the end result is the same and the brand gets to sell more stuff perhaps all brands should follow the advice of the popular song from the 40s and 'Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive'. The lyrics written by Johnny Mercer and published in 1944 go as follows,

“You've got to accentuate the positive

Eliminate the negative

Latch on to the affirmative

Don't mess with Mister In-Between

You've got to spread joy up to the maximum

Bring gloom down to the minimum

Have faith or pandemonium

Liable to walk upon the scene”

I don’t know about you but I think we all have enough “pandemonium” to deal with right now (and I am not just thinking about politics or international relations). As noted by Anita Rao in this post many brands have found success by becoming more sustainable and maybe it is time that more of them also stepped up to help improve the social climate as well as the meteorological one. Take for example, UK high street fashion retailer River Island’s much praised ‘Labels Are For Clothes’ campaign which sought to question traditional societal labels around gender, race and disabilities while also donating a portion of sales being donated to an anti-bullying charity.

But what do you think? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Aruna, May 01, 2018

    I think more and more brands are steering towards the positive.. 

    One example of a brand that is transitioning and steering towards the positive is Saffola, an oil brand in India.The brand is clearly moving from playing on insecurities to talking positive .

  2. Nigel, April 25, 2018

    Thanks for the comments.

    Yes, there is good evidence that we are motivated by fear and loss more than happiness or gain. My argument is that in these turbulent and angst ridden times maybe brands need to take a stand and not add to people's negative emotions.

    I think Philip C raises a hugely important point. Far too many ads highlight the tension at length and fail to properly resolve the tension into a positive outcome. Precisely because fear and loss evoke stronger emotions there is no need to dwell on the negative at length but if a brand is to leverage the anxiety created it does need to showcase how it addresses people's concerns. It reminds me of the whole debate over Sadvertising from ten years ago. 

    So maybe what I am saying is that brands should not use Badvertising? 

  3. phil herr, April 23, 2018
    Hi Nigel, while I love the idea that positive messages are preferable, I believe there is a great deal of validity to the idea of preying on fears and insecurities. I believe there is a more powerful message to be acheived by alleviating a problem than by offering a reward. After all, much of the function of the primitive brain is intended to protect us from harm. And given its closer connection to our emotional center than the cerebellum, system 1 is likely to beat out system 2.
  4. Philip Conliffe, April 23, 2018

    Hmm, I think I may work with that planner!

    It's one thing to be aware of the problem or 'tension' -- as our agency friends like to call it -- that the brand is trying to solve for.  However, in my experience it's usually problematic when the creative dwells far too much on the problem and not the solution.  The anxiety depicted tends to draw attention, produce the lasting memories, and squeeze time and impact from the brand's intended resolution of the problem. 

    There's currently a campaign in Canada for an online investing platform that quite dramatically depicts consumers' distrust of bank advisors who continue to reap commissions regardless of their clients' portfolio performance.  Yet it concludes only with a broad promise that one can save on fees by using the platform without providing any detail on how that's possible, what the experience will be like, or why it can be trusted any more than the big players.  It's a great presentation of a consumer truth with little payoff for the advertiser.  Needless to say, brand link isn't a strength either.

    I'm a believer that if your offer is truly an improvement upon the status quo, consumers will inherently understand why.  The problem being resolved doesn't necessarily need to be depicted at length.  



  5. Ed C, April 23, 2018
    There's a psychological finding that humans experience greater emotion in avoiding loss than experiencing gain, so I think the agency planner's POV has some merit. That said, I'm not sure how useful that is with some brands' advertising. Must a quick serve restaurant stress how their product prevents starving (which is true) or even low-sugar / gluten-free / (whatever the latest food anxieties or insecurities are) vs. just highlighting some great tasting meals / great price? I would think the same can likely be said about all categories.

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