Positive vs. Negative Marketing Messages: Which Works Best?

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The world is awash in marketing messages of all types and flavors, but when distilled to their core attributes, most messages can be reduced to a binary—positive or negative. Positive messages appeal to people’s hopes and aspirations, and negative ones prey on their fears or anxieties.

To use one famous example from the 1990’s, Apple’s “Think Different” campaign is aspirational and positive. Its message to consumers was one of individuality, vision, and fresh thinking. Contrast this tagline with another classic one from the past: “This Is Your Brain on Drugs.” This message is clearly negative one, associating drugs with the destruction of your mental function.

So which works best? Positive marketing messages or negative marketing messages? The answer, not surprisingly, is that it depends. But I happened upon research that indicates a general state of affairs in which positive messages work best when a consumer has time to ponder a purchase, while negative ones work better when time is tight.

The study I came across, which is from Stanford University researchers, conducted a number of experiments to arrive at its conclusion. One aspect of the experiment used different ad copy to sell a hypothetical car. Certain key phrases were positive and certain ones were negative.

 

Positive

want

desire the best

dreams

cutting edge

extra features

good deal

Negative

need

don't settle for less

expectations

not behind the times

not skimping on features

not paying too much

 

In another experiment, a mock travel website used positive and negative language on the subjects.

 

Positive

Give yourself a memorable vacation!

Get the best deals

Negative

Don’t get stuck at home!

Don’t get ripped off

 

The researchers found that subjects are more likely to make a decision to buy with positive messages when time pressure is low. The reason is because consumers aren’t as worried about missing out on a deal. “When the purchase is still far off in the future, [...] consumers are likely to be fairly optimistic about succeeding and less concerned with the possibility of goal failure,” the report says. The report goes on to posit in more academic language, “Inspired by the anticipated pleasure from achieving a distant purchasing goal, consumers should then be more motivated to buy products that offer these positive outcomes.”

On the other hand, when time is tight, consumers are primarily concerned with avoiding a negative outcome and so are more in tune with negatively phrased messages.

So in your business, should you be using positive marketing messages or negative ones? To apply the lessons of this study, the right answer is “both.” The tone of your business’s tagline and overall messaging should be positive. But as your customers or clients move farther along the sales cycle and begin to feel pressure to make a choice, they will become more responsive to messages that make them anxious about missing an opportunity.