The Big Lie – the complete book online - 15 Negativity

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Chapter 15

You gotta ac-cent-tchu-ate
the positive


You gotta acc-cent-tchu-ate the positive,

E-lim-in-ate the negative

And don’t mess with Mister In-between.

Popular 1940s song lyrics by Johnny Mercer

No one pays as much attention to advertising as the people who make it, and they focus particularly on rival brands. Advertisers are hyper-sensitive, and quick to defend their brand against an attack which the intended public often has hardly taken on board. Face-saving retaliation becomes the overwhelming reason for advertising. This takes the form of “knocking copy”, which was a feature of the “cola wars”. A 1995 television commercial appeared to be lifted intact from the troubled dreams of the advertising executives of the Coca-Cola company. It showed a family drinking the brand as they drove through a sunny landscape, before plunging into a thick band of fog, and entering a nightmarish supermarket where automata tried to sell them an anonymous brand of cola. A voice boomed, “Not all colas are the same”, and the family left in disgust, re-emerging into the sunshine, to resume drinking “the real thing”. Pepsi-Cola retaliated with a television commercial showing rapper M. C. Hammer, the epitome of cool, being given a Coke by mistake, and slipping into a kitsch rendition of the song “Feelings”. Another simulated a psychological trial: over a period of time, one chimp was given Pepsi to drink, another drank Coke. The Coke-drinking chimp learned how to fit pegs into the right-shaped holes, while the Pepsi-drinker lounged on the beach surrounded by beautiful women.

These squabbles, in which competitors project their anxieties onto an indifferent public, always run the risk of simply reminding consumers of whatever they already know about the rival brand. Direct comparisons to “brand X” or “another leading brand” are more common in the US, with its more functional approach to advertising. Until 1994, when a new Trade Marks Act became law, it was illegal to refer to a competitor’s trademark in UK advertising, though there were exceptions, such as the motor car sector, which arose from tacit industry-wide understandings. The new legislation allowed companies to use the registered trademark of a rival “in accordance with honest practices”. This removed the matter from the legal arena to the adjudication of the Advertising Standards Authority.

“Knocking copy” is often an expression of corporate pique – the ­advertiser has been outraged by a competitor’s claim or action, and girds himself to seek retribution. When Reebok aired its “dream team” commercial falsely implying that the great Manchester United footballers of the past had worn its boots, its aggrieved competitor struck back with a poster maintaining that eight of the eleven had worn Adidas. It was erected in only one location: in Bolton, Lancashire, opposite Reebok’s headquarters. Advertisers sometimes get swept up in a downward spiral of retaliation to the general mystification of consumers. A press advertisement showed a can of the Australian-originating Castlemaine XXXX lager squashing a spider, with the copy: “Australians wouldn’t give a XXXX for A.N. Other lager. (So that’s that rumour squashed.)” This was in response to a recent TV commercial by Carling Black Label, which featured Australian references and an animated spider, and if you hadn’t seen that, the Castlemaine ad was incomprehensible.

A storm of alarm swept through British households in 1994 when the two soap powder giants, Procter & Gamble and Lever Brothers, which normally produced predictably reassuring commercials on television, turned the public press into a battleground over independent tests which claimed that concentrated powders caused damage to fabrics. Persil ran full-page defensive ads. Ariel responded by using exactly the same full-page layout, headline style, text typeface, and an almost identical model with a similar colourful patterned blouse, except that this one was in tatters, to demonstrate why it “does not contain the ‘Accelerator’ but some new powders do”. In their zeal to destroy each other’s credibility, competitive brands can easily lose sight of the reality that consumers are rarely forced to select between brand X or Y, but have a whole range of other options.

Not just “knocking copy” but a very large proportion of routine advertising is expressed in the negative. A common approach for office equipment manufacturers, for example, is to portray administrative bedlam with a headline such as “Running an office needn’t be a nightmare if you choose [brand name]”. This provides the opportunity to dramatise the nightmare, with an image, say, of Dracula, rather than trying to illustrate the prosaic benefits of a piece of office equipment. Accentuating the negative is such a popular approach it amounts to an advertising convention.


Claim: travelling as a passenger on our freighters you can expect luxurious comfort.

Creative solution: a cartoon showing people crowded into a floating sardine tin.

(Might not this 1998 American press advertisement for Ivaran Lines also arouse concerns about the seaworthiness of its ships?)


Claim: if you use our credit card your purchases are insured.

Creative solution: a shopper staggering under a falling tower of packages.

(Could this 1998 TV commercial for Barclaycard also stir fears about credit cards tempting one to profligacy?)


Claim: if you bank with us, we’ll give you a 48-hour overdraft, without quibble.

Creative solution: an enlarged photograph of a scorpion, its claws menacing and its stinging tail raised to attack, with the headline “No stings attached”.

(Would this 1996 press ad for Barclays Bank reinforce images of grasping banks?)


Claim: our new car offers you all the extras, without qualification.

Creative solution: a photograph of the car surrounded by gaping metal man-traps, with the headline: “All the trappings, none of the traps”.

(Would this 1996 press ad for Volvo remind prospective purchasers of car dealers’ dodgy practices?)


Claim: it is simple to join our new telephone service.

Creative solution: a cartoon of a man talking on the phone, while viewing his front garden being destroyed by a JCB, with the caption: “And I’ve dug up my front garden to save time for when they lay the cables”.

(Would this 1996 press campaign for Mercury arouse the very fears about disruption it seeks to allay?)


Claim: when you have an insurance claim, our help line lessens domestic trauma by providing you with a reliable local tradesman within four hours, day or night.

Creative solution: a cartoon of two housewives wearing gas-masks while chatting over the garden fence. Caption: “Sorry, Mrs D, our septic tank’s leaking”.

(Did this 1995 press advertisement for Royal Insurance do justice to a quite extraordinary consumer promise?)


Claim: your employee healthcare programme is safe in our hands.

Creative solution: photograph of a 1920s telephone switchboard and operator, with the headline: “Worry about your company’s technology, but don’t worry about your company healthcare”.

(Did this 1995 press campaign for Guardian Health arouse irrelevant anxieties?)


Claim: Your investment with us carries an absolutely guaranteed return.

Creative solution: a cartoon shows a fishing tackle box next to a jaw-shaped gap at the end of a quay. There is a ripple in the water showing where the angler has disappeared.

(Would this 1994 campaign for National Savings. exacerbate the fears of inexperienced investors?)


Claim: we use only pure fresh-pressed English apples in our cider.

The creative solution raises a question about a different kind of purity: it’s a cartoon treatment of a bullet firing through an apple, to remove a loathsome green worm.

(Would this 1995 press advertising campaign for Scrumpy Jack Cider arouse unpleasant taste associations?)


Claim: our PEP investments carry no hidden charges.

Creative solution: a cartoon of a dog, hidden round a corner, trailing a mouse in front of a cat, with the headline: “PEP charges. We’ve absolutely nothing to hide”.

(Would this mid-1990s press advertisement for Stewart Ivory and Company associate the firm with the dubious traders in the field?).


Claim: if you use our credit card you will earn a discount off a new Ford car.

Creative solution: photograph of a popular comedian famous for wrinkling his nose, distastefully contemplating a handful of sparking leads from an old Ford.

(Did this 1994 press campaign for Barclaycard denigrate the performance of the car on offer?)


Claim: we offer a sympathetic service to companies which want to borrow capital.

Creative solution: faceless, animated Giacometti-style stick figures wander aimlessly through a threatening Alphaville city, with a voice-over reassurance that there is a company which will accommodate the commercial borrower.

(Would this 1987 television commercial for the Royal Bank of Scotland confirm images of impersonal financial institutions?)


Claim: our tyres will give you better control of your vehicle.

Creative solution: photograph of a powerful black male sprinter teetering in an awkward high starting position because he is wearing ladies’ high-heeled shoes, with the headline, “Power is nothing without control”.

(Would this mid-1990s press and poster campaign for Pirelli tyres suggest the brand is both perverse and precarious?)


Claim: this car model comes with air conditioning as standard.

Creative solution: photograph of a sweltering traffic jam.

(Many cars offer air conditioning. Is this 1999 press advertisement for the Peugeot 306 recalling the worst drawbacks of motoring a good way to sell cars, to say nothing of this particular marque?)


The instinct for the negative is so ingrained in advertising “creatives” that even where a perfectly good opportunity exists to tell a positive story, black humour is preferred. A 1999 press campaign for the One2One cellphone network compared the number of words you could say for a given price on the four competitive telecom services. Four consecutive headlines pointed out that while Vodafone, for example, would only allow one to say “Jack, I took the car in for a service like you asked . . .”, only One2One would give one the whole scenario: “Jack, I took the car in for a service like you asked but on the way the brakes failed, I jumped a red light and, whilst avoiding two old age pensioners, ploughed into a brand new Rolls Royce . . . your dad’s brand new Rolls Royce”. Subscribers could thus confidently rely on One2One to bring them bad news.

Some advertisers do not balk at associating their wares with images of personal injury and death. A 1995 comic strip ad for the Nationwide Building Society showed a car crashing into a tree with a big WHAAM! The argument: “Geoff was distracted by the incredibly low rates”. An ad for the National Dairy Council laid out 200 bones of a human skeleton, including the skull, in a colour press advertisement which aimed to play on other advertising with the statement “Milk refreshes the parts other drinks cannot reach”. In its early 1990s poster campaign Toshiba used a double negative. It showed a queue of office workers waiting to use an office copier to illustrate the claim, “You won’t have to wait an eternity to use a Toshiba copier”. At the end of the queue was a human skeleton. A 1995 television commercial for the Abbey National Building Society showed a man diving off a sloop anchored in sparkling sunlit waters. But menace was betrayed by ominous music, a barking dog, and a dark shape glimpsed in the water – all references to the horror film Jaws. The looming shape turned out to be his female companion, a scuba diver. They embraced over the strap-line: “It won’t cost you an arm and a leg”.

In a series of late 1990s television commercials parodying the TV drama The Singing Detective, the financial advisers Allied Dunbar found humour in the worst fears of their middle-management customers: losing their jobs and their lives. In one vignette a man in a washroom overheard colleagues gossiping that he was about to be sacked; in another, when a patient on an operating table heard the surgeons saying he had a serious, chronic problem, he rose like Lazarus and burst into song. The press advertisements, though equally macabre, were serious in tone. One headlined “Every two minutes someone dies of heart disease” showed the view from a grave with the vicar reading from his prayer book and mourning relatives framed against the blue sky. The company’s quite positive slogan, “For the life you don’t yet know”, seemed particularly inapt for this treatment. The simple intent of all of this drama was to get across the idea: “Financial plans should adapt, to help you cope with the unexpected”. Yet the frivolous insensitivity of this company’s presentation betrayed its remoteness from its customers. To this firm of financial advisers personal tragedy is a statistical “lifestyle event”. Only from that emotional distance could it be viewed as a joking matter.


All effective advertising trades on anxieties. Negative images stir them; positive images resolve them by evoking the rewards of success, happiness, and status in warm emotional terms. Why does the creative instinct favour the negative? Irony, of course, demands it. And it’s always easier to dramatise a negative situation than a positive result. Frustration, danger, disaster – these threats compel attention, and are the basis of much humour. The man struck by a car turns our heads, the man walking down the street in the ordinary way does not. So, much advertising is built upon the negative consequences of not using the product. Often these are so vividly conveyed that there is a danger that the negative impression will stick to the brand. To redirect this negative thrust into a positive preference for the advertised brand requires a powerful counter-reaction, a kind of persuasive ju-jitsu. But in a thirty-second commercial it is virtually impossible to distance the message from a vivid initial negative impression, and that is what clings in the mind.

The early classics of advertising were always careful to achieve this balance, often through “before-and-after” photographs or stories. In defence of the negative approach, “creatives” sometimes cite the famous American 1960s Volkswagen Beetle advertisement, which simply showed the car over a one-word headline: “Lemon”. But this unusual headline compelled readership, and it was balanced by lengthy copy which revealed that this car had been rejected from the Volkswagen production line because of a minor blemish detected by one of the firm’s 3,389 obsessive quality control inspectors. And this was just one in a serious of reputation-building advertisements which included the equally famous powerful positive appeal: “Did you ever wonder how the snowplow driver gets to work?” The mid-1990s TV campaign for Volkswagen was still trading on this reputation, reciting a series of unreliable lifestyle experiences, balanced only by the strap line: “If only everything in life was as reliable as a VW”. This type of disenchanted presentation, popular in many product fields, requires a reputation as strong as Volkswagen’s to balance it, and does nothing to enhance that reputation.

The business of many charities is to change attitudes towards suffering; to arouse sympathy their first instinct is to dramatise it. And so campaigns aiming to reverse prejudices are always in danger of reinforcing them. A 1998 full-page newspaper advertisement showed a whitewashed window finger-painted with several inflammatory headlines: “Open door policy for bogus refugees”, “We’re being swamped by crime waves of immigrants”, “Refugees blamed for housing shortages”, “Why do we let in this army of spongers?” These outbursts would have prompted a lot of head-nodding amongst conservative-minded readers who failed to notice the artfully scrawled logo of the Refugee Council near the foot of the window, or neglected to proceed as far as the clever riposte in the text: “Next time you read about ‘bogus refugees with false passports’ read between the lies”.

“Charity fatigue”, the feeling people have that they are continually being asked to pour money into sink-holes, is compounded by the incessant parade of negative images which charities use to arouse guilt. Amnesty International has contributed its share of shocking impressions of human atrocity and confinement. In 1998, however, it shifted to a more balanced treatment: a press campaign showing photographs of former prisoners who had been released. The camera focused on their hands, and the copy emphasised that while prisoners’ hands are bound, free people can take action. These portraits faced another page describing cases currently under investigation and containing ten blank lines to suggest that readers write to appeal for a prisoner’s release. This charity thus offered a double reward to prospective donors: positive proof that it could achieve results and a mechanism for personal involvement.

This is a rare exception. The creative instinct is to dramatise the negative. That’s playing with dynamite, and few advertisers manage to deflect the blast of the explosion away from themselves.


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