Cheat Code: The marketing superpower of turning the positive into a negative

6 min readMar 18, 2024

Originally shared by Mumbrella.

Leading with the negative can create positively powerful comms, according to behavioural science expert and CEO of Hardhat, Dan Monheit.

March 12, 2024 7:00 by DAN MONHEIT

Professionally speaking, we marketing cats are a pretty upbeat bunch. Our jobs are centred around putting whatever product we’re being paid to represent in the brightest possible light: the newest, the fastest, the lightest, the cheapest, the one the coolest kids already have. Accentuate positives and eliminate the negatives. Don’t mess with Mister In Between.

However, with consumers’ attention pulled in every which way, achieving cut-through with upbeat, positive comms can be a major challenge, especially when every other brand is doing the same thing.

Yet when you consider what grabs your attention throughout the day, for most, it’s the doom and gloom of life: salacious true crime stories, a terrifying cost of living feature, tawdry scandals, tales of horror, war, and climate disasters.

‘If it bleeds, it leads’ has long been an adage in the publishing industry and for good reason. A study published in 2022 that analysed 23 million headlines between 2019 and 2020 proved what we all instinctively know. Across more than 50 popular news outlets, spanning left-leaning, right-leaning and centrist titles, there’s been a significant increase in the proportion of negatively charged headlines. Bleeding headlines bring clicking fingers, which in turn bring paying advertisers.


A similar study published in Nature magazine analysed over 105 thousand variations of story headlines from It found that stories featuring more negative terms in the headline drove more user clicks. In contrast, positive terms decreased user engagement.

We can’t help but get drawn to the negative. For much of human history, our lives depended on it. Our ancestors faced predators such as sabre-toothed tigers, wolves, and giant man-eating birds of prey. They also had human competitors to worry about, so cavewomen and men would die if they spent too long admiring pretty rock paintings or stunning sunsets. Those hyper-aware of danger survived, and their genetics passed on.

Our baked-in ‘Negativity Bias’ means we’re more likely to notice negative stimuli and spend longer dwelling on negative events. It’s why the sting of an insult hits so much harder (and lasts so much longer) than the joy of praise.

Looking for the negative is hardwired into us. Researchers have found that the only real exception is newborn babies, who pay greater attention to positive voices and facial expressions. However, this reverses at around 12 months. As soon as they start navigating the world through crawling and walking, their brains switch to being more alert for danger.

As a kid growing up in the nineties, my favourite chocolate bar was a Cadbury Picnic. Its clever and truthful tagline, “Deliciously Ugly,” spoke to me to the degree that I remember it fondly to this day. The brand has since shifted to ‘The unruly bite,” which I’ll probably forget before I finish typing this sentence.

Despite the negative’s proven seismic, gravitational pull, marketers are reluctant to embrace negatively geared comms. Why? For a start, it goes against every fibre of our positively chirpy beings. It can also feel so inherently risky that the average marketer wouldn’t go near it despite the proven success of some of the world’s most famous campaigns.

However, when executed brilliantly, embracing your brand’s shortcomings can create a disproportionately large impact as this technique is so infrequently used that consumers can’t help but notice.

Negative comms work because they stand out like the proverbial. A case in point was when, in February 2022, an Italian restaurant in the UK placed a sandwich board outside, reading, “Come in and try the worst coffee one woman on TripAdvisor had in her life.” When the restaurant shared it on its Facebook page, customers rallied in support, and the post went viral globally.

The restaurant had inadvertently tapped into the Pratfall Effect, which is the idea that people regarded as highly competent, intelligent or superior in some way become more likeable after making a blunder, as long as it is unrelated to what they are known for.

The Pratfall Effect dictates that admitting your weaknesses can make you more likeable. Think about the start of almost every TED talk, where the speaker shares a traumatic moment where they’ve messed it all up before somehow emerging triumphant. Leading with vulnerability can be a super-affective way of building brand likeability and trust. Consumers know brands aren’t perfect. If we don’t tell them what’s wrong with ours, they’ll decide for themselves instead. The key is to be brilliant at what’s important while being honest (and flaunting imperfections around) the rest.

Keen observers will know that this strategy is nothing new. Iconic ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), creators of Volkswagen’s “Think Small” and “Lemon” campaigns in the 1950s and 60s, leaned into negative preconceptions of Volkswagen. The headlines ‘One of the nice things about owning it is selling it’, and “It’s ugly, but it gets you there”. “A VW won’t go over 72 mph. (Even though the speedometer shows a wildly optimistic top speed of 90) and even ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ ended up fast-tracking VW’s incredibly successful launch in the US.

Based on its success, DDB went out again in 1964 with their famous campaign for Avis, drawing attention to its inferiority in the popularity stakes to rival Hertz. While Avis couldn’t win by playing to the category convention of scale, it did spot an opportunity to add ‘service’ as a factor to consider. The tagline, “We’re number two, so we try harder,” was considered preposterous. Nobody had ever produced an ad celebrating being second best!

It also broke sales records. In the first nine months, rentals grew by 28%, and Avis made its first profit in over a decade. In the subsequent years, revenues continued to climb as Avis steadily closed the gap on Hertz. The ad was so effective that it ran for over 50 years.

Canada’s favourite cough syrup brand, Buckley’s, took what could be perceived as a massive downside and made it core to their branding with the tagline: “It tastes awful. And it works”. By pointing out the obvious, they immediately gained consumers’ trust. The rationale is that if they are honest about the taste, they must be telling the truth about its efficacy, too. And boy did the ‘Bad Taste’ campaign work, increasing their market share from 2% to 12% in under a year. Buckley’s has successfully rolled the campaign out across the US, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, Guinness celebrates the fact Guinness drinkers will still be waiting at the bar while their mates are chugging down their lager by putting “Good things come to those who wait’ at the centre of their comms. Not only did it become their strapline, it also highlights and celebrates an essential part of the customer experience.

Heinz in Canada followed suit, focusing on how agonisingly slowly Heinz 57 Ketchup comes out of the bottle with multiple campaigns using the tagline that read, “If you have to wait, it has to be Heinz 57.” The brand even created the “world’s slowest website” that took 57 minutes to load!

If you’re thinking about putting your worst foot forward, an excellent starting point is to ask yourself ‘What’s the worst they could say?’, quickly followed by ‘And how could we say it better?’.

The answer might lie in the biggest source of complaints, the most common misconceptions or a desirable attribute your brand has long made do without. If you can strike the right balance between strength and vulnerability, you’ll have eyebrows raising and hearts fluttering at a rate you would not believe.

Dan Monheit is CEO of Hardhat.




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