Subliminal Negativity Works

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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.

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