Negative Advertising Becomes Hip

The American Association of Advertising Agencies may poo-poo negative advertising, but it isn’t going away any time soon. From McCain’s salacious attack ad against Obama, featuring Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, to Apple’s ads criticizing Microsoft’s Windows Vista, political and commercial negative advertising seems to be all the rage these days. Is negative advertising acceptable?

Acceptability issues aside, negative advertising seems to be working somewhat more effectively than before. Pundits have argued that it has always worked better in the political realm than in the commercial one, which is probably true. But how are we to explain the success of Apple’s ad campaigns for Mac computers? More a critique against Microsoft than a promotion of the Apple brand, the ads have prompted many young 20-somethings, with whom I’ve spoken, say in more or less words, “I think those ads are pretty funny. I don’t own a Mac, but I kind of want to.”

The reason may lie in the fact that young people are now inundated with a variety of television and Internet shows which synthesize information, such as The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Soup, YouTube spoofs and the vast majority of VH1 programs, all of which create an environment of mocking and satire that appeals to young people and to which they find themselves accustomed. But, of course, that’s all just speculation on my part.

The reasons behind the growing acceptance and engagement with negative ads may be hard to quantify, but the fact that they prompt a reaction in viewers now, whereas they were simply generally regarded as a product of bad taste, is undeniable. Consider what Paris Hilton did after she had seen John McCain’s negative ad, comparing Obama with celebrities such as herself: She created her own video, mocking McCain’s ad. Granted, the Paris Hilton video isn’t enough to prove my point about the consumer psyche being conditioned by media satire, but it’s enough to prompt a re-evaluation of previously held attitudes about negative advertising.

What Apple does is not so different than what McCain did in his campaign ad. While McCain associates his competitor with young celebrities, suggesting a lack of experience and depth of knowledge about certain political issues, Apple associates its competitor Microsoft with an image of an aging, rather uncool guy. And just like that, Apple took something that was previously only limited to political campaign ads—attack on character, rather than on performance—and made it commercial.

We have yet to see other brands following the ad campaign model that Apple that has yielded, but I predict that it’s only a matter of time before other advertisers jump on the trend.

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