Marketing, insight and negative advertising!

In the past few days an unfortunate local marketing campaign has gone viral. In it, Secom,  the distributor of an OTC health supplement markets their product under slogans such as “Hate your boy! Hate his autism”. “Hate your father! Hate his Alzheimer!” I believe I saw a later iteration that said “Don’t hate you father! Hate his Alzheimer”.

Either way, the campaign has sparked the expected controversy as families, medical professionals and the marketing community have criticized it on various levels.

Far be it from me to jump on the bandwagon. There has been a lot said about the campaign’s lack of ethics, its profound ambiguity, its needless shock value. There has been a lot of outrage. I would want to take a more academic tone.

1. On Insight

With the risk of sounding cynical, this campaign reminds me of a clip from “What Women Want”. Possessed overnight with an ability to hear women’s thoughts, Mel Gibson strides confidently into an advertising brainstorming session, and pitches an idea about Advil based on a thought he’d overheard from a female coworker, who was using the pill when she needed to fake a headache to fend off sexual advances. The idea flopped and the coworker who originated the thought vehemently denied she’s ever done such a thing.

The point of the anecdote is that capturing what somebody thinks at a given moment is not an automatic insight into how they will behave. Why?

First of all, because consumers can hold many contradictory thoughts simultaneously. Second, because when a thought is socially unacceptable, or morally wrong, consumers will often feel guilty or ashamed, and will not act upon that thought, or recognize that they held it . In fact, they will swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and combat it, and dislike the product or marketing that stirred their shame.

I am sure that a massive media expenditure, such as the Secom campaign described above, had some basis in research. I am sure that much as we are loath to admit it, we have at some point hated the relative who was making our lives more difficult with his illness. I know that my grandfather has Alzheimer, and when he was in my mother’s care, I sometimes hated him for what he was putting her through. We are none of us angels. But these thoughts are fleeting, and their memory painful for any decent human being. And herein lies the difference between information (knowing what people think) and insight (understanding how they will act, given their thoughts). The campaign missed the mark on insight, however accurate or not the base information was.

2. On negative messages

Social marketing and health related marketing has thrived on the negative message. Don’t do this, because you will end up dead, cancerous, impotent, fat and so on. It works, because it plays on information, and our fears. It works, because embedded in the negative message is a positive one: stopping the harmful behavior will let you lead a good life. Sometimes that message is even explicit.

In the Secom campaign however, there is no positive message. There is no corollary to “Hate Alzheimer”, no right outcome, no step to take to fix things. Presumably, this is a teaser campaign, and the gist of the message will come later. Unfortunately, it does not work that way.

The trouble with negative messages is that now, more than ever, what sells the product is the perceived benefit. Negative messages may shock, they may differentiate, but they seldom convey a benefit. In the case of negative messages in health and social campaigns the benefit is an implicit and widely held value (health, social acceptance), and negative messages are only used in parallel with awareness raising initiatives based on science and information, or when the awareness exists but additional motivation for behavior change is needed. What is the benefit of “Hate Alzheimer”? Will it cure my grandfather? Ease his embarrassment when he remembers what he’s done? What is the action that I am supposed to take, and what end? Hate? It is easy to hate. The disconnect is how that hate will help you sell a product.

And the simple answer is: it won’t.

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Filed under Consumer behavior, Marketing

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