I Can’t Say Negative Words Aren’t Bad

There are those who believe you shouldn’t use negative words in advertising because it will repel the audience and decrease sales.

This philosophy isn’t concerned with subject matter, but actual words. Words like not, shouldn’t, don’t, and even but. These words, some believe, should be strictly avoided.

This is nonsense. Don’t buy it.

Here is a positive statement: I LOVE to hurt puppies and kittens.
Here is a negative statement: People who hurt puppies and kittens are NOT good people.

Generally, I think sentences are more interesting when you replace the word “but” with “and.” But as the following statements demonstrate, it doesn’t always work.

Here is a positive statement: I lost all of my money, AND I had to declare bankruptcy.
Here is a negative statement: I lost all of my money, BUT I won the lottery the next day.

Since the One Show’s book, Advertising’s Ten Best of the Decade, 1980-1990 is within reach as I write this, let’s go old school for a minute and look at some classic ads that never would have survived the Don’t Use Negative Words philosophy. (Apologies for the Dutch-angle scanning.)

Chances are, had you not been looking for them, you never would have noticed the “negative” words in these ads. You’d merely have seen them as clear and interesting pieces of communication.

Some may say, Fine. But isn’t it better to try and write headlines that don’t use negative words just as a precaution? Maybe. But your job as a writer shouldn’t be to avoid using certain words. It should be to write clear and compelling copy.


One thought on “I Can’t Say Negative Words Aren’t Bad

  1. This is not a wildly discussed topic, so thanks for writing about it, especially because we all had/will have clients/bosses who set the creative boundary around “no negative word usage”.

    Another common boundary is “no negative truth telling”. Probably because it’s not that easy to quickly spin a negative fact into a positive one. An old example I can think of is the very successful “Avis Is Only Number Two; So We Try Harder.” It was successful because it was uncommonly truthful about the negative fact “Avis is only number two”, which then made the brand more believable = people believed that it would indeed try harder.


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