March 28, 2010Does negative campaigning work?

I’m following the impending general election in the UK with increasing interest. Some of you may remember I responded positively to the Conservative Party’s first campaign poster — a positive, aspirational message. Evidently, it didn’t work. It wasn’t so much this poster — which, regardless of what you thought of it, generated a lot of media interest giving a pretty good ROI in terms of press exposure — but the ones that followed. The general consensus is, they’re pretty limp:


In fact, on seeing this poster, most people just say “what plans?” The Conservative Party are losing ground because although the governing Labour Party is unpopular, nobody really knows quite what the Tories stand for. Their response? The campaign’s gone negative.


It’s beeing touted in the blogosphere that marketing agency Euro RSCG have been sidelined — due to poor performance — and the old Conservative stalwart, Saatchi, has been brought back. The above posters are examples of M+C Saatchi’s new work. They’re simple attack ads. And, undoubtedly, the best attack ads have a simple message. They paint the election in terms of a stark contrast — “change” or “five more years of this incompetent idiot”. What’s clever about them is that unlike the first poster above, they don’t lead the viewer to ask what the Conservatives would actually do better. They simply state “anything’s better than Brown” — which is a pretty negative bottom line.

The question is, will it work?

The Saatchi brothers know what they’re doing. They’re an agency whose work most, if not all of us, are in awe of. But remember this dud?


Yup, another Saatchi creation. Remembered for all the wrong reasons. It certainly didn’t stop Blair getting in. Or getting in again. Or again after that.

So what makes negative campaigning work?

Well, I think it has to resonate with people. It has to capture a mood — I don’t think it’s possible for a negative campaign to change a media narrative. But if the undercurrent of public feeling is going one way, it can’t hurt to remind people. That’s why, even though I’m loath to see the Conservatives embark on a negative campaign without spelling out exactly what they’ll do better, I think it’ll work.

The new Saatchi campaign uses facts. Brown was an incompetent chancellor — his selling of Britain’s gold reserves was, to put it in plain English, the most monumental cock-up of government finances of our generation. Announcing it to the markets before doing it — thus ensuring the worst possible price — was plain stupidity Brown shouldn’t be allowed to get away with.

Negative campaigns need to be backed by facts.

That’s why ‘New Labour, New Danger’ didn’t work. It was speculative. The wider lesson we can all learn, whatever we’re marketing, is that facts work. Facts need to be at the core of every good argument. It’s not enough to say you’re better. You have to show people why. A positive campaign can tap into a feeling or express a mood. People don’t necessarily need to be sold facts to be told something will make them happy. In short, you don’t ‘argue’ happiness. You persuade.

But if your campaign is negative, showing people why your opponent is worse than you… nothing less than brutal, hammer-blows of cold, hard fact will do.

Edit: Monday 29th — Michael White of the Guardian has written a very similar article today, it’s good, check it out — Negative advertising works, but only when it strikes a chord with what voters already think

Share this article

This entry was posted on Sunday, March 28th, 2010 at 8:12 pm and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. This is really interesting, as was the last post. Thanks, Al.

    My last two months have been spent working with the new webmaster on the new-look, and it’s an interesting case to compare. This 80s show for young teenagers is still a cult favourite, but the site had been dwindling for years, had not been updated enough, and consequently the interest for much of what has been garnered since has fallen.

    The last few years have offered much promise that the game would be coming back after 15 years off-screen, but it has always fizzled out, and the company(ies) behind it were wound up in late 2009.

    One of the last realistic material hopes for the show is getting the money together to buy the rights to episodes and make them available for sale online, or even onto DVD. It will need a few thousand to commit to get them down to £1-2 per episode, and a fair number to get the price down low enough for the rest of the hardcore fans to be able to pay. Not so long ago, that would have been an easy task, but because the community/fan base/page visits have been drying up [relating to your last post on blogging], the main resource to keep the interest alive has faltered. Now trying to build it again could be tough.

    So, the new site launches seeking renewed interest and potential customers. How to ‘campaign’ for them though… On the one hand, is there any point in putting effort into nostalgia projects? Our efforts could have been fuelled by a purely negative stimulus: ‘Knightmare is dead. This is all that’s left’. That could well be a fact, but it’s one that reverses much of the ethos behind nostalgia, especially for a show that has flirted with a new format until just recently. Instead, because we want to build something, we have had to look forward and treat the whole concept like an ongoing story or work in progress: ‘These are the plans for the future’. I think people want to ride on positivity, and that a positive ethos (with plans) works.

    Then again, I acknowledge that politics is a whole new ball-game. The ‘negative bottom line’ works for me. I’ll try change, because it could scarcely be worse.

  2. […] pranks (well documented by TechCrunch) this spoof by The Guardian really caught my eye. In my last post, I talked about negative campaigning in politics, and how only a campaign based on hard fact is […]

Leave a comment

Due to an unusually high volume of spam being left on this blog, please solve this problem before sending your comment .

Site by Spencer Lavery