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Monday, Oct. 15, 2007

Copywriting Tips: Accentuate the Negative

By Jeff Sexton
October 15th, 2007

Bing Crosby had it wrong. You can’t accentuate the positive without — at least implicitly — admitting the negative. (Not if you want to be credible, anyway.)

The Law of Compromise is built into our worldview. We’ve all learned and relearned the painful necessity of denying ourselves one thing in order to gain another. Try to “eliminate the negative” aspects of your product with glowing web copy, and that image will eventually clash with the reader’s sense of reality. It raises suspicions.

My advice: Leverage (don’t fight) the customer’s belief in compromise by addressing a product’s downsides head-on.

People are as likely to assume that a downside has a corresponding upside as vice versa. They’ll also gladly accept negative admissions, whereas they’d otherwise demand substantiation for positive claims. Combined, these two principles work magic. For example, take this lame and totally unsubstantiated claim for a made up photo printer:

Our new IQ268 photo-quality printer produces the most stunning, nuanced black-and-white prints in the business.”

Credibility on that one? Zero. Now read this:

The ink for our new IQ268 printer costs more than the competition’s — 30% more, on average. In addition to the normal five ink tones everyone else uses, our printer uses two extra gray-scale inks, exclusively for printing monochrome photos. Why the expensive ink? Because, without it, the IQ268 wouldn’t produce the most stunning black-and-white prints in the business.

Since the reader automatically accepts the negative admission, they become more likely to accept the implied upside. Does mentioning the extra gray-scale inks help, too? Sure, but only insofar as it’s linked to better picture quality. That association is more likely to be accepted coming on the heals of an admission. In other words, the downside still highlights the upside by contrast, making the bigger claims that much more believable.

Coors used to do a brilliant job of this with the whole “cold” thing back in the 80′s by hyping its refrigerated trucks and warehouses. It worked like a charm, driving considerable growth and market impact — at least until they stopped using it.

(If player doesn’t load, click here for video.)

Think about that. By implying that the flavor of Coors required non-stop refrigeration to properly preserve itself (i.e., by “admitting” a downside), the brewery was able to garner increased credibility for it’s totally unsubstantiated claim of superior taste. In fact, this particular bit of marketing brilliance only stopped working when consumers saw a Coors ad with Coors beer being sold UNREFRIGERATED on the shelves. So Coors had its spokesman, Mark Harmon, go on national TV to claim that Coors wasn’t any more vulnerable to room temps than other beer.

And then the ride was over. Without the downside, there was no believability in the upside.

So, how do so many luxury or professional-grade items enjoy high credibility without ever admitting a downside? Is there really a downside to owning, say, a Lexus LS 460?

Sure. The downside is the $60-70K you spent to own that car. High prices often serve as their own form of credibility/downside. In the trade-off between cost of production and quality, some companies (or so it’s rumored) choose to keep quality and raise prices. So, as Cialdini has pointed out, we’ve become conditioned to see high prices as both an implied downside and a reliable index of high quality.

That’s why “fabulous quality at low prices,” with no mention of a downside, tends to draw suspicious questions in the mind of the consumer: Where’s the angle? Why are you doing this?

Again, the smart copywriter/marketer leverages those reflexes; he doesn’t fight against them. Want to bring added credibility to your web copy? Stop dancing to Crosby’s old tune, and start giving the negative side a chance to work its magic.

. .

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Comments (22)

  1. Great examples! When will the rest of the blogosphere learn that clear, on-point ‘examples’ are what we need?

  2. Good article, although you might explain Cialdini more than just a hyperlink. I’ve read his book four times and think it excellent but for readers who don’t know him, it might be good to note why he’s important. His web site has good information on it too – . (And no, I’m not his publicist!)

  3. Nettie,

    Thanks for the comment; I totally agree that more context would be helpful. Here’s a nice summary of the referenced portion of Cialdini’s book:

    Though I will say that my initial link was aimed at directing people straight to the source so that they could treat themselves to one of the best books on persuasion to have ever been penned.

    Thanks again.


  4. [...] příspěvek Jeffa Sextona o zmiňování negativ v textech pro web mě přivedl k zamyšlení nad kvalitou některých textů [...]

  5. Thanks for the advice and tips. It sure had some truths in it.

    Very good post! :)

  6. [...] Copywriting Tips: Accentuate the Negative [...]

  7. [...] If the product has some negative point outline them, but explain why it is still a great product. Grokdotcom recently posted a great article that can be applied to situations where products have negative [...]

  8. [...] I read a brilliant article on why your sales copy should address the downsides of your offer too: it will make you more [...]

  9. A history of insignificance, has inspired reference, or presents the medium, being whatever it is, as a vehicle for content. Negative data is an instantaneous mirage that defeats all needed positive information. The only safe communication becomes one that either declares something negative, thus feeding into a cycle, or one that states an non-opinionated fact such as the medium itself, thus feeding into another paradox of the medium being the message. It isn’t that the negative accentuates the positive…, but rather that the positive can only work in insignificant negative references. There isn’t an absolute of course, but we need a lot of negative right now. Technology is growing faster then we can handle. Presently structure needs some honest deconstruction. Profit is coming to the wires and not the brains. Marketing is essential because a company like Yedda is doing tremendous innovation… and yet the profit is going to Comcast, facebook and way down the line towards the control mechanisms. Content creation is what should be sold… not the gizmos behind it that get you there. Marketing has always been about selling something people don’t need but want. 99% of our economy is luxury… that is ok, but the profit from the luxury needs to go to the luxury makers. Not a company that lays down wires. The negative is that we really don’t need any of this… and yet here I am writing on this blog. Negative is that there is no marketing of wires because they are a monopoly, where is the positive? Deconstruct the system.

  10. Spot on. There are downsides that are downsides (and you have got to rectify them) and there are downsides that can be leveraged to highlight/justify the upside.

    We do not compromise on prices for our services and leverage this to highlight that we have a similar no-compromise policy for our service quality too.

  11. Yes indeed the downside is what’s important. In fact, it doesn’t just need to be in your message, it’s critical to the message. Which means that the downside must be brought up.

    But not just at any point.

    It follows a sequence, as we outline in the Brain Audit. And that sequence is important to follow. Bring up the downside too early, and you’ve scared off the customer. Bring it up too late, and you’ve got the client all cynical.

    The downside is of course, the objection. And the objection means that the client goes through a process. The process is simply:
    1) Is this for me? Am I the target?
    2) Is it solving a problem for me?
    3) Does it have a relevant solution (for me?)

    And then only once this analysis is done (often in a matter of seconds), does the client start looking for the downside or something to object about.

    Understanding this factor of timing is vital. And while Coors is a good example of ‘advertising gone right without realising it’, it shows that the concept wasn’t part of the strategy after all.

    If it were, they’d never put out an add without Coors being chilled at all times. In fact, just like Volvo and safety, Coors and chilled would go together.

    The downside is important.
    But knowing that it’s part of the strategy is just as important.
    And knowing the exact time when to insert in in your message is absolutely critical, or you’ll have egg in your face, and pesos in the bank.


  12. Sean,

    Thanks for offering up additional context and food for thought. In general, I totally agree, both about the timing and the Coors campaign. Although, I’d say that, when done right, the downside can be brought up to begin with when it is used to qualify the prospect. Eugene Schwartz talks about this at the end of his book, Breakthrough Advertising, and Roy Williams mentions this also when he advises ad writers to “choose whom to lose”

    An example of such a move was actually provided by Roy in spectacular Monday Morning Memo on Targeting Through Ad Copy. Here’s the opening line of his faux ad:

    “If the lowest price is all you’re after, this isn’t the camera for you.”

    - Jeff

  13. Great points, however if we are talking copy, credit the writer. Bing Crosby only sang the song, Johnny Mercer is the master songwriter of Accentuate the Positive.

  14. Robin,

    God bless Johnny Mercer. However, like most copywriters, Mercer never enjoyed the same fame as his creations. So he just wouldn’t have worked that well as a cultural allusion/reference. Know what I mean?

    But I’m glad your comment has given the man his due. Thanks for setting me straight.


  15. [...] took an superb online writing class from Jeff Sexton, the author of the Accentuate the Negative post. He gave great examples of how showing the downside of a product or service could gain more [...]

  16. [...] "Accentuate The Negative" — [...]

  17. A lot of truth is written here. It helpd to selle more by being honest. It makes you more credible.

  18. [...] Explain what costs you’re willing to bare and admit the downside to your offer/product. This one is more about credibility than definition, but amidst a background of ad-speak [...]

  19. If you are looking to make money online, you must focus on content that solves a problem and this is where the ability to write persuasive is needed.Not everyone have the copywriting skills needed, but you can learn quite easily.

  20. [...] mais expliquez en quoi c’est malgré tout un super produit. Grokdotcom a posté à ce sujet un super article qui peut être appliqué à des situations ou les produits ont des particularités négatives. ( Je [...]

  21. [...] [...]

  22. [...] for two reasons: 1) as just discussed, it helps enthusiasts further identify with your brand; 2) admitting the downside boosts credibility — and credibility acts as its own form of reverse camouflage amidst a background of hype and [...]

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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