The power of negativity.
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Just as there can be no light without darkness, no love without hate, and no victory without defeat; so too can there be no Kingdom of Failure without a Kingdom of Success. I do not know who writes that blog. Though I suspect it is a person who has a much more impressive resume than mine, exercises regularly and flosses without having to be reminded.
On my way to not getting into medical school, I took physics. And not the bullshit liberal arts physics with lots of pictures in the textbook. I took the real physics. The one taught in the engineering school where the smart kids go.
On day one you learn Newton’s three laws of motion. The third law is the one most applicable for our purposes today. That law being: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Not only does that pretty much sum up my knowledge of physics and explain why I’m a copywriter and not a doctor, but it also leads us into a hopefully interesting dialogue about advertising, storytelling and connecting with people on the most authentic level possible.
Isaac Newton was a pretty smart guy. There’s no debating that. But in my line of work, I gravitate towards a different smart guy. His name is Luke Sullivan and he’s basically the patron saint of creatives who seek to do ads that don’t suck.
Luke is a great guy. I had the immense pleasure of getting to have breakfast with him one morning in Savannah while visiting SCAD on a recruiting trip several years ago. He’s a heck of a nice fella and does a more than respectable De Niro impression.
Luke Sullivan talks a lot about conflict and tension. He talks about opposing forces bumping up against each other. And just like tectonic plates, that’s where all the action is. But unlike Isaac Newton, Luke would probably say that yes, for every action there’s an opposite reaction, but not necessarily an equal one. And the reason, is because the negative is always more powerful than the positive.
You can drive by the same house every day. Maybe one day you notice they’ve put on a fresh coat of paint. Another time, you see they’ve planted some rhododendrons. And perhaps at some other point in time as you whiz by, you notice a new rocker sitting on the front porch. Lovely. And then your mind goes straight back to something more important. Like why isn’t this asshole using his turn signal?
However, the day you drive by that house and it’s engulfed in enormous flames and surrounded by firetrucks is the day you actually slow down to see what’s going on. That’s the day you rubberneck the shit out of that house. Heck, you’ll probably spend the rest of the day thinking about it—hoping everyone is alright and the insurance policy was kept up to date.
In advertising we see tensions all the time. I love those cookies but I’m trying to lose weight. That’s my dream car but it’s out of my price range. I’m losing my hair but I’d still like to score a little nookie now and then. We often call these scenarios problem/solution but in reality, they’re the tectonic plates of the human condition bumping up against each other. In other words, it’s where the shit gets real.
Advertising, in general, does not like for the shit to get real.
I’ve been told time and time again to stay away from the negative. I’ve been told that people don’t want to see a downer. Our job is to be aspirational. Show them what their lives could be like, not how crappy and relentlessly boring they actually are.
Which is total fucking bullshit. Now, we’re not listening to Isaac Newton or Luke Sullivan. Where’s the equal and opposite reaction? Where’s the burning house? Where’s the skip button?
All we want to say is how delicious the cookies are and the big news is that now they have no artificial colors or dyes. Eat up. But here’s the deal. Darth Vader is infinitely more interesting than Luke Skywalker. Heath Ledger didn’t want to play Batman. I don’t even remember who Batman was in that movie. But I sure as shit remember the Joker. Why so serious?
The simple truth is that negative is more compelling and has a lot more meat on the bone than positive.
Halo Ice Cream did a brilliant campaign a few years ago based on an equally brilliant insight. Kids eat ice cream when they’re happy. Adults eat ice cream when they’re sad. Boom. Genius. Mic drop. Any creative could write to that all day long. I want to meet that planner. I’d like to give them a medal or maybe bake them some banana bread. They deserve something special.
A few years ago, I was working on a piece of CPG business. We were heading into summer and the planner wanted to talk about how much families look forward to the carefree, anything goes lifestyle of the season.
I called serious bullshit on that. We were selling to families. Moms in particular. They don’t look forward to summer. Summer is a fucking nightmare. The kids are out of school so routines are thrown out the window and you’ve either got to come up with a buttload of cash for camp or figure out something for them to do every single fucking day.
Ever seen those pictures on Facebook of parents celebrating the first day of school in the fall? Why do you think they’re so happy? Because fucking summer is over and for 8 hours a day those kids aren’t going to be bugging them to be taken to the beach or Disney World or any of that shit. Now grab your backpack and hit the bricks, Timmy. This chardonnay isn’t going to drink itself.
Did the brief change? No. We went with the summer is awesome strategy. It blended into the woodwork nicely and, thank God, no one noticed our shitty advertising.
I worked at an agency once where every morning we’d have a status meeting. At the end of the meeting, this bright-eyed millennial would take out her book of positivity quotes and read one to the team so that we could all start our day on a bright note. It was torturous for me. I would rather confront an angry swarm of cranky murder hornets than be subjected to the emotional dishonesty of a positivity quote.
So, I leaned on my good friends Isaac Newton and Luke Sullivan and every day I would write a negativity quote in my journal in order to abide the laws of physics and adhere to the wise teachings of St. Sullivan.
I aspire to someday publish the world’s first book of negativity quotes. I think it would be a hoot and possibly a much better way to ready the troops for a full day of bullshit meetings and lackluster presentations. I’ll leave you with a few of my favorites. I hope they give someone out there the inspiration to cut through the lame ass corporate smile we try and stick on everything, instead of coming up with authentic strategies based on real life and actual human emotion.
Everything they’re saying about you is true.
Tomorrow will be no different.
You can’t actually do anything you put your mind to. They’ve been working on cancer for decades.