A negation is frequently used in persuasive communications to define a brand’s identity and to influence consumers’ product expectations.
For example, General Motors used the slogan, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile”, to launch an annual model, and Kraft’s DiGiorno brand of frozen pizza announced, “It’s not delivery—it’s DiGiorno.” Negations often appear in other contexts as well.
An American oil firm issued the following press release: “Occidental has not and does not provide lethal aid to Colombia’s armed forces.”
There is an emerging understanding of how such negations operate in an advertising context. Initially, the affirmation is elaborated upon (“It’s delivery, it’s DiGiorno”). Then, additional cognitive resources may be allocated to correcting this affirmation by linking it to the negator (“It’s not delivery”).
This two-step processing of a negation is referred to as the ‘affirmation then correction’ view.
The affirmation then correction view makes several predictions. If substantial resources are devoted to thinking about the message, a negation is interpreted accurately, and if few resources are allocated, the negation is not processed. Between these extremes, message recipients are likely to process the affirmation without the correction.
Two colleagues (Sue Jung Grant and Prashant Malaviya) and I tested these predictions by presenting respondents with a toothpaste print ad in which the target brand was compared to a competitor on 10 cosmetic, medicinal and other benefits.
The target brand dominated the competitor on three benefits, was dominated by the competitor on three benefits, and there was parity on the remaining four benefits.
One of the benefits on which the target brand supposedly dominated pertained to the ease of using the dispenser. For some respondents, the message indicated that the dispenser was “not difficult to use”, a phrasing that might be used so as not to over-claim the benefit.
In the other condition, the dispenser was described as “not easy to use”. This claim was of interest not because it might be used in advertising, but because it provided a contrast condition to interpret how negations influence judgements.
When we prompted substantial resource allocation to the key benefit (e.g., by placing the “not difficult” or “not easy to use” feature early in the feature list, or by giving message recipients substantial time to think about the message), the target toothpaste brand was evaluated more favourably when the claim was that the dispenser “was not difficult to use” than when it was “not easy to use”.
When resource allocation was reduced, the reverse occurred: People were more favourable toward the brand when its dispenser was not easy to use than when it was not difficult to use.
Message recipients accessed the affirmation but not the negation. Interestingly, this outcome occurred even though when asked, message recipients were able to accurately replay the dispenser information they were given. It was in memory, but not used in making a brand evaluation.
Applying this observation to the examples cited earlier, people who were not paying full attention to the message might have come away with the thought that DiGiorno is delivery and that Occidental provides lethal aid.
Support for the affirmation then correction process suggests that advertisers should be cautious not only in using negations, but more generally in the use of negative advertising.
In most instances, American consumers are motivated by the achievement of favourable outcomes in purchasing products. This orientation prompts a focus on affirmation, and messages that adopt this focus are more likely to be effective than ones that use negations and negative claims.
At the same time, there are situations, such as in voting for political candidates and selecting tech services, where consumer motivation is to prevent a negative outcome from occurring. In these circumstances, negations and negative advertising are likely to prove effective.
Brian Sternthal is the Kraft Foods Chair in Marketing and is a past chair of the marketing department.
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