Does Negative Advertising Ever Pay Off?

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It’s election season. Depending on where you live, you could be exposed to a very significant amount of political advertising, some of it positive, much of it negative. This got us thinking:

  • Is negative advertising ever effective?
  • Does it make more sense to run positive and inspiring ads?
  • Could we apply any lessons learned from political advertising to marketing for financial and professional services firms and Fintech companies?

We started out by looking at many research studies about positive and negative political advertising. Here are some of the highlights of what we learned along with some thoughts about how the insights could be applied to financial and professional services marketing.

The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment
Richard R. Lau, Lee Sigelman and Ivy Brown Rovner, Journal of Politics, 2007

This study began with the idea that even though most people believe negative political ads work, when you analyze the data from multiple studies on this topic, it shows they actually don’t perform as intended. At the time of this study, the researchers were able to access twice as much data related to this subject that had ever been available before. Despite the additional data, the team found the results of old studies held true. Negative advertising does not win votes for candidates, despite the fact that it’s more memorable and gets people thinking about the election. 

The researchers also discovered that negative ads don’t affect voter turnout, but they do depress voter trust in elections and government in general.

What financial marketers can learn: Does it really make sense for financial marketers to go negative? Think about it: Will someone want to save for future goals because you scare them into it or energize them using aspirational messages? Also, consider the impact being pessimistic will have not just on your brand, but the industry as a whole. There’s a good reason retirement companies have shifted from the scare tactics that were common twenty years ago (you probably don’t have enough saved for retirement) to today’s more aspirational messages (the race for retirement).

A Framework for Dynamic Causal Inference in Political Science
Matthew Blackwell, American Journal of Political Science, 2013

This rather complex study looked at the dynamic process political candidates go through deciding whether to turn negative in response to polls, news stories and other events. It reviewed a finite amount of data related to U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races to keep the analysis manageable. This is one of the few studies we reviewed that indicated a potential pay-off for critical advertising. The researchers found that negative ads could sometimes be an effective strategy for upstart political challengers, while those who already held the office were hurt by going negative.

What financial marketers can learn: Are you marketing a new, upstart financial or Fintech firm? Comparing and contrasting your business with the more mature ones in your space could be a way to differentiate it. It’s probably not wise to to go negative against established firms, but leveraging sensible messages that explain why your firm is a newer and better alternative could pay off.

Variability in Citizens’ Reactions to Different Types of Negative Campaigns
Kim L. Fridkin and Patrick Kenney, American Journal of Political Science, 2011

This study went deeper than most others into the impact of negative political advertising. It found that voter tolerance for negative ads depends on the personal characteristic of individual people.

  • People who are closely affiliated with a political party and have a strong interest in the campaign are less affected by pessimism.
  • Men are more accepting of critical content than women.
  • Older people are less tolerant of negativity than younger ones.

The biggest factor of all is that people who don’t like negative communication in their daily lives don’t like the content and tone of pessimistic commercials.

Not surprisingly, the inverse is true. Those who communicate in derogatory ways in their daily lives are more accepting of negative commercials. Three variables — relevance of message, degree of civility and the tolerance level of the voter — interact in complex ways to determine whether negative campaigns “work” — or not.

What financial marketers can learn: Many factors go into whether audiences will accept negative messages. If you’re thinking of heading in this direction, test your messages with different audiences to ensure they perform as you expect. Try using focus groups or low-cost, limited distribution, highly targeted social media to gauge responses to your messages.

Attacks Without Consequence? Candidates, Parties, Groups, and the Changing Face of Negative Advertising
Conor M. Dowling and Amber Wichowsky, American Journal of Political Science, 2015

This study began with the contention that voters do not respond well to negative ads and generally punish the candidates who sponsor them. They moved beyond this, and did three experiments where the researchers asked study participants to watch negative ads that were identical except for the sponsor — a candidate, a political party or an independent organization. The researchers found that negative ads sponsored by a party or organization don’t do as much damage to a candidate as when they’re sponsored by a candidate themselves.  That’s because many voters don’t directly connect candidates to ads sponsored by political parties and groups. 

What financial marketers can learn: If your firm wants to present negative information about a competitor or their product, it’s smart to position it as independent research conducted by a third party. It’s a good way to distance your firm from a less-than-positive message about a competitor or what they offer.


If financial marketers use political research as an example, it’s probably not a good idea to take a negative tone in advertising, unless they’re extremely careful. After all, negativity will only begin a race to the bottom. Staying positive is a better approach because it inspires prospects to do business with firms they feel positive about.

Check out some of these recent positive and aspirational campaigns developed by Carpenter Group that drove results:

  • SEI investments: To drive its creative, we worked with this brand that has its eye on the future to seek out visionary and disruptive innovations in the non-financial world.
  • S&P Dow Jones Indices: We partnered with this well-known firm to create a metrics-shattering global advertising program that builds brand presence and pushes boundaries year over year.
  • Portfolio 21: We developed this total brand transformation that enabled a pioneering asset manager to definitively stake its claim as a leader in environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing.

Need help developing positive and inspirational creative for your firm? Contact Carpenter Group to find out how we can help.