The Marketing Power of Negative

Two strangers sitting next to each other on a commercial airplane: if one chooses to say something to the other, the most likely comment, by far, is going to be something negative about the airline. They’re always late, the seats are too small, something like that. It’s human nature. We break the ice by criticizing someone else because that unites us.

Blog posts, presentations, workshops and the like do much better organizing around mistakes and myths or failure than anything else. My posts on business plan mistakes, or startup mistakes, do much better than lists of tips. My workshops and presentations organized around top 10 mistakes to avoid do better than keys to success.

People talk way more about what’s wrong with something than what’s right with something.

I’ve seen research indicating that angry customers tell 17 people, on average, about what made them so mad. Happy customers tell three. Word of mouth is much more likely to be about what’s wrong than what’s right.

Does your marketing know that? How powerful is the negative? How does that impact your business? Your social media strategy? Your marketing message? Your customer service?

(Image: Copestello/Shutterstock)


  • tony says:

    i’m in college for my second time around to specialize in marketing and im a typical disgruntled gen x, who thinks that i can make a difference with the right products that are sustainable and very green focused. im creating myself as a brand in an excersise and debating if i should act truthfully or be positive with it. I do not like some practices that large businesses like walmart does to destroy small business. our family business was demolished by these types of organizations. I agree that globalization is important, however im targetting my market demographic of gen x and feel they prefer honesty and transparency of a company when choosing a product and sometimes honesty is negative. However im no marketing genius however im loyal to small business and support it when i can.

  • Charlie says:

    Good post and speaking of negative did you see the New York Times article about the eyeglass company that has built it’s business by getting negative publicity.

  • The Problem With Crowd Sourcing is Crowds says:

    […] Writing Crowd sourcing sounds good to me, but then I remember, we humans are a difficult bunch. We like complaining more than praising. We post nasty, negative, and aggressively personal comments on blogs. We’re easily swayed by a […]

  • Neil Raphel says:

    I agree with Carolyn that construction suggestions are often more effective than focusing on the negative side of an issue. However, in the area of customer service, Americans are willing to let companies get away with shoddy treatment. We’ve published several books emphasizing the need to focus on customer service. A recent column,, showed how companies operating on the Internet have developed a mechanistic disregard for their customers.

  • carolyn cozad says:

    Negative marketing may sell, but it speaks nothing of social responsibility. If the USA were in a “more perfect” state, I’d say we could afford to drop in some negative marketing tactics, but what we really need is for someone to stand up and help us look for the solutions….positively, not negatively. Isn’t that what got us into this mess in the first place? Think about it, negativism is a downward spiral. Let’s take some responsibility collectively to look beyond personal gain and do something much more productive.

  • Oscar Marroquin says:

    I agree, the negative gets two strangers talking and connecting. This makes sense.. why would you talk about an event that went “as expected?” People generally want to talk about something that sets them apart. Also, in many cases, its a negative customer service experience that causes one stranger to engage another.

  • Andrew McFarland says:

    Great points. In customer service almost all the feedback is negative… and yet there are positives in the midst if we choose to listen. Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Defeat | Pivot Point Solutions

  • Patrick Yi says:

    As an entrepreneur, I’ve always tried to surround myself with positive thinking people to encourage and inspire me. I do notice that there seems to be more people who complain and talk negatively. From a marketing perspective, this is a good reminder not to ignore these people but use the understanding to communicate with them.

  • Derek Rudnak says:

    Although I personally try to always maintain a positive focus—even in casual “airplane” conversations—I must admit that the first example I often give when encouraging clients to engage in social media is to monitor it for negative feedback about their company, products and services.

    Along with enabling them to know what is being said, it also enables them to engage with that disgruntled person…because if you don’t engage, somebody else will, and that “somebody” can occasionally be somebody that is look for ammunition to further their own negative discourse—either specifically about your company/industry or perhaps another unrelated topic. At that point, mitigating the fallout can become extremely difficult…

  • Tom Ray says:

    Negative works. Remember the famous Johnson “Daisy” ad. “We must all love each other…or we must die! Vote Johnson on November 3rd, the stakes are too high!”

    Is it better to say, “Save $500 right now” or “Don’t make a $500 mistake!”. Is it better to say, “replace your old windows and save” or “Your current windows could be costing you thousands!”.

    Negative/Fear works.

  • Bill McConochie says:

    Tim, your comment about complaining as human nature interests me. I just watched a TED talk on the ubiquitous nature of networks. I’ve caught myself bitching about the difficulties of getting published (as a research psychologist). Today I communicated with a prominent colleague who is widely published.
    Rather than bitching about problems or hanging out with others who do, I think I should deliberately immerse myself in social networks of people who are eminently successful, imagine myself being one of them, or becoming one of them, and getting comfortable with that idea and giving up the old and perhaps more familiar and comfortable self-image of the long-suffering idealist.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Bill, thanks, that’s a good point. We may all be complainers at the first instant, but then what? Find a way back up, I suppose, as you suggest. Tim.

  • Roger says:

    Really good call Tim. It’s something that seems obvious when someone points it out but I hadn’t thought of before!

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