Company News · August 24, 2004

The Power of Negative Advertising: It’s Not Only Useful For Politicians

By Tom Webster

By Larry Rosin, President, Edison Media Research

In the world of politics, the media advisors – the guys who create the ads you see endlessly this time every four years – laugh at those who decry negative ads. They call them “wives”. That’s because, they say, the only people who try to stop a candidate from running negative ads are the wives of the politicians.

So when Entercom and others recently started running ads about satellite radio, it surprised me that members of the radio consulting class started tut-tutting about the mere notion of radio’s engaging in a negative campaign, using such arguments as:

“Consumers will ask ‘what is radio so afraid of?’ and actually become more interested in satellite radio”

“Why would terrestrial radio raise the profile of satellite radio this way?”

“Negative ads are just so…so unseemly. Do we have to resort to this?”

These are the same arguments that politicians’ wives make. And they are as wrong here as they are in Washington political circles.

Forget for a minute how large or small a threat you feel satellite radio poses to terrestrial radio and the particulars of the Entercom campaign. Rather, let’s ask: Is it right, and is it strategically smart, for radio to use its own airwaves to compete? Let’s look at this question on a couple of levels.

First, one must acknowledge until Entercom’s efforts began there was almost nothing negative about satellite radio in the marketplace of ideas. To say that media coverage of satellite radio has been fawning would be an understatement. The typical radio reporter at a daily newspaper tends to be negative about the medium he or she is covering, so these people have loved to bash terrestrial radio using satellite as the club.

Press coverage of satellite has been so positive that even some of the negatives of their product are positioned as benefits. One article lauded XM for voice-tracking so many dayparts!

In addition, XM, on the air, takes endless shots at AM and FM radio. At the very least one can argue that what is good for the goose is good for the gander…or are people arguing that terrestrial radio operators should just sit back and take it?

Let’s analyze each of the three primary arguments made against radio going negative against satellite in more detail.

“Consumers will ask ‘what is radio so afraid of?’ and actually become more interested in satellite Radio as a result”

This argument is extremely tenuous. Look at the political analogy. Again, these political guys keep using negative ads. Do we think this is because they don’t work? If there were any evidence that going negative actually makes people more likely to vote for the other guy do you actually think they would keep making negative ads? As long as the arguments have a basis in fact, the negative advertising is usually very effective.

There is a strong presumption of “overthink” in this argument. Listeners will hear the spots, ask themselves who is placing them, conclude that the only reason one would run such ads is to make one think untrue thoughts, and then think the opposite must be true? Have you yourself ever put so much thought into an ad?

The armchair experts commenting on these commercials clearly haven’t seen either political data or research from the satellite spots. Negative ads work. They have worked for satellite radio too.

“Why would terrestrial radio raise the profile of satellite radio this way?”

There are rules for when to go negative. Clearly, when one’s opposition is so small and insignificant as to not cause alarm, it is crazy to put them on the map with one’s own negative ads. But if one thinks the opponent is a potential threat, and will attempt to raise his or her own profile, it is always better to define that opponent as soon as possible.

The Edison Media Research/Arbitron Internet 12 survey, performed in January of this year, shows that XM is already known to 41% of those over 12, and Sirius to 28%. These numbers will, of course, continue to rise. XM and Sirius are advertising aggressively and enjoying enormous amounts of positive PR. If terrestrial radio thinks it has a case against these competitors, it’s hard to think of a reason not to take it public.

“Negative ads are just so…so unseemly. Do we have to resort to this?”

Everyone is sympathetic to this argument. If only we lived in the idealized world of Miss America contestants where world peace and harmony are the order of the day. Unfortunately, this is business.

For years radio stations have bashed each other around. Comparative spots and promos have been an essential part of radio forever. Some of the radio experts who have decried the Entercom efforts have been the leaders for years in promoting aggressive station-vs.-station combat.

Somehow, internecine radio warfare is perfectly acceptable, but radio dare not compete with a new technology that is clearly competing for the time spent listening of terrestrial radio?

Entercom and others are trying to position the opponent in the minds of the consumer. That is what advertising does. If consumers don’t agree with an ad, they ignore it or override it. No matter what Kerry says about Bush, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican will reject it, and vice-versa. But the ads are for those who haven’t made up their minds yet. The Entercom initiative is their effort to affect the public mind. Again, that is what advertising does.

At the same time, as is the case in the political arena, one cannot win a campaign through negative advertising alone. Parallel positives must be stressed. A political media adviser would tell terrestrial radio to balance any negative ads with concurrent messages stressing the most positive attributes of their product. XM and Sirius have certainly followed this two-pronged approach.

There was a 19th century Irish-American satirist named Finley Peter Dunne whose well-known character Mr. Dooley once said, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” He was right, and business ain’t either. Both political campaigns and business are sometimes nasty and often negative. One must have inherent strengths to win any battle, but sometimes “going negative” is part of a winning strategy, no matter what the “wives” think.

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