Does negative advertising really work? Microsoft seems to think so

by: Simon HillMarch 22, 2013


You know when you see those negative ad campaigns that try to point out why a tech product isn’t good enough, or how a tech company is secretly shafting you behind your back? What do you think when you see ads like that? Do they inspire any goodwill for the advertiser, or is it all just about inspiring disdain for the target?

Smear campaigns highlighting product and service problems are becoming more common in the tech world. The old classic selective comparison, where you show a side-by-side with your main competitor and only list things that make your product look better has given way to seriously snide digs and hypocritical whining. It seems like everyone is at it now, but does it actually work?

From politics to tech

The negative advertising campaign has been a feature of politics for decades. A 2005 study entitled “Does negative advertising work?” found that negative advertisements tend to include more information than positive ads, that they are more memorable, they tend to be creative and humorous, and they are newsworthy in themselves so they generate more publicity. Most importantly, it found that negative ads improved the standing of the attacker and decreased the standing of the victim at the polls.

One of the most interesting observations in the report came from Republican consultant Roger Stone who said, “Voters will tell you in focus groups that they don’t like negative ads, but they retain the information so much better than the positive ones. The point is, people like dirty laundry. Why do tabloids sell?”

Does the same argument hold true for the tech world? Many of the big players seem to think so. For politics it may be relatively easy to measure the impact of a negative ad, but it’s much tougher to quantify in tech.

Microsoft’s hate campaign

One of the biggest proponents of negative advertising right now seems to be Microsoft. The Scroogled campaign has attacked Google for returning paid-for results in Google Shopping. It also attacked Gmail stating that “Google goes through every Gmail that’s sent or received, looking for keywords so they can target Gmail users with paid ads. And there’s no way to opt out of this invasion of your privacy.”


The Gmail one is an interesting distinction because Microsoft is complaining that Google scans your incoming and outgoing emails in order to serve targeted ads. The whole thing is automated, it’s not like there’s a team of Google employees reading your personal missives. Microsoft admits that Outlook scans your emails as well; the difference is it doesn’t use the information to serve you ads – it “only scans the contents of your email to help protect you…”

Hypocrisy aside, doesn’t Microsoft spending millions of dollars on negative advertising smack of desperation? The company and its outspoken CEO, Ballmer, has always hated Android, despite doing the rounds on licensing deals to rake in major profits from the platform. Who can forget classic attacks such as this from 2008 where Ballmer criticizes Google’s lack of a business model (that worked out well), or his claim that Android is wild and uncontrolled, and of course the assertion that you need to be a computer scientist to use an Android phone. Then there was hilariously disastrous #DroidRage campaign.

The bottom line problem for me is that every time I see a negative ad from Microsoft this picture pops up in my head and I just think douchebag.

Steve Ballmer Announced Windows Has Cloud-Storage "Under-Control"

Steve Ballmer Announced Windows Has Cloud-Storage “Under-Control”

Google is bad at this

For the most part Google just releases boring statements and refuses to get drawn into the argument. It’s rare that you see Google retaliate with a negative ad of its own, but that might be because the company isn’t very good at it. One memorable attempt by Motorola Mobility to criticize the Apple Maps app was pretty embarrassing because it used a debatable address.

In general, Google avoids negative ads, as explained in this Myth Busting post on its public policy blog.

Apple started it, now Samsung is taking over

One of the most memorable negative ad campaigns ever was the “I’m a Mac” and “I’m a PC” bit with a hip, young Apple convert facing off against a dorky, old PC guy. Those ads were clever, they were funny, and they appealed to people. Part of the reason they worked was that Apple could play the underdog card and be the young upstart offering a better way, facing off against the old incumbent, Microsoft.


Nowadays Apple’s ads are positive and tend to focus on the features of its products. If they weren’t so smug and self-satisfied it might be possible to appreciate them. Funnily enough, Samsung has now started attacking Apple with comical digs in a similar vein to Apple’s old campaigns. The difference now is that Apple is the fat, lazy incumbent and Samsung is the underdog. The thing is, the idea that a company with marketing muscle and pockets as deep as Samsung is an underdog doesn’t really hold water.

It seems to be working, though; the Samsung anti-Apple ads are pretty popular.

Can you afford not to be negative?

If there’s a real dirty war in tech then does it mean that everyone has to be dragged in? It was amusing to see LG and HTC trolling the Galaxy S4 launch event. Even Apple’s Phil Schiller started trash talking, although he managed to get it wrong by repeating an erroneous rumor that the S4 would ship with a year-old version of Android when, in fact, it won’t. You can see the fear in Samsung’s competitors when they grasp at straws like this, but then the South Korean giant is threatening to hoover up a monster share of the market yet again this year.

LG Times Square

If you’re going to trash an opponent you have to get it right, as Amazon discovered when it had to pull the Kindle Fire HD vs iPad mini campaign from its front page because it was inaccurate (the iPad mini does have stereo speakers).

Fanning the flames of a fanboy war

Companies command an amazing level of loyalty nowadays and you’ll see their self-proclaimed defenders ride into battle in blog comments and on forums on a daily basis. The companies themselves often don’t need to get their hands dirty. Responses like this one from Apple fans to Samsung’s Galaxy S3 vs iPhone 5 campaign can go viral in an instant. The real purpose of negative advertising isn’t to arm the fanboy armies, though, it’s to knock fence sitters down onto your side and make them question your competitors. The tech war is far from over, so we can expect to see a lot of negative ad campaigns in the next few months and years.

What do you think? Does negative advertising work? Would you like to see more, or do you think companies should focus on the positives of their own products? Got a favorite negative ad? Post a comment and share.

  • RarestName

    Hate campaigns just make the companies look like jerks.

  • jose Mendoza

    looks at ballmer’s face… that does not look like the guy has control over himself.

    • Jazli Aziz

      I’ve always hated his face. Makes me want to punch him.

      • staadt

        you should be grateful that he’s not your boss.
        else you’ll want to punch him everyday

  • Come back Bill Gates

    • deepen03

      i’ve been saying this for years.. he needs to come back

  • MasterMuffin

    Every company is “evil”, just trying to make as much profit as they can. At least they aren’t sabotaging factories of other companies!

  • Guest

    Steve Ballmer is a little child and Windows 8/Windows phone looks like a Blocks set.

    • deepen03

      okay Windows 8 modernUI does.. the actual desktop OS is AMAZING.

  • Bone

    They say there’s no such think as bad press, but’s it actually depends on the reputation. You see Samsung never was a self-proclaimed VIP company so the bad press it got off the $1B verdict helped sell MORE devices than before all news channels chanted “Samsung”. Apple stock on the other quickly fell upon bad news of purple camera, scratched devices and map-gate, because they failed to deliver on the ‘quality uncompromised’ promise.

    On the same analogy, I don’t think Google is actually a VIP company, so any bad press it gets will likely work in it’s favor, like more ppl. know and excited about Google Glass now after privacy concerns made headlines, and Scroogled is only going keep the company name in the conversation, which is good, unlike the bad press on Vista got, which clearly put Microsoft on the slide.

    • Nanpon Gambo

      It wasn’t the $1B verdict that made Samsung to sell, they made great products. That wasn’t also the reason why Apple stocks dropped. That purple camera device saw tremendous sales. No matter how much you like android, some peeps will just still have to use iOS, Windows, Simbian etc. That’s how it works. The whole world must not converge on android.

  • Key Lime 3.14

    Um, how is the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer (Samsung) running the world’s most popular operating system (Android) an underdog?

    It seems that Samsung owners have become unlikable parodies of the Apple fanboys they like to mock.

  • williamworlde

    The masses are fickle – and stupid! That’s why companies and government can, and will, repeatedly take advantage of our gullibility. It’s – sadly – human nature.

    Negative advertising works whether a product or human (politician) is being sold for the very same reason: People like dirty laundry. Wars and crime and death and despair sell “newspapers”, not good news.

    Few people take the time to examine anything placed before them and
    usually consume whatever or everything that is. I guess that’s why we
    are called “consumers”.

    Samsung apparently increased its sales because it lambasted Apple (my oversimplification). You – AA – lambast all things Apple and Windows all the time. That’s why your readers come here; they are buying what you’re selling. Keep it coming.

    I just want one mega-company and one ethnic group to rule the world.
    Then we’d have no more competition and no more wars and we can all be
    satisfied using the same products and looking alike!

    It’s the weekend. I’m LMAO! Hmmm…..

  • CrAppleJinxer

    It all depends on if the negative anti-competitive Ad campaigns are valid or not. But they do more polarization than damage to the victim. Take HTC….. not a big company, but since Apple sued them, they are actually doing better. The people that understand Apple’s anti-competitive campaign and were either Apple fans or neutral, turned into Apple haters. As did a huge portion of People when Apple won an undeserved 1.3 Billion from Samsung. Apple lost not only potential sales, but even lost some hardcore fans for being so petty and anti-competitive. Obviously Samsung gained more than they lost and now even the judge cut that damage in half!

    HTC…. is now a name that’s nearly as recognizable as Apple now and they really did prove underdogs are still Winners. Now we have Microsoft up to the same kind of no good anti-competitive behavior. There is a difference between being like Apple or SAMSUNG using negative Ad campaigns against your competition and using “iSue” or “Embrace Extend Extinguish” behind their back FUD and back pocket spending to sway Blogger and Review sites online.

    Microsoft is notoriously the most degenerate SOB’s on the Planet. One look at Balmer in that pic above and we all remember his now Infamous “I’m Going to F***ing Kill Google, Monkey Dancing, Chair Throwing and the “”VISTA”” becomes quite clear as Foghorn is now Blasting his “Scrooged” being bounced right back at him like his $500 Dollars??? for iPhones!!! …..that Bozo will never learn to just keep his mouth shut and use some Antiperspirant, instead of Anti-competitive FUD and Rhetoric!!!

  • Whether it works or not, when the company is Microsoft and they are complaining about Google, that douchebag face also comes to my mind.

    Microsoft had been a step behind since the beginning of this new era (of cloud computing, if you might say so). Microsoft wanted people, including students, to buy Office suite while Google offered it for free and accessible from anywhere. Google acquired and improved Android so much that Windows Phone now lags far behind it. Microsoft is definitely jealous of Google even though they followed Google’s path and brought the office suite to cloud.

    And now all they’re doing is telling people that Google is bad. Seriously, even if Google has some serious privacy concerns, I don’t appreciate it coming from a rival company. When a human rights organization talks about Google’s policies, it’s acceptable. When Microsoft does so, it’s not. Because in the end, Microsoft is just trying to promote its products, not make public awareness.

    It’s a shame that such unprofessionalism coming from Microsoft’s shameless marketing in a series. Go home Microsoft. You’re drunk. You thought you’d always sell Windows and Office in crappy DVD box. And Google changed all that making our life more easier. Now you’re complaining about Google. Bitches.