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Does negative advertising really work? Microsoft seems to think so

Do negative advertising campaigns really work? As Microsoft ramps up the attacks on Google, and Samsung goes head-to-head with Apple, will the whole tech world be drawn into a dirty war?
March 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.