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When Negatives Are Positives

There’s a popular myth about messaging – keep your messages positive for maximum impact. This same myth gets wrapped up in most corporations outright avoidance of anything overtly competitive, and internal “positivity” movements which spurn any negative phrasing.

Researchers (messaging is as much a science as an art) have established that we are either better at detecting or remembering words that carry negative meaning than those that are positive. That our brains potentially respond more strongly to negative emotional cues than to positive ones. Here’s an example from recent economic battle cries:

Drive Growth vs. End The Recession

Or, as given in a recent article

Peace Now vs. Stop the War

The words War and Recession may capture our attention faster and with more emotion than the alternatives.

There are plenty of examples across the Tech industry of this at play. Look at what did with it’s anti-software movement – and graphical representation. Rather than message “go SaaS” with a big check-box, they used a stop symbol with software through the middle. The added twist is they drove clear differentiation about what they were, by speaking to what they weren’t. Negative messages and frames often draw a cleaner line than positive.


Take the often messaged word, “Open”. It’s loaded with meaning – open source, standards-based, open API, free, penguin. Any number of technology audiences interpret it in any number of ways. It’s used by so many, it can’t be “owned”. Rather than a message, it’s become a confusing descriptor.

Messengers and marketers would be better off focusing here on what they aren’t.

Open vs. Zero Lock-in

Open vs. Non Proprietary

The messaging rule here is clear – don’t shy away from messaging the negative if you expect a positive outcome.

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