Negative advertising: Brand ID or bad idea?

TRAVERSE CITY – "To attack a rival is never good advertising. . . It looks unfair, not sporty." That wisdom comes from industry pioneer Claude Hopkins, who wrote the classic book, "Scientific Advertising."

Not sporty? Maybe so, but does it work? Negative advertising certainly works for some politicians, major computer manufacturers, and cell phone companies, to name a few, or else none of them would be spending billions to poke fun and even insult each other. But does it work for companies selling more local and regional products and services?

"All businesses do have an identity, whether they plan for that or not," said Emily Mitchell, partner in Nielsen Design Group, a Traverse City communications and graphic design firm that specializes in helping clients plan for and build a corporate identity. "Negative advertising can be a sign that a business or company is not in control of that."

In one local example, radio ads using a similar group of words to communicate the service goals of two very different financial businesses have raised some eyebrows.

For seven years, Crest Financial and its owners, the husband and wife team of Dan and Linda Giroux, have specialized in helping people buy a house, even when they may not qualify for conventional mortgages.

"In the consumer's eyes, we do difficult loans," said Dan Giroux. "Because of the credit problems many people do have, most of our loans fall under the category of non-conforming."

Crest Financial has offices in Traverse City, Escanaba, and Marquette. A new office in Munising opened Oct. 20. This ability to help close real estate deals for a wide variety of clients has given rise to the catchy "Can-do Dan Giroux" slogan the company uses on billboards and in radio ads. In 2004, the company trademarked it.

Down the street, across town and in 22 other offices in the region, Northwestern Bank says it wants potential customers to know that whatever service they ask for, the answer will hopefully be, "I can do that!" Northwestern Marketing Director Doug Zernow said the line was developed in-house nearly three years ago, and it means more to the bank than a simple jingle.

"We really want to communicate that it's not an advertising slogan or campaign," Zernow said. "It's who we are. It's not just those words that are key, it's how we've changed the culture of our institution so that every employee is focused on the same thing."

On WTCM, Northwestern Bank's radio spots are saturated with the "I can do that!" line. On the same station, Crest Financial's newest spots are in interview format, with Can-Do Dan Giroux answering each question about lending, mortgages, and the application process with the words, "Yes, I can do that."

Both companies say they are not concerned about confusing listeners, and both also say they will continue to use their taglines, though there are other questions.

"You know what they say: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," said Linda Giroux. "The disappointing thing about all this it that it can cause hard feelings between businesses."

"I absolutely assure you that we had no thought of what they were doing on the radio when we came up with that," said Zernow, of the "I can do that!" line. He has said that some bank employees have been upset by Crest Financial's interview-style ad.

"Of course, the reason that he uses that campaign is that it works for him," Zernow said. "But we're so different. It's almost like we're in two different businesses."

Another area where radio ad competition has been heated is between car dealerships. Grand Traverse Auto has been running radio spots poking fun at car dealers who "holler" at their audience, while Bill Marsh's radio strategy has been more sedate and focused at the economy-minded shopper.

"(Negative advertising) can leave a sour taste in the mouth of the public," said Mike Kent of Mike Kent Communications, a marketing and public relations firm in Traverse City that counts Bill Marsh as one of its clients. "It doesn't answer the question, 'Where do you stand on your own?' With Marsh, we have always taken that stance. We don't do negative ad or attack ads or yell because that's not who we are."

Kent said radio may lend itself to "slash and burn" advertising messages because it is a more one-dimensional medium than TV and because it draws advertisers who feel a need to exert an immediate reaction from the marketplace.

Bill Chichester, owner of Williams Chevrolet and Williams Kia, as well as the Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge dealership in Benzonia, said he's heard the Grand Traverse Auto ads on the radio, and says he likes the atmosphere of friendly competition, even if his own ads are the ones targeted.

"I like it. That in itself is entertaining. As for our ads, there's a lot of enthusiasm when you buy a new car, because most people don't do it that often. And I think that's conveyed in our radio ads. It's all good-natured."

Kent says negative advertising can be, "a very touchy area to get into."

If we could ask him, Hopkins would probably agree. He died in 1932, and so never heard the lines, "I'm a Mac. And I'm a PC," "Cingular. With the least dropped calls," nor Dick DeVos' "Good try and thank you but it's time to move on," or Gov. Jennifer Granholm's "Where does he think the Governor's office should be? The Cayman Islands?" In his day, Hopkins was busy pitching the benefits of Van Camp's Pork and Beans, Bissell sweepers, Schlitz beer and Palmolive soap.

So no, Hopkins never heard those negative campaigns. But the grandfather of advertising left us with this advice: "The product itself should be its own best salesman. Not the product alone, but the product plus a mental impression, and atmosphere, which you place around it." BN