The carrot or the stick? Which is more motivating to you? Counting out the vegophiles and sado-masochists, which method works better to get average people changing their habits in the minefield that is public health advertising?

It’s a difficult question, and one that health organisations and marketers have struggled with since time immemorial.

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Negative advertising and positive advertising. These are the two opposing forces that are vying for health marketing supremacy. By those descriptions it would be easy to fall into the trap of seeing this as a battle of good and evil. Not at all.

Political campaigns are the archetypal example of negative advertising working well. While most bemoan the fact that the lead-up to any election is punctuated by a drawn-out and cringe-worthy smear campaign, the fact of the matter is they work. If you need to get people to oppose something (or someone), a negative campaign has its place.

Obviously in the world of advertising, positivity is more often used to peddle wares than negativity. It makes sense that if you’re selling something, extolling its pros and not mentioning its cons, you’re far more likely to sell an item than if you went on a flat-out smear campaign against your competition.

Health advertising is an odd case. The gap in marketing strategy between political smear campaigns and the purest capitalist consumerism is quite a wide one, and while there are certainly elements of pure consumerism within the health industry, things like public service announcements don’t really appear to fall anywhere on that scale at all.

So for those in the health industry, how do you know how to go about getting your message through to consumers in the most clear and effective way possible? Let’s start by looking at health marketing through both positive and negative lenses.

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An example: A breakfast cereal is supposedly a good source of energy with which to start your day. It might be some sort of wheat biscuit. It might be some sort of flake of corn. It could be bubbled rice. The marketing team come up with a positive slogan for it: “Kick life’s bum!” They also come up with a negative slogan: “Don’t miss the chance to kick life’s bum!” The message is essentially the same, it’s just the framing of the message that’s changed.

Positive framing in this form is simply the promotion of something that is desirable. High energy to kick life’s bum! And this type of negative framing just bemoans the lack of the desirable thing.

But there is another side to the coin. What if this cereal is a great way to lower cholesterol? The subject matter of this message – cholesterol – isn’t exactly desirable. The positive slogan for this might be something as simple as “lower your cholesterol!” The negative framing might be “Don’t pass up the chance to lower your cholesterol!”

Interestingly, when people are faced with marketing dealing in the desirable – cereal that has you kicking life’s bum, gym memberships that will have you sprinting up those stairs, yoga pants that will have your foot behind your head in no time – they prefer the positive framing. You go kick life’s bum at the top of those stairs with your leg behind your ear, tiger!

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But when consumers are faced with marketing that deals in something undesirable – patches to quit smoking, sugar-free chocolate for diabetes control, footwear that aids severe back pain – the consensus is that they’d rather it framed in a negative way. “Don’t hesitate to lower your sugar intake!”

While a bible-sized book could be written on the semantics relating to positive and negative framing, it’s as simple as either inducing confidence or fear. By wording positive outcomes in a positive manner and negative outcomes in a negative manner, you allow the audience to be more confident with the information they’re receiving, and with how to use it. By mixing the positives and negatives, you also mix the message, making it a lot less effective.

Sell the benefits and highlight the dangers. Put simply, that is how you should attack health marketing. In reality, we’re all carnal beasts. We need food, we don’t want to be food. Play to those carnal instincts. Signals of ‘danger’ and ‘food’ are going to be far more powerful than signals of ‘no danger’ and ‘no food’.

If you remember that, your health marketing will soon be all looking positive.

Even when it’s not.