Embracing negativity in your content

There’s never been a better time to write a blog on negativity in your content. After an absolute shitter of a year (and with the end not really in sight) it’s forced so many of us to deal with a torrent of not-very-nice emotions while we all drag ourselves through a global pandemic.

And for so many people, the influx of negative emotions (fear, uncertainty, worry, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, lack of energy) has been scary in itself. What the hell are all these feelings that we’ve been feeling? We don’t like them, we want to bypass them and we want to return to how things were before.

Duh-da-da-daaaaah…in comes shiny, happy marketing on its noble steed, ready to whisk you away from all those HORRIBLE feelings and make everything BETTER. Except that it doesn’t. Well, temporarily it does. But that’s the rub, it’s only temporary. Or worse, in comes scary marketing with his scythe telling you to act now or you’ll be f***ed, basically, and your life will be over.

In the immortalised words of Cher Horowitz: “Ewwwwww, as IF!”

So we’ve reached a point with marketing where you’re either drowning in happy or frantically lapping up scary, which is leaving consumers in a perpetual state of confusion. And exhaustion.

Neither of these states creates a genuine connection for the consumer.

So what about the state in the middle?

This brilliant New York Times article articulated what so many of us were feeling “in-between” all those other feelings. Languishing. Sounds underwhelming, doesn’t it? Not really feeling any of the extreme feelings that so much marketing relies on, but being somewhere in between. Unmotivated. Lost. Directionless. Useless. Self-esteem hitting, motivation-ending, long-lasting languishing.

It’s almost like we’ve reached a peak awakening where, suddenly, there is no shortcut to all of this. These feelings, this permanent dislodging from our normal, upbeat, “things will get better” attitude has left a lot of us in shock and our resilience and reserves of will power tested to their very limits. And suddenly, the old marketing tactics just aren’t hitting the same. People are TIRED.

“What’s happened with the pandemic is that we’ve got into a cycle of repetition for a general message or tone, which is “being afraid”. What ends up happening is that we become bored and used to the message, so we switch off because we need to preserve our own wellbeing,” says Dr Paul Harrison, Deputy director and marketing lead in the Deakin Business School MBA programme, director of The Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing and a senior lecturer at Deakin University.

Adam Grant described all of this as the “emotional long-haul” of the pandemic in his New York Times article. And in this emotional long-haul, is where we can find the ability to take languishing negativity and use it effectively rather than by-pass it or ignore it all-together. After all, shouldn’t your marketing be in it for the long-haul too?

If you’ve ever stepped into a therapist’s room you’ll know that, sadly, we don’t just experience positive emotions as humans. Neither do we solely experience bad emotions either, we are a blend of all.

So, our questions are these. Why can’t we start showing up more as this whole emotional picture in our marketing? Why, if this is the most dominant emotion of the last two years, are we not using it more within our marketing?

“I think we should stay away from negative connotations.” “Let’s just focus on the positives.” “Quick, let’s get people while they’re scared.” “Let’s create a sense of urgency.” “I don’t want to say anything too controversial.”

Same old, same old. People want the real deal these days. They want a brand that reflects reality; warts and all. And that reality contains a whole heap of languishing emotions. Consider the languishing emotions in marketing as more of a warm, comforting bowl of soup (more on this later…) or a long-awaited hug from a loved one when you’re feeling rubbish.

They’re not the BLOWN away happy feelings, nor are they the stupefied by fear ones. They’re the emotions in the middle that don’t do so much frantic driving, but what they do is create wonderful bonds slowly and with trust.

Let’s not rush this shit.

Why are we afraid of the emotions in the middle?

It’s a weird one. Why is there such a tendency in marketing to steer away from the emotions that most people are actually feeling? When did fear become the only acceptable negative emotion to use? What is it that we’re scared of?

Well, partly, it’s because we can’t measure them. Well, we can, but they look god-awful compared to “ecstatically happy” or “paralysed with fear” marketing campaigns. When your boss is screaming at you for the latest results and asking “why aren’t they working?”, resorting to those quick wins is incredibly tempting.

But, and there’s always a but, it doesn’t mean you need to start baring your soul and doing it an “all laid bare” way. Negativity in your content doesn’t have to look like emotional venting.

There’s a beautiful balance to be had when you hit the sweet spot in the middle. And these emotions are THE most amazing driver for showing empathy with your customers and that translating into brand loyalty.

I’ve always loved this Heinz soup advert. It addresses all the languishing emotions of winter experiences – tired, wet, cold, wanting to be home doing nothing. Empathy done just right. And what does it do? It makes me think “I really want to be curled up with some Heinz soup right now!” It evokes all those memories in me of being poorly as a child and being brought a bowl of cream of tomato soup by my mum.

Which links wonderfully into this quote from Gary V: “What’s the ROI of your mother?” And it sums up the ridiculous tendency we have in marketing to make everything about “better” “faster” or “scarier” in order for us to take action. We don’t.

Those languishing emotions and periods in life aren’t where we make the most progress, they’re not where we shout about amazing successes but they are where we can forge supportive and strong bonds that get us through and make us feel warmer and fuzzier.

In content creation we need to GO THERE. And by go there, I mean we really need to feel our customer’s pain point for them with genuine empathy and then show them the solution without being drenched in pretend happiness or terrified into decisions.

How will you use languishing emotions in your marketing?

So how are you going to take forward a commitment to using more negativity in your content? Where can you see an opportunity to use radical empathy and not link it to shiny-happy or seriously-scary?
Try it, and let us know what happens.