Is There an Upside to Negative Feedback?

Blog / Is There an Upside to Negative Feedback?

Is negative feedback always a bad thing? Everyone knows the saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” but is it true? Well, here at Field Group, we recently faced this dilemma head-on.

We were tasked with developing a campaign to remind people that COVID-19 is still out there and that vaccines work. But three and half years after the pandemic began, what’s left to say? One of our healthcare clients ironically stated, “What more can we say except don’t lick doorknobs?” It may sound snarky, but healthcare workers are tired. The public is tired. And we’re in an age of audience apathy. So what more can be said to get people to act?

Well, we were up for meeting that challenge! So we set our pens to paper and got the creative juices flowing. During our brainstorming meeting for this campaign, one team member recalled seeing a social media post from a dad saying he never worried about his immune system until his baby sneezed in his eye… Yikes! Those of us that are parents or have spent time around kids could immediately relate—having had bodily fluids flung at us in various ways. COVID-19 is passed through bodily fluids. And, try as we might, there are some very human behaviors that we can’t eliminate—from babies sneezing to grandparents wanting a hug or kids picking their noses. This reality led us straight to our campaign concept.

One ad, in particular, showed a young child picking his nose. The goal was to get attention and remind the audience that kids will be kids. We warned the client that it was possible that this ad would get some negative feedback. People don’t like to be reminded of things that are… kind of disgusting. But that was the point—to break through and get noticed.

As predicted, the client received a wide range of feedback—some positive, but there was also a fair amount of negative. Ranging from “I don’t want to open the paper and see this while I’m eating my breakfast” to “Some kids may see this and think, maybe if I pick my nose, I’ll get in the newspaper.” The comment that really stood out was, “I would assume you have better things to spend money on, like patient care.”

So, the client asked us to remove the image of the child picking his nose (he’s still there, just not knuckle deep). To be clear, we do not question the client’s decision. We knew this would be a possibility. The image was a bit... cringy. We pushed a limit and had to course correct. No harm done. But it has all led us back to the question about negative feedback—is it always a bad thing?

Our managing director, Nicole Donegan, shared that her very first campaign was a take on the “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” slogan. It was for a local transit system trying to market to encourage teens to take the bus. The campaign slogan was “Friends don’t let friends drive with their parents.” The ads showed an embarrassed teen being dropped off at school in front of her friends. (We could have a whole separate discussion about the optics of that campaign, but all we can say is it was the 90s.) As you can probably guess, there were several complaints about the ads making light of a serious topic and being anti-family values. However, the transit director was elated. In all the years he marketed the benefits of riding the bus, he’d never once had a person mention his ads. His philosophy was that at least people were seeing the message.

Earlier this year, Bud Light was in the news for promoting a transgender spokesperson, resulting in a flurry of backlash against the “wokeness” of the company. Several people suggested the decision was a miscalculation or misstep. But a company like Anheuser Busch likely doesn’t make this kind of decision without serious consideration. So while they may have underestimated the response, they were undoubtedly aware there could be criticism and consumer loss. But there was a goal in mind! Maybe it was to try to relate to a new generation of consumers—with an understanding that it may ostracize many older, more conservative consumers. Maybe it was to cause a stir? Either way, Bud Light has been the topic of more conversations in the last few months than in the last few years combined. Is that a bad thing?

It'll take some time to determine the fallout for Bud Light and how this decision will impact the company in the long run. But for our campaign, we think the message got through—even the secondary message of respecting those offended by removing the image that was offensive to them. As to the question regarding the merits of negative feedback, it seems the answer lies in what you’re trying to accomplish and who you are willing to lose in pursuit of that goal. As companies change and audiences evolve, so will the answers to these questions.