We're still talking about it, so it must have worked: Why negative reactions =/= positive brand impact
There’s great advertising, there’s okay advertising, and there’s bad advertising. Only two of those categories get talked about after the fact, and one of them gets a lot more attention from average viewers than the other.
An advertisement (or an entire campaign) can be deemed “bad” based entirely on its reception. After all, advertisements are meant to be received by the public. The ideal response is that the advertisement generates positive feelings for the brand, people share it, people talk about it, and people love the company the advertisement represents.
What often happens when advertising goes “bad,” (with hare-brained celebrity jokes, over-zealous promise making and bullying, or just... creepiness) looks the same as what happens with good advertising. People share and talk about it.
The key difference is that people don’t like it.
At a time when the word “media” is forcing itself on “social” more than ever, shares, comments, and other interactions are ironically considered positive impact. And the fallacy that “if we’re still talking about it, it worked” is alive and well.
In fact though, advertising received poorly by the public fundamentally failed to "work."
The thing is, people share superstitious chain mail about clowns stabbing you in the night if you don’t reshare, or stories about men who profess their love for their girlfriends “5eva” only after said girlfriend falls in a ditch or something. They also share bad advertisements.
But regardless of how many shares your “viral” ad gets, if people are responding negatively, they are no more endeared to your brand than they were before seeing the ad.
Consumer sentiment can be positive or negative. Let's use numbers - if you, as a marketing intern, post something to Facebook that gets 12 positive comments and 15 negative comments, you essentially have 12+(-15), which equals -3, NOT +27.
Of course, when marketing a product, there are other things to consider. If someone shares your post, and a third person who until now didn't know your company existed sees the post and actually likes your brand, that can drive a conversion, right? Maybe.
The problem is that viewing things from that angle gets extremely fuzzy extremely fast, and people - online as well as off - influence one another. Relying on the chance that someone will influence another person to positively react to your brand based on a message that others have reacted negatively to is unwise. The outcomes are not clear enough to think everything will be fine in that scenario.
In order to get a complete picture, you'd have to track absolutely every instance of discussion and figure out exactly how that translates into success (sales and positive sentiment) or failure (negative sentiment or lost prospects). To put it simply, that's almost impossible.
Google finding a way to track our eyeballs in response to print ads will happen before we are able to pull apart individual influence and the psychology of individual consumers. Besides that, it simply isn't worth the time, when a positive reception would obviate this problem.
There's also the issue of what constitutes "positive" or "negative" sentiment, and that discussion (wherein we would likely discuss why social media marketing is such a plate of spaghetti in the first place) is for another day.
In the end, the only person who's actually gratified by the buzz accrued by a bad advertisement is the guy who illuminates the thread with the insight "we're still talking, so it worked."