Negative brand association

Watching news videos on the bbc website. One is on child prostitution (every father’s nightmare) in the US. I won’t go into the details. The video is preceeded by a commercial for HSBC.

It reminded me of a breaking news report on a TV news channel that I saw not that long ago. The story was about a suicide bombing in Iraq that had resulted in over 100 deaths. The ad on the ticker across the bottom of the screen was for Cathay Pacific.

Surely these brands would be better off not being associated with such horrific stories and images of cruelty, depravation, slavery, carnage and murder? Stories that show the worst possible side of the human race. Or perhaps HSBC deliberately positions the commercials before such stories because the commercial projects the image of good people. This is the sort of ‘out of the box’ advice that a creative agency might give.

Is there any scientific evidence to say these associations have a negative impact on the brand?


10 thoughts on “Negative brand association

  1. Marcus,

    I don’t know of any scientific evidence associating negative impact on the brand. But your argument is highly logical. However, at my company we have a saying: “The opposite is also true.” For example, if there are carnivores, there are vegans, if there are techies there are luddites. So, the question may be, Is there a way for brands to profit from such “opportunities?”

    I’m not saying that these aren’t tragic occurrences, but what if specific brands could align with specific “bad news,” so as to support their position. Horrific stories are emotional drivers, and if these emotions line up with the brand’s strategic intent then there is an opportunity. (e.g.: An insurance company aligning with a natural disaster, The U.S. army buying time during Iraq suicide bombings.)

    Mark Gallagher
    Brand Expressionist®


    1. Hey Mark

      Thanks for your reply.

      Whilst I do think there is some mileage in your ‘opposite is also true’ argument, I think it needs to be thought through to ensure there are no negative associations with the brand.

      HSBC is trying to create awareness using a traditional one-size-fits-all advertising approach. Personally, I think it’s a complete waste of money but that’s another discussion.

      I don’t think seeing the HSBC ad before a negative/depressing/horrific story will determine whether or not consumers switch banks – likewise, seeing the HSBC ad before a positive/heart warming/beautiful story isn’t going to make them switch banks either.

      But I do think that over time the model they are using – trying to position the product/service in the consumers mind – will backfire.

      Your examples are thought provoking and controversial. Personally, looking at your 2 examples, I don’t think the US Army would do itself any favours advertising for recruits after a film about suicide bombings that are every soldiers nightmare scenario and very difficult to defend against.

      But I do think that insurance co’s could advertise a specific product – house insurance, flood insurance etc after a hurricane/typhoon story. But that would require a move away from positioning strategies. It will happen, but the traditional ad agencies will fight it all the way!


  2. I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve often been struck by these odd juxtapositions. I often think media organizations should impose a “no ad” policy on content that goes past a certain level of “seriousness” (i.e. horror / death / broad public impact).

    But who would make the call on what the threshold would be? Don’t know, but I certainly wouldn’t want that job.

    Here’s a different sort of juxtaposition where the “sponsor” Burger King got burned by content that they associated themselves too closely with:


    1. Hi Dennis

      Thanks for your comments.

      I suspect that the media agency buys as many slots as possible to get the cheapest rate. They are not interested in the placement and the client probably doesn’t know any better so if lack of control on placement is sacrificed for another percentage point discount, then bring it on.

      I think the call should be made by the agency but it will never happen. However an independent brand consultant, that is not part of or tied to an agency and has the clients interests at heart, can also make the call.

      The BK story is incredible although very American, in terms of content. But what got my attention was this line “The (BK) sandwich has 19 Weight Watchers points, or just under the average daily goal. Adding fries and a small shake would take you up to 45 points, or more than the average woman should consume in two days. Laughing yet?” Whoa!!


  3. Marcus,

    Your argument provides a huge opportunity for both buyer and seller to create more value. Unfortunately, both those that buy and sell advertising are clinging onto a failed business model. Once big media understands that they are in the “media delivery” business, instead of the “television” business, they can adapt.

    As you pointed out context could be the key. Contextual media sales would be huge. The technology exists to do live-time ad placement based on a show’s specific content. News and sports are two areas that would benefit greatly. Imagine localized contextual ads based on whether the home team is up or down. The same brand might even have a portfolio of ads that can be drawn from depending on live-time content.

    Regarding the U.S. Army buying time during Iraq suicide bombings, perhaps the U.S. Air Force would have been a more logical example.


    Mark Gallagher
    Brand Expressionist®


  4. Hello!

    I reckon ad placement can definitely make an impact and when it comes to programmed content as it’s a lot easier to control/choose what kind of programs (programmes?) you want your company to be associated with. But in terms of news channels, I suppose ‘choosing’ your slots is not as clear cut as what goes on air is often determined by the news/issues of the day/the moment, etc. In these cases I reckon the media buyers are going for viewership figures more than anything else.

    Personally, I don’t think there should be advertising in news-type media, simply because it’s the news and the news organizations shouldn’t be tainted with the potential biasness of advertising sales/figures. Alas, it’s more about business and making money, but that’s a whole story altogether 🙂

    – Nadiah


  5. Absolutely, the good old fashioned CPM ‘metric’. Volume is king. Trouble is, consumers blank it all out!
    I on’t believe anyone is going to change bank based on a commercial. Especially here in Malaysia where I would rather put my head in a blender than try to open a bank account!


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