On the Importance of Negativity

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer… his unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden,” – Viktor Frankl


H. R. Giger – Birth Machine, 1967

I’ve always been fascinated by H. R. Giger’s ‘Birth Machine’. The bullets that carry life have always been a strong reminder that to construct or build something new, something else needs to be destroyed. A negative force is needed for a positive to arise or to awaken. As designing something new often requires violence, sacrifices, annihilation or suffering.

As morbid and depressing it may seem to some, it carries however profound truth. Whether we talk about new ideas, new civilizations throughout history, or all organic life on earth in general. Or as Victor Frankl shows us in the opening line, it can help us in finding meaning and direction in life. Nor shouldn’t it be a point of discussion anymore to realise that great art, if not some of the best and most interesting, has been originated out of negative or adverse motivations, be it depression, anger, hatred or fear. There’s too many examples to name here, with Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ (1893) being one of the best and most known ones. And when you read ‘Things The Grandchildren Should Know’ (2009) you immediately understand where Mark O. Everett’s inspiration and incentives for Eels’ music have come from; to give a less evident example.

In ‘Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy’ (2009), Eric Wilson argues our current culture is obsessed with happiness, the dogma of pursuing it, and the naivety that happiness is the sole key to be able to live the most fulfilling and meaningful life. On the contrary, he states, we need a certain focus on negative thoughts and feelings so they give us a better and deeper understanding of life and ourselves. By focussing on both the good and the bad, we stay in a much more healthy relationship with the real world and are in a better position on how to thrive in it. He writes:

“Our task somewhat is to stay strong in the middle […] We want to find the secret interdependence between and among things, the untold concord covertly holding together the cosmos. We want, for once, to know that our pain will yield us a vision of rugged and vital unity unavailable to those who live only for mere tranquility, the shallow place.”

For once, it seems, staying in the middle is the least shallow place you can be in. For it provides us with a dual perspective from both ends. The truth always lies in the middle and by acknowledging all going on that is positive in this world, as well as by focussing on all that is negative and wrong, a more accurate picture starts to show itself.  In that sense the British poet Lord Byron was right when we once wrote: “… melancholy is a fearful gift. What is it but the telescope of truth?

And it was the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne who argued that those people who have given death more contemplated thought during their lives are the ones who are able to cope with it much better. He suggested that those people who lived in the constant awareness that life might end any time, are also the people who will die resigned and reconciled, “patiently and tranquilly”.

While we now have seen the importance of negativity in the quest for the meaning of life as well as in the creation of the arts, can we apply this thinking for commercial advantages as well? And if so, how would we use it wisely?

Dom Boyd (adam&eve/DDB) spoke at an APG event in November last year on the importance of provoking primitive emotions and intensity in order for great and influential ideas or stories to happen. He opened and ended the talk with Justice’s ‘Stress’ music video which portraits and emphasises brutal violence, anger and drastic destruction. To him, and I agree, a video as such has all the perfect ingredients for an amazing and intriguing story to take place. It may have been a coincidence, but when he showed a periodic table on empathy and the emotions for planners to connect with, the majority of them are to be labelled into the group of negative ones.


Dom Boyd – Empathy Table, 2014

Repressed, disgust, agony, guilt, lonely, defiant …  All wonderful and compelling conversation starters, no doubt.

But how can planning help here? If we are to understand the profound effect it has on a certain truth and the origin of beautiful arts, how can we master something negative and turn that into a commercial advantage?

Let it be clear I’m not talking about having a creative execution that communicates negativity. Apart from provoking charity work such as Save The Children’s “No Child Left Behind” tagline or the St John Ambulance work, it would be a hard thing to do commercially and effectively.

As in the arts, I want to focus on the motivations and why a certain piece was created, whether the end execution turned into something beautiful or something grotesque, for a wider audience to judge. Can strategy be motivated by negative emotions, for creativity to be liberated?

A famous case is Wieden + Kennedy’s 2005 APG paper for Honda “Hate doesn’t always suck ass”. It demonstrates how they were able to turn hate into a force of good: ‘Positive Hate’. The paper presents how they rebranded Honda as the company that hated the current automotive landscape and engineering, and decided to manufacture their own cars and parts against that current standard (e.g. “the diesel engine from the company that hated diesel engines”). In this paper Stuart Smith wrote:

“Wrong is right. We liked the idea of a strategy about hate. We thought it would disarm. Get us noticed. Provoke thought. Hate felt conspicuous. At school, we’re often told off for using the word. We liked the idea of bringing hate and positivity together even more. Like potassium and water, or Den and Angie, we felt that mixing the two would create a combustible reaction. Above all, we liked the idea of positive hate, because it sounded wrong.”

But maybe ‘hate’ is the most obvious of all. In the end, almost any challenger brand mindset has a certain hate for the status quo of its category. Its motivations to do things differently often derive from a certain dissatisfaction and resentment, combined with a commercial market opportunity it has found.

What about a strategy build on fear, cynicism, disgust, betrayal, or even depression? Again, charity work excluded from this. Can we persuade a brand to be motivated based on such negative emotions in order to both tell a compelling story people want to listen to, and have a commercial impact for the business? While one of the biggest criticism upon our industry is the fact we constantly try to spread cheap and blunt happiness, would we be able to put ourselves in a much more humble position if we would pursue exactly the opposite?

Human insights such as the betrayal against a past behaviour from your inner self; the fear of ever becoming a certain stereotype; the antipathy for what is going on in a cultural landscape or society; the embracing of your loneliness in an all too busy and connected world; the rage against the dying of the light … etc.

I believe all these motivations can have a place and have the power to start an influential story, and be distinctive in a landscape too often focussed on dull and banal enjoyment. Thought starters as such should be able to inspire creatives to make great and provocative work that has an effective commercial impact as well.

As Eric Wilson writes on the importance of this near the ending of his book:

“It fosters fresh insights into relationships between opposites, especially that great polarity life and death. It encourages new ways of conceiving and naming the mysterious connections between antinomies. It returns us to innocence, to irony, that ability, temporary, to play in potential without being constrained to the actual. Such respites from causality refresh our relationship to the world, grant us beautiful vistas, energize our hearts and our minds.”

Without any doubt this is a hard sell to your client. Even if you are able to make it work and sparkle great creative work on the back of it, would your client want to be known for such negative inclinations, the way certain artists do in their personal work? But as always, it will be the bold clients and brands who are willing to take risks, and who will lead the way and succeed; leaving the competition behind them who “live only for mere tranquility, the shallow place”.


Mgla, 2006

On the Importance of Negativity

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