Following my recent blog about why you shouldn’t be like Apple, I have come across another marketing campaign that has given me pause for thought and hopefully might provide you with some useful insights and lessons you can apply to your marketing strategy.

You may have noticed the army’s latest billboard advertising campaign. The stark, typography-only ads have been appearing on billboards and bus shelters around the country with one simple aim: to discourage you from joining the army.

Wait, what?

Just a quick glance at any of the ads will leave you with one simple message: “don’t join the army”. They then go on to list other things you shouldn’t do, such as “don’t learn new skills” and “don’t become a better you”. According to General Chris Tickell, “we have deliberately designed a bold, new recruitment campaign that uses reverse psychology and a thought-provoking approach.  It will encourage young people and those who influence them to notice the Army, and start having open conversations with real soldiers and their friends and relatives.”

The creative was carried out by the agency Karmarama and I’m sure they know what they are doing. There have been plenty of examples of reverse psychology in marketing that have been very successful (an example is shown below). Reverse psychology is generally used to generate “pull” from the consumer, to get them to actively want to discover more. How many of you could resist the following:


But to me the army’s approach not one that I would recommend for most companies, for a number of reasons:

  • Negative messages usually cause us to respond negatively. In the case of the army, there already may be mixed perceptions and differing opinions from family and friends over whether joining the military is a desirable career choice. If the “pull factor” causes the potential recruit to find out more from the wrong sources, the negative message is going to be re-inforced. Which leads me to the next problem:
  • The call to action. On the ads this is “search army jobs”. For this campaign, this works well. The army is a huge brand with a huge online (and social media) presence. For any company with a less developed SEO strategy, this approach can run the risk of flagging up competitors, alternatives or even bad news/reviews. Although it works here, it is hard (and potentially expensive) to control.
  • The creative execution: the stark, typography-only posters are certainly eye-catching. But because they are an outdoor media, your eye only has a limited time to take in the information. The olive green of the benefits fades into the background, which means you run the risk of viewers only taking away the “don’t join the army” message.

By contrast, here is another example of reverse psychology marketing that has been extremely successful:

Patagonia Reverse Psychology Marketing Strategy

Patagonia Marketing Campaign

This campaign allowed US outdoor clothing brand to increase its sales by over 40%. Like the army, it too encourages you not to buy the product. But there are some key differences in execution:

First of all, the use of the image creates a positive impression and desire all by itself. The “don’t buy” message reinforces that desire by creating a barrier and a sense of exclusivity. You want the jacket despite being told you can’t have it.

Secondly, the other reverse psychology points included to the right are informative and explain and expand on the brand values. Through a very good understanding of its customers, Patagonia is able to create positive associations and make customers feel like they are doing the right thing. Potentially also turning them into advocates for the brand.

Thirdly, the “pull factor” is still there, but potential customers are less likely to run into negative opinions if they seek out more information from their peers.


I could be very wrong about the Army campaign. I’m certainly intrigued about whether it achieves its objectives (maybe someone from Karmarama can let me know). But if you are considering reverse psychology in your marketing strategy I would urge you to think carefully about how you go about it. Here are some useful things to consider:

  • Do you understand your customers well enough to know that it is going to resonate with them. Will they be intrigued enough to pull, or are they simply going to switch off?
  • If they do pull, do you have a follow up strategy in place to ensure all the information they seek out helps them to make the right purchasing decision? Do you have your website or landing pages set up to sell the benefits and move visitors along the customer journey? Do you have an SEO strategy in place to assist with their search? Do you have a social media plan that can help answer their questions and get them to engage with you?
  • Do you have enough positive associations to overcome the negative perception of “do not”? You don’t want the negative message to be the only thing customers remember. Positive associations can come from imagery, customer experiences, shared values or simply your brand strength.
  • Is the creative strong enough? By all means lead with the “do not” message, but the rest of the creative needs to intrigue or delight and it helps if the benefits are highlighted, not hidden (drab olive green for the army; a bright, prominent sidebar for Patagonia)
  • Always, always sell the benefits.

You can read more about the army campaign here.

And here’s some background behind the Patagonia campaign.

What do you think? Do you think reverse psychology has a place in your marketing strategy? Are you afraid of negative messages? I would love to hear from you –and if you have enjoyed this article (and my previous one), this may become a regular series.

Of course the eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that this article (and my previous blog) already make use of reverse psychology. Did it work? If you have enjoyed these, they may become a regular feature.

In any case I would love to hear from you. Do you think reverse psychology has a place in your marketing strategy? Are you afraid of associating negative messages with your brand? Leave me a comment and whatever you do, DON’T SIGN UP FOR MY NEWSLETTER!

Mike Williams