Les Binet and Sarah Carter get a little bit angry about some of the nonsense they hear around them… like the failure to realise that positive is not always good.

We came across something unusual the other day – two words not often heard together. But two words that remind us of a common myth. The scene was a research debrief. Two alternative ad ideas had been explored in qualitative research. It was a tricky bit of research to interpret. This was a new campaign. The two routes were very different. And the stimulus material was rudimentary.

One idea featured vignettes of different people enjoying the brand in everyday scenarios, set to a great soundtrack. Everyone said they liked this one in the groups. The other idea featured a darker, tongue-in-cheek depiction of the lengths that a character would go to enjoy the brand. A few people loved this. Others strongly disagreed.

This was a research scenario which easily leads to literal and flawed recommendations. Luckily, our researcher was an experienced pair of hands. He acknowledged the uniformly positive response to the vignettes route. But describing this response with two important words – 'false positive' – he recommended, instead, developing the polarising route.

We loved that phrase: 'false positive'. Because positive responses aren't always what they seem. Failing to recognise this seriously distorts evaluation of new ideas.

People in research are generally polite, default to the familiar and look for similarity, not difference. All this produces politely rationalised positive responses which experienced researchers are alert to; 'the children would like that', 'they're showing there's something for everyone', and the red light for new products: 'it would be good for camping.'

Like respondents in research, researchers too can understandably be eager to please. For many years, pre-testing research has been criticised (often unfairly) for killing off embryonic creative ideas by failure to understand the phenomenon of 'false negatives'. These comments result from common research scenarios – unclear stimulus material, misunderstandings of the idea, or simply the new and unfamiliar (people generally prefer similar to change).

But perhaps some researchers are now so wary of this false negative charge that instead they may over-enthusiastically look for the positive. (As planners back at BMP, we researched all our creative ideas, but were much harsher on these ideas than many outside researchers). Perhaps now we've all become better at recognising that 'negative' isn't always bad, but less good at realising that 'positive' isn't always good.

This matters because when researching the new, a polarised strong response is often a more reliable predictor of success than a uniform mild liking. People take time to take the new to their hearts. From highly successful comedies like Fawlty Towers and Only Fools and Horses (both of which were panned by many when they first ran), to the recent Marmite RSPCA-spoof campaign, strong, new ideas tend to polarise, at least initially. Failure to recognise this in research and going, instead, with the mildly positive must contribute to the high failure rate of new products. And we question the effectiveness of many vignette style 'users using brand in different situations set to music' ads. These quasi-mood film ads undoubtedly elicit uniformly positive responses in pitches and research – what's not to like about them? But there is evidence, in the UK at least, to question their realworld effectiveness – 'a little bit for everyone' may mean not enough standout for anyone.

Ricky Gervais would agree with our wise researcher's recommendation. Describing his intentions for his highly successful comedy The Office, Ricky explained: 'I wanted The Office to be one million people's favourite show not ten million people's tenth- favourite show'.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Admap. Click here for subscription information.