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When to use the 'shock' factor and why it works

When to use the 'shock' factor and why it works

By UTalkMarketing’s Melinda Varley

When it comes to shock advertising, the French do it best, as demonstrated last week by the release of its latest anti-smoking campaign.

The ads from the Non-Smokers' Rights Association (NSR), created by French agency BDDP & Fils, depict oral sex in a shock poster campaign to stop teens from lighting up. The sentiment of the ad: if you let your children smoke, it’s child abuse.

Some say the ads are in bad taste, others say that nothing gets a message across like sex. But perhaps the real problem here was the initial ‘shock’ of the imagery.  

Shock tactics in advertising are nothing new. A campaign last year for Air New Zealand saw its actual staff get around the airport and on the aircraft wearing nothing by body paint. This was certainly shocking given the years it has taken for the airline industry, namely flight attendants, to lose its sexual connotations.

However, the ad ‘Nothing to Hide’ has just picked up a Grand Prix prize at this year’s New Zealand Marketing Association awards.  

So using ‘shock’ can work. It’s why the government has forced cigarette companies to display graphic images on packets in a bid to deter people from lighting up. We know what ciggies do to us, but to see it graphically on a packet shocks us. It somehow becomes more real – but can displaying a shocking, disturbing image be worth it to the public good?

When brands do something truly different, it can sometimes come across as shocking. But the real risk in advertising is not being seen at all.

For public service campaigns, shock is almost written into the criteria. THINK campaigns, for example, use horrific car accidents and images to tell us not to drink and drive. And these ‘in your face’ images seem to work for charities and government agencies.

Keira Knightley’s starring role in an anti-domestic violence ad for Women’s Aid grabbed international attention with calls for it to be banned as it was “too violent for TV”. Grabbing equal attention and shocking audiences was an advert for Barnardo’s children charity that depicted the journey of girl who has suffered abuse in childhood leading to a life of crime, drugs and poverty. It received nearly 400 complaints.

But can these shock tactics work for consumer brands as well without hurting the reputation of the brand?

A couple of years back, Dolce & Gabanna angered many people with an ad that featured a woman being overpowered by a gang of men.  The photography was stylish and über fashionable, but its ‘shock factor’ caused International Amnesty to ask for the ads to be withdrawn, considering the ads “a praise of the violence toward the woman”.

And another fashion brand continuously causing shock is French label United Colors of Benetton. It uses images of a new born baby complete with umbilical cord in one outdoor campaign and another with a woman’s bare breast on display while feeding a baby with the other. What do these have to do with the clothes? Doesn’t matter, we’re shocked into seeing that logo.  

Perhaps the most shocking adverts of late, and a growing trend in the advertising industry, are those that use religion to shock people. Antonio Federici Gelato Italiano ice cream recently had an ad banned in the UK for depicting a nun and a priest about to kiss with a tub of ice cream in their hands. The most famous instance of this new trend though was those bus side ads that read: ‘There probably is no God so stop worrying’ – it shocked people with its blatancy but again, made headlines around the world. What other bus side ad has grabbed such attention and public outcry?

Perhaps the funniest shock advert of late was a Burger King caqmpaign for its ‘Seven Incher’ sandwich. Crispin Porter Bogusky created the campaign that shows a beefy treat heading towards an open-mouthed, wide-eyed young model, with the strapline ‘It'll blow your mind away’.

And the most stupidly shocking campaign? Perhaps a viral from Mother for P&G’s Tampax brand that tells a story of a teenage boy turning into a girl and suddenly getting his ‘period’.

While these campaigns may have succeeded in grabbing attention, have they undermined the actual product?

Creating an emotional connection is crucial to effective marketing campaigns and these ads do what they’re meant to do: evoke the emotion of shock in order to create buzz. Moreover, what one person sees as provocative or offensive another will hail as creative and that equal the success.

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