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Think BR: Shock tactics in ads - clever or crass?

Ads don't have to be shocking to be effective, writes Danny Turnbull, managing director, Gyro Manchester.

Danny Turnbull, managing director, Gyro Manchester

Danny Turnbull, managing director, Gyro Manchester

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The seemingly never-ending cycle of questions over whether an ad is going ‘too far’ returned again last week with the latest in a long line of reports on the subject - this particularly one from the ASA titled 'Public perceptions of harm and offence in UK advertising'.

It unsurprisingly found that a) 3 in 10 children aged 11-16 have been unsettled by an advert in the past year and b) charities are the biggest offender.

I’ve always thought it slightly ironic that charities, in theory the most morally righteous of organisations, continue to be the ones that feel it necessary time and time again to use shocking imagery to deliver its messaging.

Although, when you consider that often this messaging is to compel people to hand over money, perhaps they aren’t so different after all.

Fundamentally, advertising is about creating something that compels someone to go and do something - whether it be purchasing a handbag, changing a lifestyle or donating to a charity.

In a world where we see up to 5,000 brand messages a day, the first step is grabbing attention - and shock tactics certainly do that.

But this is where advertising hasn’t just gone wrong; it’s where it’s gotten lazy. A faulty logic has developed where heads-turned appears to be a legitimate metric for the success of an advert.

But what’s the use in an ad that is recalled by millions, yet only an insignificant percentage actually are compelled to donate as a result.

Agencies out there, ourselves included, always welcome a client that isn’t afraid to push the boundaries and subsequently created an edgy, yet successful ad. 

Advertising’s role is to cut though and to give spend a multiplier effect, but in doing so we all tread a very fine line. 

Shock tactics can be incredibly effective when employed correctly but all too often, they’re simply used as a substitute for standout creative.

In the absence of inspiration, highly disturbing imagery and heart wrenching depictions are resorted to.

Changing perceptions and behaviour is arguably one of the most difficult tasks in advertising, but isn’t that where advertising’s greatest success reside?

One of my favourite examples of this is from the British Heart Foundation’s outstanding work of the past year, in particular with its campaign to promote hands only CPR, featuring a memorable spot starring Vinnie Jones.

The British Heart Foundation is no stranger to being rapped on the knuckles by the ASA in years past, but decided to try a different approach.

The aim was simply to change perceptions and teach people how to save a life. The ad went viral, with millions of people watching the spot and thus learning CPR at the same time - but the real statistic was the reports that came in of real people whose lives had actually been saved by someone putting into practice what they had seen on TV.

Effectiveness is spoken of on a daily basis when it comes to campaigns, but you’d have to say the pinnacle is when something you’ve created results in a life being saved.

Simply put, the BHF has achieved a greater level of success by moving away from shock, and creating something savvy - both informative and entertaining as opposed to something informative but disturbing.

However, I’m keen to stress that shock does have a place in advertising, and always will as a tool for raising awareness, but it needs to be in moderation.

If the same messages and the same tactics are used time and time again, consumers will naturally become desensitized and apathetic.

Take a look at the hugely commendable effort from the Channel 4 team ahead of the Paralympics. It would have been far too easy to milk the attention with large amounts of disturbing imagery.

Yet rather than making the spot all about the shock value and difficult-to-watch realism, it was instead limited to a momentary flashpoint, providing a highly effective change of pace as part of a much larger piece of storytelling that centred upon the heroic qualities of the athletes.

The ad worked on a deep emotional level, created a real connection with the viewer. No doubt there will be a fair few more viewers making time to tune into the Paralympics in a couple of week’s time than there otherwise would have been.

As a debate, I feel that it’s one that we’re no closer to completing than we were ten years ago, and I doubt that there were many people who felt the ASA were drawing anything other than conclusions we already knew.

It’s just a shame that we keep needing to have this debate due to a glut of unnecessary overuse of shock that often detracts from the few adverts that do actually use it effectively (Barnados comes to mind  as a positive example in this regard).

Simply put, it’s not a question of advertisers having a responsibility to protect the viewer; rather they should be holding themselves to much higher standards.

Danny Turnbull, managing director, Gyro Manchester

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