Putting shock tactics in the picture

THE tiny newborn infant named Greg is only one minute old, lying on his back with a hospital tag around his wrist, and a large cockroach crawling out of his mouth. Next to him lies baby Mary who is only three minutes old, but already has a used syringe in her mouth.

These shocking images make up Barnardo’s latest provocative and powerful advertising campaign, designed to shock the public and get the charity’s point across. Accompanied by the slogan There are no silver spoons for children born into poverty, the all-important message is to highlight the continuing impact of poverty on children’s lives.

But while the ad is certainly effective in capturing the attention of the public and media - having provoked 92 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority within minutes of its release - is it really effective in reducing children’s suffering from poverty?

Jonathan Shinton, partner of Edinburgh-based advertising agency, Newhaven Communications and the brains behind the latest Tennents Lager ads, says companies have to be careful when it comes to shock advertising and ensure the right message is accurately conveyed. He says: "Every client has a different objective and brief that advertising agencies have to meet. Ads are designed to change opinions but you have to be careful the way you go about it.

"Sometimes the ads can become too absorbed in getting noticed and shocking the market and they forget to be relevant. Take the drink-driving campaigns. Research shows shock methods do not work in Scotland as people simply say, ‘that is not me’ and they disassociate themselves from the message. As a result, they have had to rethink and the campaign now highlights what happens to people when they’re caught.

"If it is over-gratuitous or over-dramatic, it often does not work well and companies have to be careful with their campaign and their marketing objectives. Shock doesn’t always work and is often seen as not meaningful or real."

Shinton emphasises that educating the public is important. The test is changing consumer behaviour which is ultimately what advertising is about. He says: "Ads work on two levels. On the first level, shock gets your ad noticed, it’s talked about, written about and in that sense it succeeds. However, whether it translates into a change of behaviour is different and this is the second and important level. Companies need to ask themselves - will it get people to actually donate?"

It seems there needs to be a salient aim in the campaign, otherwise the message is lost in the surrounding controversy. And it appears to be questionable whether the choice of such potent images does achieve its ultimate objective, or whether the shock tactics used in the Barnardo’s ad has been confused with the pursuit of gaining column inches and turning heads.

But it is not just Barnardo’s which chooses the ultimate shock factor. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are not averse to a little controversy either. Its campaign last year to attack the fur trade and those who support it featured Sophie Ellis-Bextor posing in a glamorous evening gown holding a dead skinned fox. A caption read: "Here is the rest of your fur coat?"

But whilst there is no disputing that the image was powerful, did consumers and their target market pay any real attention and was the shock advertising effective?

The answer seems to be no, according to psychologist Dr Paul Buckley, a lecturer in consumer psychology and marketing at the University of Wales. He says: "Emotion-based adverts are powerful but whether consumers do something about it is highly questionable.

"These campaigns do get extra publicity through being controversial but it can also turn people off. Take the Benetton 1990s campaigns with a baby covered in blood, a homeless person, someone suffering from AIDS and even a duck covered in crude oil. Yes, they all shocked and stuck in people’s minds, but they also questioned what it had to do with the brand."

Buckley makes the crucial point that consumer behaviours are the pertinent factor in advertising campaigns. He says: "I don’t think this sort of advertising changes behaviours. It doesn’t provoke any positive feelings and instead makes people feel bad about themselves. It just turns people off."

Meanwhile, a United States anti-drink driving campaign from earlier this year shows the horrific picture of a 23-year-old survivor of a drink-driving accident. Burnt and scarred beyond recognition, the strong visuals show the before and after shots of what was a beautiful woman. And although certainly powerful, the ad is somewhat blatant in what it is trying to achieve, and Buckley says it is this obviousness which can often undermine the message.

He says: "I agree that adverts have to cut through the clutter in order to be seen and stand out, and in this sense shock does work. But large numbers of organisations are already doing this so people often become blas and their reaction is more diluted."

Ian McAteer, managing director of the Union, one of Scotland’s largest advertising agencies stresses the biggest challenge is simply getting the message across.

"People receive over 3000 messages a day, and there is sheer information overload. Adverts are fighting in this arena to get noticed and it’s hard to do. So not to waste time and money, powerful imagery, messages and style are developed to get noticed", says McAteer, who is also chairman of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising trade body.

"What’s generally found is shock tactics do work in the early days, when you are introducing the market to the campaign. But, long-term another approach is needed and you can’t continue merely trying to shock. People will get bored and simply think, ‘there’s another one’.

"Shock is the traditional territory of charity advertising but there is evidence it generates a rejection. Although the ads are designed to shake people up, very often they do the opposite. Society has become so blas about shocking images and we switch off so it doesn’t affect us."

Barnardo’s previous poster campaign linking child cruelty to drug abuse illustrates this point. A picture of a child shooting up turned heads but did not necessarily have people reaching deep into their pockets. It was obvious the image had been digitally altered, which perhaps led people to switch off, assuming it was the extreme, rather than typical of the effect of drug addiction on the vast majority of abused children.

But while many people have become increasingly desensitised to shock advertising, others are appalled by it. Last year, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Independent Television Commission received more than 12,000 complaints.

But as society at large becomes accustomed to shock advertising, campaigns, their influence seems to diminish. What is crucial, according to the ad experts, is relevance. For if adverts are designed to shock just to grab people’s attention, the general result seems to be offence and ultimately failure.

Meanwhile, if the subject matter is essentially serious - for example the drink-driving campaigns or Barnardo’s latest poverty campaign - then while there may be some justification for the shock factor, the effect is nevertheless short-lived.

So, what should charities and ad campaigns do if they really want to change people’s perceptions, attitudes and ultimately behaviours?

Buckley says they must focus on people’s motivation. He says: "People will donate if it makes them feel good about themselves and impresses others. Guilt doesn’t get people to participate. In horrific shock advertising, where is the reward? All the ads have succeeded in doing is making people feel bad about themselves and this doesn’t motivate people to donate money."

McAteer, whose company created the Scottish Executive’s drink-driving campaigns agrees it is vital to reach the target market. He says: "Ad campaigns shouldn’t be just about shock, they should aim to engage people and get them to emotionally connect with the particular advert."

In the short-term, it seems shock advertising is effective in getting people talking but in the long-term, it fails to achieve its goal of changing behaviour. In a saturated charity market, with numerous organisations vying for the public’s attention and money, the best way to tackle tough issues appears to be by producing the emotive factor which will make people part with their hard-earned cash.

As Buckley concludes: "When we feel good about ourselves, organisations get better results."


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