My attention was recently drawn to a billboard shock advertisement in Russia which vividly portrays the consequences of drinking and driving and driving dangerously.
This billboard is a similarly executed billboard campaign that ran in New Zealand that formed part of of my analysis for my masters thesis. The billboard, in its shocking and gruesome creative execution undoubtedly wields the potential to literally stop drivers in their tracks (excuse the pun) and cause them to reconsider having ‘one for the road’ as the advertisement translates from Russian.
The advertisement again shows the potential for shock advertising to act as a major catalyst in changing peoples habits and influencing human behaviours that society may deem as taboo and in need of change.
The advertisement is projected in a fashion so that it appears everyone in the scene is part of a first person shooter game trying to kill each other with their weapon (their finger!). Everybody has their hands shaped as a gun and shouts ‘bang’ when they shoot to mimic a gunshot. People begin to crumple to the ground as if they have been shot dead.
All in all, a great creative and interactive advertisement that draws in the viewer from the outset with the tense undertones opening the advertisement. An advertisement that undoubtedly possesses viral qualities for people to spread to their friends in social media channels too.
Due to the fact that shock advertisements have the implicit quality of surprise and shock, they are often deemed to be more effective and memorable. Similarly, the respondents pointed to these qualities for justifying the use of shock tactics in advertising.
‘I think some of it is that it catches your attention, it is the surprise element of it when you see the advertisement.’
‘Yes definitely the surprise element is 100% shock. If you can see what is going to happen then you won’t be shocked and therefore the ad wasn’t clever enough.’
‘Yea that surprise thing. And it’s that thing that when you see it you will put it up on Facebook or Twitter it and tell your friends to check it out. Either it’s f****d up or its hilarious or even just look at it and tell me what you think!’
Although it can be said to be particularly advantageous to use shock advertisements for their surprise and shock potential, this must also come with a footnote. The respondents’ insights shows that advertisers must recognise that shock is the primary appeal being used to hold the attention of people. This causes the ever-present issue in advertising to re-submerge, which is the need for creativity and originality in new advertising campaigns. By its very nature surprise and shock will cause peoples threshold levels to be lowered somewhat by repeated exposure. But due to these qualities, shock advertisements retain a greater potential for advertisement recall and the ability to ‘stick in [your] mind’ as each respondent put it.
The advertisement begins with a man stating ‘We want people to remember our name; outpost.com. That’s why we went to day care centres all across this great country of ours and met with youngsters. Then we permanently tattooed their foreheads with our name.’ The advertisement then shows a number of the children crying with the tattoo on their forehead. The advertisement ends with the man at the beginning saying ‘Excessive? Maybe. But we’re on a mission.’ The advertisement also points out that complaints should be sent to outpost.com.
The Montana Meth Project was a number of advertisements that were run in the Montana area in an effort to curb the increasing usage of the drug meth among the younger population. The advertisement campaign aims to highlight the social consequences of using the drug. Dennis Taylor, the Project’s executive director said the ads are supposed to ‘hit you right between the eyes’. He says he hopes a change in attitude about the drug will lead to changes in behaviour.
Airline activist Plane Stupid launched a graphic cinema campaign, which is aimed to show the impact that global warming is having on polar ice caps and thus highlight the problem of carbon emissions. The advertisement agency, Mother, had this to say with regards the advertisement: ‘We wanted to confront people with the impact that short-haul flights have on the climate,’ said Robert Saville, a director at Mother. ‘We used polar bears because they are a well understood symbol of the effect that climate change is having on the natural world’.
Firstly, when discussing the potential for shock advertisement to become a discursive topic in society, the continued reference to anti drink driving awareness campaigns shows that in Ireland fear appeal advertisements are typically associated with shock advertisements. The consensus among the respondents was that they recognised that shock advertisements have been confined to fear appeals in Ireland.
‘I suppose social causes and anti drink driving campaigns. They would be the most high profile ones especially in Ireland in recent years once they started that trend they came out with a stream of shock and awe ads.’
in many ways Ireland is still a ‘traditionally’ run society where religion is still a cornerstone of the country’s societal norms and values. This they feel still plays a major influence on societal discussion of taboo subject matters that shock advertisement can often cover. Furthermore this also still plays a role in how sexually themed shock advertisements are perceived by the majority.
‘Here in Ireland pubs still close on a Good Friday and it’s the 21st Century and we are still rooted in religion. Even sex is still a bit of a taboo subject here and you can’t talk about it and you can’t be talking about that!’
This introduces the cultural and demographic issues that play a part in what sector will employ shock tactics and how it will be perceived. In addition to this, the respondents comments suggest that consumer empowerment and greater levels of cynicism means that if a shock advertisement carried out by a product/service company is taken up wrong, a severe backlash coming in the form of public outcry can ensue.
Respondent E offers an evolution of thought on this issue: ‘I think that word of mouth is definitely vital and is spreads the campaigns quick but you know some of these ads are going out purposefully; I mean that is the edge. They know a certain amount of complaints are going to come in and complaints and make a topic and therefore spreads it quicker.’
Thus a public’s reaction to an advertisement is a reflection of the social and cultural fabric of that environment. Thus cultural dimensions do form a vital part of managing the advertising communications model, particularly for shock advertisements.
The prevalence and exhaustive use of advertising in all media platforms, has meant that the issue of clutter is one that needs to be overcome far more urgently. One respondent noted that there is a lack of uniqueness and a greater amount of replication of advertisements;
‘Yea generally I find a lot of advertising gets very repetitive and I would find it goes in cycles where you might see one very unique ad and over the space of a year you would probably see three or four ads that are very similar to it.’
Advertising is by its very nature dynamic and is in a constant state of change. We are in the ‘era of sharing’ and advertising is a far more accessible form of entertainment, further extenuating the need for originality and creativity. The respondents’ viewpoints also point to a relatively new consumer habit that has emerged; people will only pass on advertisements via social networks and email that they think will be deemed as being perceived as creative, different and original by the recipient. People will use a creative advertisement as an expression of themselves by sending it to their friends or an evolution of technological sorts of ‘the extended self.’ Technological advancements can be seen as a contributor in the demise of traditional advertising, suggesting that there may be a greater urgency among advertisers to come up with more creative and original advertisements. In discussing the effectiveness of shock advertisements, it is apparent that originality in advertisements is a fundamental reason for an advertisement to be deemed effective. It is seen as a socially accepted method for advertisers to employ in executing creativity and originality.
Evan Wright in his anthropological-like study in Iraq of male American Marines, also of the same demographic of this study, coined a term for this testosterone fuelled demographic; ‘generation kill’. In coining this term for the young aggressive males, Wright pays homage to the young male’s insatiable demand for violence born out of a childhood diet of violent video games and a desensitization to violence. With the resurgence in popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) among the 18 to 34 male demographic in the latest decade and its violent nature, it becomes apparent that this generation 18 to 34 male that Wright studied just may be infatuated with the glorification of violence as entertainment in advertising and the wider media.
Further research suggests that the media, and advertisers, use this to their advantage in selling the violent nature of the sport of MMA and other sports with violent tendencies. Violence and aggression is intrinsic to many of the combat sports that exist today, and it is this fact particularly among the young male audience that increases their enjoyment in viewing such sports and seduction to its advertisement.
The issue of cultural sensitivity and the de-sensitisation of the Irish population to media is central to the understanding of shock advertising and advertising in general. The manner in which the respondents constructed meaning and reasoned why shock advertisements sometimes work and don’t work pointed to a number of issues relating de-sensitisation of the masses thanks in part due to advertising:
- Whether a shock advertisement is deemed sociable acceptable and appropriate by the mass public is determined by whether the advertisement is shown pre or post watershed when shown on television.
- A shock advertisement must be seen to be considerate of the wider public audience and not only the intended target market.
- The increasing immunity levels of the mass public audience mean shock advertising will become less of an issue; the population is becoming increasingly desensitised to advertising.
In delineating a relationship between the three points outlined above, the respondents’ perception is that for shock advertisements to become socially acceptable, it must be shown post-watershed if it is of an extreme graphic nature. But for a shock advertisement to actually serve its purpose and shock the intended target market, it must be of an appropriately shocking nature that it will break through the clutter in advertising and also break through the ‘immunity barrier’ in the population. The term ‘immunity barrier’; a term coined by this author, is what shock advertisements are creatively executed on, as ‘immunity barriers’ will vary depending on the cultural and societal setting.