In the never-ending battle to gain our attention, advertisers often try to be startling, abrasive or shocking. It makes sense. There is a lot of competition for our attention. I’ll be the first to endorse a well-crafted, shocking ad, for many reasons. But there are some shocking ads that work, and some that backfire hideously on the business or organization. What makes the difference?
The shocking ads that work are based on relevance. In a book called “How To Do Better Creative Work” by Steve Harrison, the author uses the phrase relevant abruption. Sure you want to catch people, that’s the ‘abruptive’ part. Something that stands out, something that is eye-catching. But it has to be relevant. The reason it’s shocking has to be the point you’re trying to make. An ad that jars us on an emotional level, and makes us think “I feel terrible about this” only works if the advertiser’s message is “That’s the point. You should feel terrible about this. Our product is all about making sure the terribleness of this situation doesn’t occur.”
The image above is a good example. The idea of being imprisoned in a hole in the ground for having the wrong faith is abhorrent to many people. Amnesty International wants to prevent this from happening. If you are the sort of person who is shocked by this idea then your values are in line with the advertiser’s. They want to stir you up and get you onside with them.
This, however, is a bad example. I won’t go into great detail here, because this ad from Fluid Hair has been discussed to death, and I’ve already blogged about it. However, this is abruptive but not relevant. The presented idea is that abuse is fine as long as your hair looks good, and we can help you with that. We’re pretty sure that’s not how the salon owners really feel, but that is what this shocking ad presents as their values, which don’t align with most customers. The backlash was astronomical.
One of the most shocking ad campaigns of all time comes from United Colors of Benetton. Over the last few decades they have presented us with many images that have stirred the outrage and anger of viewers from around the world. But if you look closer, you realize why the campaign has merit. With a few exceptions, as you look at the ads in their historical context, they are shocking about things we shouldn’t be shocked about. Ads portraying black and white toddlers playing together stirred people up, yet in a world of equality, they should be a non-issue. That was the point. And it fits. There’s a reason the company isn’t called the Segregated Colours of Benetton.
This is not to say that every Benetton ad was perfectly executed. Many ads conveyed messages to different audiences that were very poorly received – just check out their death row inmates ads to see how things can go south quickly, or the Vatican’s response to their new Unhate ads. But when you go out on a limb to shake the tree, sometimes that limb cracks under you. Attempting shocking ads is not without risk. The difference is that in a good ad, the shock is the point. It is inextricably linked in a good way to the benefit of the product. A candybar company in Romania proved this with a brilliant campaign that you can see here, or dissect and discuss with us on our Facebook page. (Yep, blatant plug. Shocking, isn’t it?)
Bravery is essential in good advertising. Without risk there is no reward. But never forget to do the calculations in a calculated risk, and be prepared for potential backlash with humility, honesty and apology.
What do you think? Are there any shocking ads that you think work? Any that backfire? Do you think ads should never be shocking? Let us know in the comments section below!
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