It’s been a tough couple of months in terms of shocking imagery. The (now) iconic photograph of Aylan Kurdi’s small body washed ashore off the coast of Turkey has dominated our newsfeeds and put into stark perspective the world’s largest humanitarian crisis in recent history. No matter which side of the migrant-versus-refugee fence you stand on, it’s impossible to look at the emotionally charged image of the Syrian toddler and feel nothing. Which begs the question: do we, in the age of information, need to be shocked in order to feel?
The idea that we have become numbed by the cluttered frenzy of instant information is what forms the basis behind shock advertising. ‘Shockvertising’, as it’s colloquially called, is a type of advertising that deliberately startles and offends its audience by violating social norms and personal values through the use of graphic or emotive imagery and no-punches-pulled slogans. Designed to break through the clutter to capture attention, create brand awareness or spotlight social issues, this form of high-impact advertising is often controversial. In many cases, it can be explicit and ultimately disturbing.
Last year, the South African Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) pulled the plug on a controversial television commercial that depicted a black child being hand-fed treats (like a pet!) by a white woman. The Ogilvy and Mather commercial was commissioned by South African charity Feed a Child. The ad’s purpose, according to Feed a Child, was to highlight the plight of starving children using the slogan: ‘the average domestic dog eats better than millions of children’. Instead of effectively delivering the content of the message, the commercial was immediately billed as racist and caused a global outrage, even scoring coverage by CNN. While gaining an international mention would normally be considered a win, in this case, the Feed a Child commercial hit all the wrong notes – and is a bleak example of how shock advertising walks a very fine line between communicating with the market and offending people.
What is the purpose of shock advertising, and does it actually increase sales?
The challenge for marketers using shock advertising is that everything depends on consumer reaction. Based on this alone, shock advertising might be an absolute success, or a complete failure. According to Innovative Marketing (Volume 10, Issue 2, 2014), marketing literature identifies three main consumer reactions to advertising: target consumer response (in which the consumer behaves in the way prompted by the advert – they buy the product), incidental consumer response (in which the consumer reacts in a way that the advertiser did not anticipate – they choose to buy the same product from a competing company with a less shocking advert), and last, reverse consumer response (also known as the ‘boomerang effect’, in which the consumer, at best, does not show any interest in the product at all, or at worst, is put off the product entirely by the ad’s shock factor). It’s important to remember that despite any of these reactions, consumers’ awareness of the advertisement does not necessarily mean they will buy the product being sold. So, why all the shouting to be heard over the noise?
Perhaps the most famous of the shockvertising fraternity, Italian fashion house Benetton, raised eyebrows (and admittedly, sales) between 1990 and 2000, when it gave photographer Oliviero Toscani carte blanche to create its United Colors of Benetton campaign. This featured symbolic, poignant and jarring images that the company ultimately became famous for: a priest kissing a nun, a white infant suckling a black woman’s breast, frightened refugees clawing for food at a ship’s cargo net, and the blood-spattered and bullet-riddled uniform of a Bosnian soldier. While Toscani’s ads didn’t feature the actual products being sold, Benetton still became a household name.
In another example, the Toscani-Benetton partnership’s 1991 advert depicting a bloodied, unwashed, newborn baby, with umbilical cord still attached, sparked massive controversy and prompted over 800 complaints to the British Advertising Standards Authority. It was even featured in the 2000 Guinness World Records as the most controversial campaign of all time.
But how does a bloodied baby sell clothes? Toscani’s defence to this, in a 2001 interview with AdAge Global, is that the level of discomfort shock advertising creates depends on who you talk to. “Personally, I think the rain is uncomfortable. But try making that argument to a fish,” Toscani is quoted as saying. “The one thing nobody can deny is that the ads worked.”
This is indisputable. When Toscani left Benetton in 2000, annual sales were more than 20 times greater than when he arrived. In the first year of his absence, Benetton sales declined. If you analyse why Toscani’s campaigns worked, it had little to do with the products he was selling and everything to do with tapping into an ideology that was wholly under-represented in mainstream media at the time. Benetton (and Toscani) made having an edgy social conscience a fashionable accessory, and they presented it as an art form. “Not all advertising is art, but all art is advertising,” Toscani reportedly said, adding: “The Renaissance was just advertising for the Vatican.”
Closer to home, Nando’s has made an art form out of shock advertising as comedy. South Africa’s melting pot landscape, with our sociopolitical diorama, is as susceptible to shockvertising as it is to parody. In 2005, a Nando’s television commercial took racial history and political debate by the scruff of the neck with its ‘one settler one bullet’ campaign, and ruffled feathers across the board. The advertisement was designed to promote a takeaway special for Freedom Day, and while it earned its fair share of complaints for being reckless and promoting violence, it was ruled as neither irresponsible nor offensive by the ASA.
Similarly, a recent Cell C commercial prompted over 100 complaints to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA). The ad, which features a small dog humping a man’s leg every time he has to pay out a sum of money, is angled towards the very obvious notion that if you’re not a Cell C customer, you are getting screwed.
However, the most important question remains: did Cell C’s leg-humping dog, or the Nando’s Freedom Day advertisement (or any of the fast food chain’s other memorable campaigns, for that matter) serve to boost sales? Because no matter what type of advertising is used, its base purpose remains the same. Advertising exists to sell something – be it a brand, a product or, in Benetton’s case, a world view.
In a recent paper titled ‘Shock Advertising: Not So Shocking Anymore’, University of the Witwatersrand student Brandon Urwin investigates the effectiveness of shock advertising on Generation Y consumers (those born in the 1980s and early 2000s). The paper, published in the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, explores how today’s marketers are going to extreme lengths to attract consumers’ attention, and using shockvertising to break through advertising clutter.
Urwin’s research was undertaken by analysing three variables – level of shock, norm and memory recall – and these according to five different types of shock: impropriety, moral offensiveness, sexual references, disgusting images and religious taboos. The findings indicated that the majority of respondents for each type of shock did not remember anything about the brand or the product being sold, but simply recalled the imagery. Interestingly, the study also showed that sexual advertisements tended to be the most ineffective, compared to the other four types.
If shock advertising isn’t an effective sales tool anymore, what is? What is the golden horn that marketers need to be heard over the noise, if shouting doesn’t work? Perhaps Toscani said it best: “There are no shocking pictures, only shocking reality.” With Aylan Kurdi in mind, it’s obvious that reality is ugly enough. I might be persuaded to buy some chicken if I’m cleverly manipulated into laughing at myself, but I’m sadly against supporting a charity that treats children (or even, in this case, a young actor) as a dog.