Prattle & Jaw

Copy, blogs, and bits and bobs

To Shock, or Not to Shock

I saw this advert by the Sussex Safer Roads Partnership last week, and keep coming back to it, both in mind, and on YouTube.

I think it's simple, beautiful, and for me (who does wear a seatbelt anyway, can just can't understand people who choose not to); highly effective. I'm much more likely to think of this next time a friend forgets to buckle up, rather than, say, this;

Although that is clearly, really rather gut wrenching, I still find the first more effective. Perhaps it's because it's something different, a change from the often violent, painful, and bloody road safety adverts we're usually exposed to, and perhaps it's because, as downright shocking and horrifying shock tactics in advertising are, they've lost their edge - if indeed they ever had one?

On Richard Huntingdon's blog, Adliterate, neurologist Donald Calne says "The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusion". Leading Richard to conclude, "If you really want people to have a change of heart rather than simply a change of mind you are far better off generating a deep emotional reaction to the brand."

And I agree. A 'deep emotional reaction' is what every advertiser dreams of. But does it have to be shock, or does shock simply lead to the advert being noticed? As we all know, the Greenpeace and DDB Brazil advert (not to mention Plane Stupid's polar bears and the Danish anti-smoking adverts) caused great debate, and gave the adverts huge coverage - does this count as being successful? Well it certainly didn't hurt them. Perhaps it would (and probably has for some) damange a product, or brand name, but when the advert is in order to spread a message, such as Greenpeace and Plane Stupid, perhaps on these occasions, there really is no such thing as bad publicity. The more the message gets out, the better, and if what is needed to break through the amounts of crap we have to endure as consumers, is a good, hard slap in the face, then so be it.

But when it comes to adverts which are trying to achieve a basic change in people's behaviour, is shock really the right way to do this? Adverts such as the road safety spots all use shock in order to break through the crap, and persuade us to change our behaviour.

But what if all this shock is now becoming part of all the crap? "Shocking ads traditionally worked because the message became so deeply lodged in a per-son's consciousness that they were eventually forced to act upon it," Professor Alex Gardner, a chartered psychologist and psychotherapist, says. "However, if the same message and same tactics are being used all the time, then it just becomes wallpaper to a person and makes it far easier to ignore." Road safety spots are notorious for being shocking, but there is a limit as to what you can show.

Is this why the Sussex Roads spot hits me so hard; that it's different to all the rest? Perhaps. Or perhaps it's because it shows me what I get out of wearing a seatbelt, not what will happen to me if I don't wear one. It might be more shocking to show bloody images, but all I want to do is forget them - not think about them. Showing what I get out wearing one, is not only new, not only nicer to look at, but also registers a deep emotional reaction on a whole other level.

While studies show that shocking PSAs do have an effect, it's a bit like showing cows being slaughtered and then asking if anyone wants McDonalds - of course they have some kind of effect, but will it last? Is it really something we want to remember? Richard Huntingdon also claims that "If there is one thing we now know beyond doubt it is that emotional persuasion is rather more effective than rational persuasion", but I don't think this is always the case. This advert, again for road safety, works because it gives you facts, rather than just the shocking images;

We've all seen cars plough in to 'people' in these kinds of spots, yet I for one never knew that it would take an extra 21 feet to come to a stop, which is a shocking distance for such a little difference in speed.  In this case, it's not the images that would make me think twice, but the facts.

Yet, again,  I do agree with him for the most; emotions are incredibly persuasive, but I don't agree with the type of emotion he's thinking of; shock. Positive adverts, or campaigns such as The Fun Theory, for me, are far more effective in changing my behaviour. I don't want to be forced through terror of what might happen in to doing something; I want to choose to do it myself, because it'll either be fun, or it'll leave me happy. Or perhaps I'm just being too much of an optimist.

While shock may work for raising issues, or for struggling brands trying to thrust themselves in to people's minds, perhaps its time is up in trying to change behaviour. Perhaps now more people want to see, and will act on seeing, the benefits, rather than the negative outcomes; by offering a (very basic motivational theory) 'reward' rather than a 'punishment'; and by making us just feel good, rather than horrified, shocked, and guilty.

"You can come to the party with your private parts hanging out of your trousers and everybody will remember you. But, will they invite you again?"
- Patrick Collister, ex-executive creative director of Ogilvy & Mather

Copyright © 2014, Lara Mulady. All rights reserved.