Long a tenet of effective advertising, emotional appeals are a go-to technique for cutting through noise. But perhaps nothing resounds so stridently as “shockvertising” — a tactic that toys with the psyche on very different terms.
Play it right and you go viral. Play it wrong, and you get fired, banned and pulled off the air. With limited budgets and an abundance of hard-hitting content, charities are increasingly turning up the volume on shock to get heard. If The Pilion Trust’s “F*ck the Poor?” advertisement is any indication, the public doesn’t quite know what to make of a PR stunt with a good heart.
Plenty of recent coverage has touched on why charities, quite literally, can’t afford to shy away from ‘shockvertising’. But do profit-driven organizations get the same pass?
This year’s infamous Nationwide ‘dead kid’ ad—featuring a child speaking beyond the grave about the milestones he would miss because of a fatal household accident (cut to an overflowing bathtub)—put a damper on many a Super Bowl party.
It didn’t take long for shock to turn to outrage on Twitter. The Insurance company did get attention (it was the most talked about Super Bowl commercial of the year according to digital marketing technology company Amobee, with over 230,000 social media mentions during the game alone) but having #vulgar, #debbiedowner and #offensive attached to your brand is a debatable win. Amobee found that 64% of the mentions were negative in sentiment.
Nationwide released a statement saying that “the sole purpose of this message was to start a conversation, not sell insurance. We want to build awareness of an issue that is near and dear to all of us-the safety and wellbeing of our children.”
The executive behind the ad promptly left Nationwide but maintained that his only mistake was putting “a tough message in the middle of a party”. Certainly that was part of it. But largely, the public saw it as a boundary-pushing, fear-mongering attempt to outshout competitors.
My reaction after the nationwide commercial: pic.twitter.com/1UDv45zmZB
— james? (@jamescstatton) February 2, 2015
“Hope you guys are having a great day. Did you know your kid is probably gonna die soon? Enjoy your nachos & funeral planning!” – Nationwide
— Rob Fee (@robfee) February 2, 2015
I still can’t get over that Super Bowl ad from @nationwide. It wasn’t just depressing, it was downright offensive.
— Paul McNamara (@buzzblog) February 2, 2015
It is delicate territory for any organization but particularly for big businesses, even when the message is well-intended. “A dead child is very, very touchy. We cherish children. They are sacred. This company was trying to say that, but took a big risk,” says Jason Sherman, a PR veteran and President of Sherman Communications & Marketing Inc.
“Because shock gets attention—it’s memorable, it’s viral—it can create a lot of extra value for your initial investment and controversy isn’t always bad, so long as it’s measured and plays into your broader strategy.”
So what does it take to execute a shock campaign tastefully? Sherman recommends testing a marketing concept first and tweaking it according to the reaction. What sounds edgy in the boardroom may actually alienate potential customers. When in doubt, veer towards campaigns that derive their shock value from humour or irony. And know the risks: will you create enemies? Embarrass yourself? Hurt your brand or its key audience? And most importantly, know the boundaries. Or, says Sherman: “Don’t kick the hornet’s nest too hard.”