The Advertising Apprentice

September 4, 2009

Is it Shock Value or the Value of the Shock that Matters Most?

Filed under: Advertising — adamlauzon @ 9:51 PM
Tags: , , , , ,

This week as students of all ages are heading back to the classroom it seems only fitting to discuss a topic that stirred lots of debate in one of my advertising classes from the winter: the use of shock value in advertising.

Take a look at the following PSA recently released by the British Government that shows the dangers of text messaging while driving:

Not only is this a long PSA, topping in at over four minutes, but also graphic and pretty violent. I don’t know if the chain of events as depicted in this commercial is very likely, but most certainly plausible. Either way I’m sure it will make you think twice about reaching for the phone and text messaging someone the next time you’re on the road! The above clip hones in on a notion creative departments everywhere face, is there value in shock value?

For another example of advertising that uses shock value check out some of the campaigns that have been used by fashion company Benetton. Over time these campaigns, and the ads found within, became less about value and more about pure shock. Some communication professionals believe there is no such thing as bad publicity, but when people start boycotting your clothing line because of the offensive nature of your ads, there is the possibility to alienate the consumer. And when news of these boycotts gets coverage from internationally renowned news outlets, i.e. The Independent, The LA Times and CNN, the boycott can have lasting effects on company sales.

Looking at the ads on this page, the Bulgarian makers of Flirt Vodka seem to really enjoy using shock value, and sexuality, in their ads! Of course it’s no real surprise that alcohol companies are firm believers in the concept that sex sells, but this just seems needlessly graphic and over the top.

Advertisers aren’t the only ones guilty of using shock value to gain attention; everywhere you look there’s plenty of examples of other forums that will say just about anything to get your attention. Politicians are extremely bad when it comes to this. At a political debate you may hear a politician say, “I don’t care about crime”. Everyone pauses as they’re taken aback, “but what I do care about is how there is not sufficient measures in place to prevent criminal acts from happening”.

Some comedians use shock value in the form of racism, sexism or vulgarity. Take American comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, for instance. He has five or six characters he uses in his act, like Walter, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, and José Jalapeño on a Stick.

While I am a fan of his comedy, some of the jokes, even his character Achmed, I’m sure are included in his act purely for shock value and to gain attention. (By the way, the above linked YouTube clip of Achmed has amassed over 94 million views making it one of the most viewed videos on YouTube.

The primary reason for this behaviour in the advertisers, politicians, and comedians is the same: to use the shock value as a hook to get attention, to set themselves apart from their competition and get their message heard. The important component though when using shock value is that you must be able to back up the usually extreme position you’re taking, otherwise you come across as some radical just looking for some attention and everything you say will be dismissed and seen as having little credibility or value.

By using shock value advertisers are taking a big risk; conveying the same information in a different way/by taking a different approach. It’s so often said in creative departments that safe is forgettable, you must take risks to get rewarded.

The verdict: the value of the shock is so much more important than shock value. It is the message people are left with that is the value of the shock.

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