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Stop, You're Making Me Blush!

Posted At: September 21, 2009 1:24 PM
by Meghan Zimmerman

Images speak louder than words. At least that seems to be what most firms are thinking when they attempt to drill their media campaign messages into the thoughts and eventual actions of their target publics. As more and more firms allow the images to do the talking, a debate has surfaced as to where a line must be drawn between leaving an impression that elicits a response in the viewer and leaving the viewer shell-shocked, embarrassed and more passionately negative about the imagery used in the message than about the message itself. The debate begs to answer the question – In using media communications to persuade, how far is too far?

With the recent release of the Wales’s PSA (public service announcement) relating to texting while driving, this question has entered the spotlight. Do the images of slow-motion car accidents coupled to the sound of snapping necks implant the message of not texting while driving, or are the viewers left feeling uncomfortable, upset and negative towards the message?

A recent study was conducted by HCD Research using its® Web site following the release of the PSA. The study sampled 205 individuals over the age of 18 regarding their perception of the message. Approximately 68 percent of the viewers felt the impact of the message and said they are less likely to text while driving.

Vince McGourty, vice president of public relations for HCD Research, says “thePSA was very effective because it was a very realistic scenario of what may happen to young adults or, for that matter, older adults as a result of texting while driving or talking on a cell phone.”

As is the case with the UK PSA, the message received positive results. Individuals’ emotions were provoked, a tactic many companies find successful. However, one must also question if the extreme material desensitizes the viewers from the actual message?

“To a degree, it may desensitize Americans from the actual message when the images are very graphic in nature,” McGourty said. “However, in the case of this study, the message really ‘hits home,’ pardon the pun, because it is very realistic and it’s done in a manner that everyone can relate to whether you are a new driver, an experienced driver, or the mother or father of a teen driver.”

The organization PETA also receives many controversial reviews of the images displayed in its campaigns. Last year, an ad was banned from airing during the Super Bowl due to explicit material. NBC rejected the commercial, stating that the “PETA spot submitted to Advertising Standards depicts a level of sexuality exceeding our standards.”

While PETA preaches a vegetarian lifestyle and continues to create startling advertisements, it must first look at the effectiveness of shock tactics. “Shock tactics can be a distraction to the actual message being heard,” said Kristin Braga, account manager of Strategis. “These methods will be talked about for sure, but will often be left at just that.”

Braga’s blog post “Shock Value of Advertising-Does it work?” focused on anotherPETA advertisement that appeared before the eyes of Jacksonville, Fla., residents. Goodbye, traditional billboard signs and hello PETA efforts. The “Save the Whales” campaign reminds Americans to put down the sandwich and become a vegetarian if they want to maintain the summer bikini body. PETA asked: “Did you know that vegetarians are 20 to 30 percent leaner than meat-eaters? So, to help residents and tourists ‘lose the blubber’—and hopefully to deter prank callers—we’re launching a brand-new billboard urging people to go vegetarian.” The billboard may turn a few heads and spark conversation but most people are not rushing home to dispose of animal products.

“I believe it was only the natural progression for companies and organizations to move towards shock tactics due to the incessant noise that the public at large has to filter through on a daily basis,” Braga begins. “Although a natural progression, I do not believe shock tactics will always impact behavior. As with many of these drastic strategies, it will cause a reaction, which, as many ad executives would say any press is good press; however, it does not guarantee action on the part of consumers.”

The Montana Meth Project prevention program utilized shock tactics in attempts to reduce first-time meth use. In May 2008, the discussed the program’s ad tactics of reversing the trend. Montana was eventually asked to remove a billboard after many complaints were filed. The ad reading “15 bucks for sex isn’t normal. But on meth it is.,” displayed “a young girl with vacant eyes and waxy skin, pinned to the ground by a faceless man in a dirty shirt.” Although the campaign used alarming images, the state has seen a drastic decline in meth use since the prevention program and ads appeared.

As companies and organizations create campaigns that tap into the emotions of their viewers, one must ask if shock value is the answer.

McGourty expressed his thoughts on making an effective media campaign: “I think one of the key things that we learned, especially from our Super Bowl ad testing, is that good media campaigns or ads—similar to a good book or novel—tell a compelling story that has a beginning, a middle and an end or a climax that consumers can relate to, combined with a strong emotional appeal, whether it is happy, sad or angry.”

Advertisements can be critical to the effectiveness of a company’s media campaign. The images and words used need to affect the consumer’s emotions and influence their behavior, even after the initial shock. The message must be genuine and accepted by a viewer as its story is communicated. Grab the interest, intrigue the viewer and inspire a change.

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