Is “shocking advertising” ethical? Does it work? These are two discussions I’ve been having a lot of lately.
By “shocking,” I am talking about work that is disruptive and triggers a reaction. My initial feeling is, after all, isn’t that what good advertising is supposed to do? My first boss called it the “flick test,” meaning that if you’re flicking through a magazine and you don’t stop to read the ad, it’s failed. In reality, this is not always an easy balance to strike, particularly in the more corporate B2B space where I work and in which brands often need to behave with a bit more decorum.
One campaign that raised a great deal of debate in the UK about the appropriateness was for Harvey Nichol’s recent promotional work. In the ads, the models literally wet themselves because they are so excited about a sale.
Simply put, the ads worked. They gained a lot of coverage because of their controversial nature, which, in all likelihood, helped the media budget to “punch above its weight.”
This sort of thing isn’t new. Everyone knows that some advertisers use shock tactics to give them a multiplier effect. Still, advertisers have a moral and social responsibility. For example, I have always found French Connection’s long running and hugely successful FCUK campaign irresponsible. It’s common knowledge that the acronym can be easily confused with a well-known expletive, so continually running it in prominent outdoor slots is reckless, it desensitises the word and it doesn’t give parents a chance to ‘opt their kids out’.
Now that you’ve got a feel for my moral barometer, you can understand why the recent discussion around our client Powwownow has been interesting.
The work was designed to make the client stand out in the crowded market of conference call provisioning, with a budget that needed to work really hard against some of the big household names in the space.
Clearly, we don’t ascribe to the elitist views of our brand anti-hero. The message was simple: A small or medium-sized business not using a free conference calling service is as preposterous as the “views” of our character.
However, along the way, there was a strong reaction among some in social media (some of it negative) and others who defaced ads in the Tube
At the same time, without betraying any commercial confidences, I can say that the campaign to date has been hugely successful. It outperformed all of our agreed key performance indicators and delivered an impressive return on marketing investment.
So, if the end justifies the means, should we disregard any other consequences? No, absolutely not. All advertisers have a corporate and social responsibility; however, it would be disingenuous to say that we aren’t walking a fine line to deliver insight-driven communications that ignite.
As with most forms of communications, how ads are perceived is in the eye of the beholder, whether it’s shock (Harvey Nichols), satire (Powwownow) or the thinly veiled use of an obscenity (FCUK). Overall, stirring emotion, passion and conversation on a mass level can be powerful and effective. It just has to be done responsibly.
Danny Turnbull is managing director of gyro in Manchester
Follow Danny on Twitter @TurnbullDanny