Is Shockvertising Effective? Why Not Happy Endings?

Scare Advertising
Over the last week we’ve had not just one, but two gut-wrenchingly powerful advertisements released that attempt to force viewers into thinking about the unpleasant but everyday problems of the world. First was the UK’s Save the Children ad, using the Second a Day technique to lead us through a year in a young Syrian girl’s shoes. What starts out looking like an uplifting video of a happy girl celebrating a birthday quickly deteriorates into a portrayal of life in a war-torn country, with the intent to inform viewers of the ongoing brutality in Syria over the last three years. Second, we saw the Women’s Day ad released Friday, focusing on the issue of domestic violence through a woman’s (Google Glass) eyes. Similarly, the video started pleasantly enough, yet quickly took a shocking turn. Both videos (which are below if you haven’t seen them) used shock advertising (shockvertising) to get their important message across, and judging by the popularity of these ads it appears that many people have taken notice. But I do have to wonder if all the shocking ads will only make us more immune to them in the future.

As everyone has noticed, the media has transformed the way we see news. We’re able to get real-time updates on wars and major global issues, and either through TV, internet, or updates through our smartphones we can become constantly aware of what’s going on at all times. There are pluses and minuses to both sides of the debate of whether or not this is a good transformation, but one of the major points is that we see so much of the violence and carnage. All you have to do is Google Ukrainian protests to see bloody images and read gory details of what’s happening, and it’s no different from any other global event. And with 24/7 news, it’s difficult–or impossible–to completely avoid the terrifying reports. So when we constantly see and hear about these horror stories, we start to become desensitized to them.

When I first heard about the protests in Ukraine, I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t that I didn’t care or chose to actively ignore them, it just seemed like another bloody ordeal. I figured it was another Syria. Or Libya. Or Boston. Or Newtown. These kinds of stories–although hugely important and urgent–are beginning to seem more common, partially because we hear about many of them on an around-the-clock basis. So when I learned that dozens of people were dying in Ukraine, I was saddened but not startled.

I felt similarly when watching the Save the Children and Women’s Day ads. I can clearly see their message and understand what they’re trying to convey, but when I see so much worse on TV it’s tough to feel shocked by these videos. I’ll agree that it is more frightening and hits closer to home when you focus on one person rather than the ambiguity of the news–much like feeling more emotionally drained when watching 12 Years a Slave compared to reading about slavery in a history book–but there’s only so much you can do in a two-minute ad. There’s only so much time to make the audience feel something.

So the apparent solution to make up for the brevity of an advertisement: make it even more shocking. A common theme throughout both of these ads is to start out happy and then BAM! instantly hit us with some serious shock value. This isn’t a new concept, but it seems to me like the ads are getting more and more terrifying. Which makes perfect sense, because if we’re becoming immune to the idea of violence as a result of other areas of the media, the same old shock advertising won’t shock.

But I can image this turning into a vicious circle. We see more daily news about the horrors or war, car accidents, gun violence, etc., then the Ad Council starts making PSAs in an attempt to stop war, car accidents, gun violence, etc., but we don’t feel anything different after seeing the PSAs because we’re so used to seeing and hearing about war, car accidents, gun violence, etc. Then the PSAs have to be more and more shocking just to get people’s attention.

Instead of “shockvertising,” I would like to see more uplifting stories. I was never a fan of movies that ended with the main character dying or an otherwise depressing finale, and I feel the same way about advertising. For example, I would have much preferred it if the Syria ad had ended with the girl receiving aid from the Save the Children foundation and her life started to improve again, perhaps with a tagline like “with your help we could see more success stories.” Or if in the Women’s Day video she had received help from family/friends or gone to a shelter or some other safer place, with the moral of the story being there is help available to women in these situations.

Just because the issues are serious doesn’t mean there can’t still be a happy ending.

In case you haven’t seen them yet, here are the two videos:


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