Burger King has broken the internet yet again. Their latest creation of ‘The Mouldy Whopper’ uses time lapse photography to show in just 30 seconds how the product deteriorates and moulds across a period of 34 days. The ad is promoting the recent removal of artificial preservatives from its signature burger and other items from the menu, across a number of international markets. Whether you love the bold and daring concept, which breaks all the rules of food advertising, or hate the less than appetising appeal of watching food decay before your eyes; it’s likely that you’ll already be aware of its existence and will have a strong opinion on the campaign. The piece has divided opinions throughout the industry, and within the space of a few days has captured media and consumer attention on a global scale. However, this type of advertising falls into the ongoing debate of the positive vs negative impact of using shock tactics in advertising. Raising the question, that although this type of marketing can generate huge interest, what kind of results can we expect from ‘shockvertising’ in 2020?
It’s undeniable that using controversial marketing content captures attention. Across the top viewed ads of 2019, many of these used forms of ‘shocking’ content, inspired to generate a range of emotive responses from viewers. However, in today’s digital world where we often consume multiple types of media at once, we are regularly exposed to disturbing images and stories, taking horror in our stride and almost becoming numb to the effects. The sheer amount of marketing messages that are constantly directed towards us also make it more difficult to cut through. A study of UK consumers found 75% did not remember seeing ads that were determined to be ‘viewable’ and were unable to recall the associated brands. Customers are constantly becoming more savvy, recognising that companies are using disturbing and graphic content in campaigns as publicity stunts, with the ultimate aim of causing the ads to be banned to create a stir and enhance their ROI organically. However, many smaller organisations with lower marketing budgets also make the most of this tactic, as a way of competing with much larger rivals at a fraction of the equivalent paid-for-media cost. So although ‘shocking’ ads are being noticed, are they having the desired impact?
The third sector is often associated with using ‘shocking’ content. With some deeming that this style of material is more appropriate for charities to use than for-profit organisations. In many cases, the tactic has been found to be beneficial in this industry, encouraging people to donate to the cause in question. Barnardos ‘Giving Children Back their Future’ campaign led with distressing imagery of a baby injecting itself with heroin, causing an advertising watchdog to urge the media to not feature the ads. However, the overall results of the campaign were positive, with research finding that both existing donors and non donors were more likely to donate to Barnardos after being exposed to the ads. Despite positive results across some campaigns, the third sector is also suffering from shock fatigue, with the market saturated with similar types of ‘shocking’ and emotive ads. Even in an industry where this type of marketing is typically more accepted, brands are shifting away from the shock factor, to be more clever with their communications to achieve the desired results. St John Ambulance have led the way with the award winning animated series ‘The Chokeables’, a selection of short films to teach parents how to help a choking baby. Rather than the typical ‘shocking’ content, the animations use wit, charm and excitement to portray their message. The series has led to millions of tv and online impressions, along with hundreds of pieces of digital user generated content. But most importantly, has contributed to increasing the knowledge of this first aid technique by 24%.
As with all types of marketing, each campaign will have a different impact upon different audiences. Factors such as age, religion and moral principles etc. are just some of the ways in which attitudes can differ towards controversial advertising and the overall result of the messaging. Taking age into consideration, studies have suggested that for Millennials, ‘shocking’ content is becoming ‘obsolete’ and brands need to consider alternative ways to break through the advertising clutter. Research has shown the majority of respondents from this age group were found to either have no memory of the ‘shocking’ ads in question, or were only able to remember the imagery in isolation and not relate this back to the associated brand. Potentially indicating that even the objective of awareness may be difficult to achieve through ‘shockvertising’ within this age group. Looking specifically at geographical location, AT&T ran a campaign throughout the USA titled ‘Close to Home’, using horrifying scenes of a fatal car crash to caution drivers about the dangers of using their phone while on the road. Despite creating millions of impressions across the country and causing a media stir, research found that the ad ultimately failed to encourage any change in behaviour amongst customers while driving, despite the huge emotional response the concept initially created. However, on the other side of the world in Australia, UNICEF’s ‘A storybook wedding — except for one thing’ campaign proved to be a huge success. The ads shared upsetting information to educate people about the ongoing epidemic of child marriage. These were not only able to capture attention and raise awareness of the issue, but also encouraged people to take action and find out more about the issue.
Looking at controversial marketing from a neuroscience perspective, we can better understand the process that takes place when we view content of this nature. ‘Shocking’ content intends to evoke an emotional response in people, whether that is of a positive or negative reaction. Emotions are a key driver of memory and the ability of our brain to store information. The bigger the emotional spike created, the more likely it is to trigger and create a long term memory. To trigger and create long term memories, there is no such thing as a ‘bad emotion’. The science of memory demonstrates that the most influential factor is the intensity of the emotion that is being experienced, and not the nature of the emotion, to encode long term memories. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if people either love or hate the content they have viewed, but if they show a strong emotional response then long term memories are more likely to be created. Indicating why unconventional campaigns can be very successful at building awareness and perform well on recall. However, as previously touched upon, recall of ‘shocking’ content can sometimes be limited to the ad itself, rather than an association with the brand. Highlighting the notion that for shockvertising to be used successfully, the campaign will still need to tie in with and be relevant to the overall brand values.
To refer back to the original question of what kind of results shockvertising can expect to generate, there are a number of areas of consideration to determine how (or if) a brand can use this as a marketing technique. ‘Shocking’ advertising, whether loved or hated, has the power to generate strong emotions, creating memories which can then encourage recall and drive awareness. If a brand’s prime objective is to generate awareness, then controversial content can be a useful creative route to deliberate. However, there are many risks associated with such polarising marketing, especially for small businesses, which can also be balanced with potential benefits (such as capitalising on small budgets). But the most important consideration, for all marketing communications, should be to ensure any campaign links back to the company’s core values and proposition. Advertising of this nature has huge potential to go further than merely generating awareness — it has the capability to generate strong brand associations through powerful emotional recall.