The COI, sadly no longer with us, was famed for its ‘shocking’ ads. Playing on a cautiousness prevalent in the 60’s and 70’s, it briefed agencies to deliver ‘hard-hitting’ campaigns that ‘punched above their weight’, ‘hit home’ and ‘forced through behaviour change’. Usually exaggerated and over-the-top, fear played a key role within these campaigns.
If, like me, you weren’t able to experience them first hand, here’s an example of one of their classics.
Does this shock and awe style actually work though?
Or to put it another way - does this particular stimulus deliver the desired response?
The majority of the time, I would argue, it doesn’t. And while the COI may no longer be with us, its approach to advertising still firmly lives on.
Public Health England have launched a large-scale campaign this month, aiming to put the boot in to poor old smokers. Already banished to consume their cancer-sticks outside, this disaffected minority is now being shown exactly what smoke does to their body.
Or are they? The above looks suspiciously like raspberry jam. I think I can even see some pips!
I’m pretty sure that, even if all I ate for 60 years was coal and jelly cubes, my blood could never look that thick or that black.
Using the PHE example above, we’re able to see three reasons why shock tactics might not (in this instance at least) be the right way to have gone:
1. By elaborating on the truth, you are letting smokers off the hook (pun intended). Their response is allowed to be: ‘That’s a lie – it’s not really that bad’ rather than ‘I really need to stop!’.
2. The second is because of a general human trait. If you see something horrible, shocking, scary or disgusting, you automatically switch-off - shielding yourself from pain. It acts as a defence mechanism by preventing any information getting through – the exact opposite of what’s intended. It avoids the occurrence of cognitive dissonance which the smoker would then be required to resolve – perhaps by not smoking!
3. The third is similar to the second, but is because of a trait specific to smokers. Smokers are not stupid. They, like everyone else, are well aware of the overwhelming evidence in support of smoking as a fatally addictive hobby. Life though, for most people at least, is quite tough, and when this awful truth is realised some people find it difficult to accept - trying to avoid these realities as much as possible. They require an escape…
Some people go AWOL and live in Australia. Some become alcoholics or drug addicts. And others smoke. Rightly or wrongly, the mind-set of this target-audience is one of hedonism, which requires a strict and well-practised avoidance technique, not
just towards everyone else, but towards themselves as well. They regimentally compartmentalise their thoughts and allow themselves to hear only what they want to hear, rather than the truth. They stop themselves from saving themselves. The addictive pleasure hit becomes too powerful.
Taking all three points above as a given, and bringing in Kahneman’s terminology of System 1 and System 2, should the purpose of the communication therefore be, not to overload the frontal lobe (System 1) with yet more un-pleasurable stimuli, but to coax the smoker to allow System 2 take control again? To let System 2 step in and save System 1. To allow the smoker to save themselves.
If they won’t listen to anyone else, they’re the only ones left!
Alex Dobson // Hall & Partners, London