A low blow by Barnardo's

The problem with shock tactics is that they put up barriers, says Chris Arnold

Chris Arnold
Chris Arnold

The most recent TV ad from Barnardo's led to 477 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. That's two more than its 'cockroach' press ad in 2003, which included a computer-generated photograph of a new-born baby with a cockroach crawling out of its mouth. That was the most complained-about ad of the year - and it was banned.

The recent ad begins with two teenagers fighting outside a shop. It then cuts to a teenage girl behind a prison door; then to her sitting at a kitchen table, where a man slaps her on the back of her head, calling her a "worthless little cow". She is then shown in a classroom struggling to read, and finally in a deserted setting having used drugs. Personally, I didn't find it offensive or shocking. I've seen worse on documentaries.

The problem with shock tactics is that they put up barriers. In some cases, the truth is hard-hitting and necessary. But in others, are charities that lack imagination using shock tactics only for cheap publicity? Using shocking or offensive ads simply to send out the message that your cause is more important than others verges on the irresponsible. All charities believe their causes are important, but most manage to engage the public and win their sympathy by using smarter, more imaginative creative techniques than shock tactics.

There's a difference between shocking and having a positive impact. The recent St John Ambulance campaign to encourage parents to take first-aid courses was striking, but used dolls instead of children to reduce the shock factor. It led to a large increase in the number of applications to St John Ambulance first-aid courses. Had it used real kids, I think it would have got a lower response rate.

Research into the Barnardo's cockroach ad by Marketing magazine in 2003 found the images did not influence whether people would donate. And a report by think tank Demos in the same year said shock tactics created "a skewed perception of the risks and unrealistic expectations that such risks can be totally eradicated".

Leonard Cheshire Disability's Creature Discomforts campaign was one of the best-loved campaigns of 2008. It was light-hearted, well thought-through, engaged people and made its point without using shock tactics. The Prostate Cancer Research Foundation's TV ads featuring a posthumous Bob Monkhouse also managed to win people over without being shocking.

If you're considering shock tactics, you need to consider the outcome. Punching someone in the face to make a point may make them remember you, but it doesn't make a friend of them.

- Chris Arnold is strategic and creative director of Symple

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