This campaign from the NHS received a record number of complaints after disturbing photos were used, showing people with a fishhook through the sides of their mouths. The metaphor of being ‘hooked’ on smoking was utilised in a way which left many people revolted by the adverts, and caused 774 people to complain the campaign was "offensive, frightening and distressing", placing it in the top 10 most-complained-about adverts of all time. Designed to prompt people to get “unhooked” by shock tactics, this approach certainly backfired here.
Shock tactics have been used in advertising for years, with the aim of deliberately violating social norms to get attention. Shock tactics usually work because they grab people’s attention, and stay in the memory of those who have seen it; it is very difficult to forget seeing something which shocks us, and thus advertisers who use this technique can expect their advert to be remembered long after someone has stopped seeing it, thus reinforcing the likelihood that their message will be taken on board. According to information processing models, shocking advertising should facilitate attention and thus comprehension, enhance processing and then influence behaviour. However, there is a thin line between what works, and what really doesn’t.
A study by Dahl, Frankenberger & Manchada, (2003) used HIV/AIDs campaigns promoting condom usage to see whether an informative, fear-invoking, or shocking advert had the most effect on students. The shock advertisement featured the tagline “Don’t Be A F***ing Idiot” and featured a nude couple embracing intimately. In comparison the other two conditions used a driver’s licence metaphor of life expiry dates (fear) and some statistics about the AIDs virus (informative). They found that all three adverts were rated as equally likeable, but the shocking one was rated as most obscene and startling. 84% said that the shocking advertisement drew their attention most, demonstrating the advertising power that shock tactics can have.
Perhaps this NHS advert failed because, as well as being shocking and attention grabbing, the memory that remains is one which causes the universal emotion of disgust in most who view it. This emotion is posited as an ancient disease-avoidance mechanism, designed to close ourselves off from the offending stimuli, in an evolutionary mechanism designed to stop us from coming into contact with toxic things (Oaten, Stevenson & Case, 2009). Therefore, the processing route this advert takes may be one which in fact decreases attention and comprehensive processing, whilst making a strong negative association with the memory of the ad, making those who view it strongly averse to the advert, rendering the message unsuccessful.
Dahl, D. W., Frankenberger, K. D., & Manchanda, R. V. (2003). Does it pay to shock? Reactions to shocking and nonshocking advertising content among university students. Journal of Advertising Research, 43(03), 268-280.
Oaten, M., Stevenson, R. J., & Case, T. I. (2009). Disgust as a disease-avoidance mechanism. Psychological bulletin, 135(2), 303.