Curtis Westman

Shock Advertising? Shlock Advertising!

Posted by on October 13, 2010

Studies have shown that out of a hundred people, who when driving on a highway in the middle of the afternoon and in their peripheral vision vaguely spot what might be the desiccated corpse of some unfortunate roadkill, ninety-nine of them will look right at it just to confirm their suspicions and thoroughly disgust themselves. That last person out of a hundred will actually stop, get out of the car and stare at it until they puke.

Human beings are hard-wired to seek out shocking and unnatural images, stories or ideas, perhaps out of some sick fascination with our own morbid end, or perhaps just because it comforts us to know that something out there exists that is more screwed up than we are. Why, then, would anyone doubt that we ever think to use that natural gag reflex as a selling point?

These days, there’s a bit of a proliferation of advertisements (usually from abroad, where regulations are more lax) intended to shock or appall to the point where a wallet will just spring open of its own volition. The latest is an ad out of France making light of 9/11.

It’s not the first time the tragedy has been used to make a point, either. Are these ads clever? Absolutely. Are they disturbing and tasteless? Undoubtedly. So why risk a public shaming in the international community by producing them?

Do you really have to ask? This is an ad from France, and people are talking about it in the U.S., in Canada, and beyond. There’s a little community newspaper serving a sleepy hamlet on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and they’ve just picked up a wire story about it.

It’s not a new trend, either. The very first shock ad was produced in 1903, publicizing a then-rollicking night club called the “Dark Moon.” They played all the hits your great-grandparents’ parents hated, including the infamous Strauss sonata in E-flat major, which in those days was often called the key signature of the damned. The ad featured a lithograph print of a comely dancing woman whose hosiery had fallen below her knees and the copy, “Anything can happen at the Dark Moon!” People were outraged. (I’m still pretty steamed.) But the next month the Dark Moon had a line-up around the block.

Infamy works. It causes dialogue. Some people consider it lazy, and some consider it infuriating that a banned ad can be so widespread while an ad that follows social convention is more limited.

One thing is clear, though, whether a child somewhere is burning ants with a magnifying glass for profit, or an agency is desperately hoping to garner some international press, it’s pretty clear that nice guys (and nice ads) quite often finish behind the jerks.

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