Not so long ago, the U.S. government ran a series of ads intended to draw attention to the problem of obesity. The situations shown seemed commonplace – a lost-and-found desk, some people in the park. The conversations were routine. The outcomes not so much.

Invariably, the ads focused on weird rubbery objects that turned out to be chunks of fat shed by overweight people engaging in habit-changing exercise. Disgusting? Yes. Point made? Absolutely.

Just a few days ago, the British government began running similar blunt-force ads aimed at curbing obesity and smoking. One shows tumors growing on a cigarette. This latest return to shock advertising – which has caused a minor stir among the typically reserved British islanders — has UK’s Marketing Week wondering whether the blunt-force approach actually works better than the nudge-them-forward pitch. Especially when the messages center on the all-important issue of personal health.

The Age of Instant Attention Fail

It’s no surprise that advertisers – even government-sponsored ones – might want to get right to the point, given the amount of information consumers encounter. Is there an appreciable difference to be gained, though, in grabbing our attention as opposed to coaxing it?

According to Marketing Week, specific circumstances can influence the effectiveness of shock ads:

  • Drama-packed ads come off as different and new when the tactic has been in little use for the greater part of a generation
  • Ads that work against expectations – such as one in New York’s Central Park telling people not to buy a Patagonia jacket until they absolutely need it – can prompt side conversations on social media, thereby upping the brand’s profile
  • Shock ads providing a remedy, as opposed to those that starkly depict only a problem, tend to hold their audience for the duration of the message

Shock, But Awe

That last point suggests that marketers need to take care how much they rely on bombast at the expense of more subtle, positive messages. As Rory Sutherland, past president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, said to Marketing Week, “If you make me feel bad about something but don’t give me something I can do about it, then in an unconscious way I almost end up disliking you and your message.” He went on to say that marketers will likely benefit from embracing a more scientific, psychological approach to understanding human behavior.

Commercial advertisers – especially those in the fields of health and nutrition – are already climbing on board with that sentiment. Weight Watchers, for instance, recently unveiled its Weight Watchers 360° campaign, which seeks to “nudge[s] members toward more satisfying and nutrient dense foods.” Along those same lines, Kellogg’s Special K just announced its new campaign, ‘What will you gain when you lose?’, which, says brand manager Sophie Colling, is intended to motivate women to take a more positive approach to losing weight.

While both approaches have their respective strengths, neither seems as effective in isolation. When it comes to changing personal habits through advertising, the sharp slap in the face and the consistently positive follow-through still need each other more than advocates of either might care to admit.

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