Does shock and awe advertising still work?

This is a brutally graphic public service announcement from Australia’s Transport Accident Commission (TAC). Viewer discretion is advised.

This is an immensely powerful piece of work beautifully executed. And it had an emotional impact on me. All the characters resonated with me as I imagined myself as many of them at various stages of my life. At the end I was breathless and close to tears.

But the question being asked by Bill Green is “Does this stuff work? Really work?” According to Bill, TAC says yes. According to TAC, “in 1989 the first TAC commercial went to air. In that year the road toll was 776; by 2008 it had fallen to 303”. That fell again to 295 in 2009. However, despite these powerful commercials, 16 people died over the Christmas period.

Topically, I have just spent 10 days in Australia over the festive period and the only TVCs I can recall were for alcohol (beer and hard liquor) and fast food. I was stunned to see so much alcohol advertised on TV. I didn’t see this TAC commercial or if I did, it didn’t register.

Using creativity to communicate
Advertising, and in particular well executed advertising, used to be a great way to reach a great many people over a relatively short period of time. With less competition, more accepting and attentive consumers, such reach could ensure the message was received and absorbed by the right people. Not anymore. Mass media has fragmented into niches and communities. Using creativity to communicate a message is no longer effective because the message is blocked out or soon forgotten because we simply don’t have the interest or bandwidth to absorb all the messages assaulting us throughout the day, every day. Increasing frequency doesn’t help, it makes it worse as it adds to the noise. Even beautifully executed work like this is lost in the fog of products and services.

I wrote an article about a similar approach used toward smoking in the UK and Malaysia. You can read the full article here,

Chilling commercials don’t work
With smoking, the research, carried out over 10 years by the Institute for Social and Economic research found that the warnings on cigarette packets that smoking kills or maims are ineffective in reducing the number of smokers. Likewise, chilling commercials or emotionally disturbing programs are also ineffective. The study also discovered that when a close family member become ill from the effects of smoking, the smoker takes no notice. In fact, according to the study, smokers only reduce the number of cigarettes or sometimes quit when their own personal health is at stake.

In Malaysia, despite nearly US$50 million spent on shock and awe campaigns to create awareness of the dangers of smoking, the number of smokers has practically doubled every 10 years. Whether or not there are parallels between campaigns for smokers and those who drink and drive, I don’t know.

Personally, I suspect that the reductions in fatal traffic accidents since 1989 are due to better safety features in cars, better roads, better lighting, highly visible enforcement measures, increased penalties for offences such as not wearing seatbelts and using mobiles, reductions of speed limits, more drug testing and better educated consumers.

The key then is not to add to carpet bombing of consumers via advertising, but to identify how those consumers become better educated? Was it the commercials or a reaction to the commercials or other initiatives?

Pubs legally obliged to breathalyse patrons
This can be done using qualitative research with consumers and then use that data to forge future strategies. It may be expensive and time consuming, but it will give us the answers we are looking for and determine future strategies. Of course it may be that it is not the commercials but in fact peer pressure at key times such as when consumers leave a pub, club etc. I think this may be the case and I see a time, not too far in the distant future when all bars and restaurants have to, by law, breathalyse all patrons as they leave the premises.

Personally, although this is a powerful TVC, I wouldn’t watch it again. If this commercial came on, I would change channels because if I am watching TV, I don’t want my leisure time to be challenged by issues I don’t want to address at that particular time.

Thanks to Andy Wright for the heads up on this story.


2 thoughts on “Does shock and awe advertising still work?

  1. Great post Marcus and thanks for the mention.

    I’m not familiar with the complete campaign, but I think this type of strategy has to be backed up through other relevant touchpoints. A piece of communication as impactful and powerful as this will have an affect, but as you point out, perhaps only once. Roadside messages, government policy, public relations, advocacy etc should all play a role. Indeed, the halving of deaths in Australia has seen these methods prove effective. It should be evaluated like any other campaign, in its entirety not just around the TV ad.

    I think there’s still a role for shock and awe, but as in other industries, the message needs to be driven through other channels as relevant (and perhaps not always so shockingly).


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