Balancing the Cause Shock-Factor

Social marketing, which aims to capture attention and initiate behavior change, is most effective when it evokes emotion and feelings. But what if it’s the feeling of your stomach turning? While effective social marketing is often “edgy” (e.g., showing body bags to curb youth smoking), two recent campaigns demonstrate how shock-factor can range from the effective to the offensive.

A PSA for the 10:10 global campaign, a program focused on encouraging participants to cut carbon emissions by 10 percent each year, caused outrage with the extreme measures it took to show what happens when people opt not to take action to fight climate change. Particularly offensive was a segment in the “No Pressure” video in which a teacher blows up students who refuse to take part in cutting emissions. The gory video prompted Sony U.K. to distance itself from the organization by dropping all support for the climate change campaign. In response, the video director issued a public apology for the offensive imagery.

Less graphic, yet similarly stomach-churning is the New York City Health Department’s latest campaign against sugar-sweetened drinks. The print and video ads depicting sugary drinks as glasses filled with globs of greasy fat are enough to catch eyeballs and make stomachs spin. Knowing that nearly six out of 10 adults and four out of 10 kids in New York are overweight or obese, the Department aims to discourage residents from a daily soda habit, which can add 10 pounds of fat in a year. Though some have applauded the NYC Health Department for its efforts to curb obesity, several are left with a bad taste in their mouths.

The NYC Health Department strikes a balance between attention-grabbing and gut-grabbing, but the 10:10 campaign tipped the shock-factor scale over the edge. The climate change PSA’s lack of sensitivity ultimately cost the 10:10 campaign a major corporate sponsor and a huge amount of credibility among peers. It will stand as a warning for other organizations looking to get a message out in an eye-catching way – it may get you attention, but is it the right kind? There is a fine line between communicating an issue and taking a message too far.


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