When did television commercials become as violent as the programming they interrupt?
BARBARA RIGHTON | Dec 18, 2006
TV dramas like 24 or Deadwood may shock viewers with their graphic violence. But they've got nothing on the ads that punctuate them. In the past year, TV addicts have seen people thrown into the air, impaled and left bloody or dead. Of this crop of ads, Volkswagen's "Safe happens" campaign has generated the most buzz for its brutal depiction of real car crashes. In the 30-second spots, unsuspecting passengers, played by stunt people, are side-swiped, cut off and sent flailing around in their seats like crash-test dummies. One cheeky ad in the series features two women discussing the shock value of the Volkswagen campaign -- when they are suddenly T-boned by a hulking grey SUV.
But Volkswagen isn't alone in its quest to elicit an "Oh my God!" response. Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board is offering up ads showing a forklift driver being skewered with metal rods, a corpse blackened by electrical burns, and a young woman falling face first into a glass display case. In Nova Scotia, a similar campaign goes so far as to show a woman holding her bloody arm after her hand has been amputated. And in anti-drunk-driving ads sponsored by the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, a teenage boy is launched through a car windshield.
Ad people call this "shockvertising" -- a frightening and often gory new way to get the message across in a world of sensory overload. Commercials have to be exciting now, says Brett Macfarlane, an account executive with Vancouver's DDB Canada, the agency that produced the graphic ads for the insurance corporation. Macfarlane says that between TV and the Internet, an average consumer can be subjected to some 3,000 ad messages in a single day. "You have to try something new to get through to people," he says. "It's a never-ending arms race in the advertising business."
Sure enough, not long after the Volkswagen ads aired, Toyota launched a U.S. ad campaign for the Yaris, created by Saatchi & Saatchi in Los Angeles. In one, the car terrorizes and attacks a winsome pink piggy bank; in another, it crushes a cute spider-like creature made of gas nozzles and sucks up its juices. In the third, it eats insects meant to represent MP3 players. The message -- that the Yaris is affordable, good on gas, and MP3-compatible -- is obscured by the viciousness of the ads. After an article appeared in the Web magazine Slate, readers wrote to complain about the violence and the creep factor.
Industry sources trace shockvertising all the way back to Benetton's advertising campaigns in the late 1980s -- like the black man and the white man manacled together -- or to the Calvin Klein ads of a young Brooke Shields half-dressed in an open shirt and a skin-tight pair of jeans. But simple racial tension or teenage sex no longer shocks; in the past year or two, marketers have alluded to ménages à trois and intergenerational sex to take things up a notch, but even that is now passé. Violence is what remains, and neither ad creators nor their clients are the least apologetic about using it.
"We chose to go with a high-impact approach to talk about the consequences of drinking and driving," says the ICBC's manager of road safety, Laurie Baker. Nearly 4,000 car crashes(she doesn't like to use the word "accident" because she doesn't believe accidents occur without human error)happen in B.C. every year because a driver was impaired. "The target audience was males aged 21-50. We had to get them to pay attention." The police loved the campaign, she says, and there was "very little negative concern from the public."(Still, it changed this week to a series of more cerebral ads focusing on excuses, not consequences.)
In Ontario, too, the WSIB's hard-hitting ads, created by Toronto's Foote Cone & Belding agency, have been effective. In travelling the province, Steve Mahoney, the ex-cabinet minister who heads up the organization, says he's heard people from Thunder Bay to Ottawa talking about the shop girl who falls off the ladder. And the new WSIB website, which features the ads, has had over 80,000 hits in seven weeks.
As for the VW ads, last spring, when the first one was rolled out, Volkswagen admitted it was fielding complaints about how the agency, Crispin Porter and Bogusky of Miami, had used shock value to sell cars. But its point was the crashes were real and the people weren't hurt. If viewers get a voyeuristic thrill in the process, so much the better.
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