Claire Beale On Advertising: When shock tactics go too far...

Imagine yourself in the creative department of a German advertising agency. A brief has just come in for an anti-Aids TV commercial. So how do you persuade young people to put caution before pleasure and acknowledge that sex can be fatal? Think hard. What's the most traumatising image you can conjure to shock your carefree and careless audience into paying attention and donning a condom?

It's not hard to see how the German creatives came up with the idea of Hitler having sex. Coming up with the idea, though, is one thing, having the nerve to make it into an ad is quite another. The result is a steamy soft-core porn film of a couple having sex, all grinding bodies and swinging breasts. It's not until the end frame that we see the man's face: a sweaty, straining, orgasmic Hitler appears, alongside the line "Aids is a mass murderer". The ad is beyond shocking, and has proved predictably controversial.

On the other side of the Atlantic a similar advertising controversy has been building. This time the worthy cause trying to shock people into awareness is the World Wildlife Fund. Its Brazilian office worked with DDB Brasil to come up with a print ad and a film so disturbing in its approach that the entire North American ad industry has been buzzing.

The WWF campaign shows a film of Manhattan being attacked by an entire fleet of planes in a scenario that plays upon the horrors of the 9/11 atrocity. The copy – I paraphrase – says that the 9/11 attacks were bad, but the 2005 tsunami was worse. The strapline at the end reads: "Our planet is brutally powerful. Conserve it."

Hardly surprising, then, that the ad was criticised for its insensitivity and crass abuse of a tragedy. Cue furious backtracking from agency and client, who blamed inexperienced juniors on both sides for allowing the campaign to see the light of day.

It's possible that the WWF campaign was never really intended for public consumption, but as a scam ad primarily created to enter awards. It happens; rather a lot, in fact. Nevertheless, both agency and client were clearly aware of its existence and some people somewhere at both companies felt it was an appropriate way to market the WWF brand.

Anyway, what both the Aids awareness and WWF campaigns illustrate are the pitfalls of producing social awareness campaigns. In these days of communication saturation when commercials can become little more than wallpaper, forcing an unpalatable social message – unprotected sex can give you Aids, or we need to treat our planet with more respect – on an audience that would rather not admit to the issues can lead to desperate tactics.

We would not have heard of either of these ads had they not employed such disturbing imagery. The power of the iconography employed has amplified the commercial messages well beyond the countries for which they were intended and has given both campaigns the sort of oxygen neither advertiser could afford to buy.

Do the ends justify the means? Is advertising – for anything, even a life-and-death issue – ever an appropriate vehicle for such disturbing and provocative themes? Advertising is routinely brought in as a weapon against social problems and is asked to tackle some of our most sensitive issues: knife crime, drink-driving, obesity, binge drinking, sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse.

In the end, it comes down to the sensitivity and genuine commitment to the cause with which the ads are created. For my money, the Aids awareness campaign is defensible on this score. WWF's ad, though, is dangerously crass and exploitative. Both the agency and the client should be ashamed of themselves.

Best in Show: HSBC (JWT)

It's a year since the collapse of Lehman Brothers brought the financial world to its knees. It will take many more years for the banking industry to regain the public's faith and support. But HSBC's new ad by JWT will move the game forward an inch for the brand. The theme is about responsibility and integrity; ours, funnily enough, not theirs. In the ad a fisherman catches a dolphin in his net, and responsibly lets the dolphin and the rest of his catch go rather than selfishly sacrifice the dolphin to keep his haul. It's a lovingly shot, evocative commercial and there's no denying that, in the current climate, taking responsibility for your finances is a good idea.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Social Media Account Writers

£12000 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This social media management pr...

Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor (Magazine Publishing) - Wimbledon - £23-26K

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor - Wimbledon...

Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publishing) - Wimbledon - £26-30K

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publish...

Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago