Queen Victoria subjected herself and her regime to a period of legendary austerity. The impact of her mourning was so powerful that the notion of a ‘Victorian sensibility’ is still prevalent today. Not only was London painted black to honour the cortege serve as a symbol of admonition to those who might find cause for celebration, but, thereafter, Victorians would find fault if two books by authors of the opposite sex were shelved next to each other and would even cover the legs of a table for fear that they may appear too bare and offend the high moral sensibility of the times.
So overwhelming was the abstemious display of remorse that it would place modern-day Pakistan’s already stringent censorship policy next to indecency. Ironic, you might say. But what is more ironic is that during this period of grief, Victoria was already entrenched in an intimate friendship with none other than one of her loyal servants — as proven recently by the discovery of the couple’s correspondence — which earned her the sobriquet, ‘Mrs. Brown’ among palace insiders. But while the news of such an affair is easily shocking in a public setting, it is, by no great stretch of the imagination, a natural and desired evolution between understanding parties in a private setting. Victoria continued to be loved by everyone.
Which is just the point. People consume ‘shock’ differently in a public versus a private setting. The use of ‘shock values’ in industries such as film, art, fashion and music has often been met by extremities from the public at large. But in a private setting, it is often much less blatant, consumed in an environment of silent digestion and dismissed among the many accidents of titillation one comes across in everyday living. It’s like watching a comedy by yourself. Chances are you don’t laugh as much watching it alone as you would have done had you been viewing the same comedy in a public setting among friends — or even a hall full of strangers.
The use of shock isn’t a recent development. Consider medieval fairs where human deformities were on display, latter-day circuses where dwarfs are dressed as clowns, modern-day soap operas where surreal human relationships are forged or even the streets of our cities where beggars display their handicaps. They have all used shock to their advantage. To both entertain and gain monetarily. And they have done so successfully because deep-rooted in the nature of the shocked (the audience) is the cathartic belief that they are not like ‘the shocking’ — leading to a sense of satisfaction with their own lives.
Similarly, it is effective to use shock — or any of its sibling tactics — in advertising. The purpose is simple: to command attention and generate talk-value — considered the most persuasive arena for advertising registration. As Dr. Samuel Johnson proclaimed, ‘ advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquences sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic.’ When shock is used as an end in itself, it fails miserably — likened to the rantings of a madman. But when it is used strategically — in association with a powerful idea or as a tactic to communicate that powerful idea and in accordance with brand values— it commands enormous attention and unequivocal opportunities for branding.
Shock, as it’s commonly perceived, shouldn’t be disturbing, tasteless or even offensive. Far from it. Now more than ever, for a generation of consumers raised on television, to be effective it must have a component of entertainment. So, it can be humourous, charming, inviting, daring; it can be used to create awareness, induce trial, change an opinion, or challenge a habit. In effect, the intelligent use of shock — in all its original, memorable and flexible variety — can become the advertising craftsman’s most potent secret.
Even risk-averse clients who fear the likelihood of public condemnation of their advertising will find reason in urging their agencies to use shock. This is because while advertising may appear in a public setting (ie. mass media), it targets the private setting (the individual mind). It always has. Through a public medium, it speaks privately to one person at a time (remember the shotgun vs. rifle theory?) If it didn’t and insisted on considering its ‘audience’ as exactly that — a segment of statistically correct consumers — it would sound like a speech. Speeches bore people to sleep. And nobody buys anything when they’re asleep. Copywriters know this skill best when they are selecting a tone of voice: in speaking to their audience, they select one person from the crowd, give him a definite and identifiable personality and then address him. Only then does their advertising sound meaningful. Jack Trout & Al Ries further recommend in their best-seller, Positioning, that you have to ‘shock your way into the mind of the consumer.’ In other words, a weak approach results in weak returns. What’s more, shock-value enhances advertising visibility, memorability and saleability. What could be better?
Of course, despite this argument, advertisers still insist on playing safe — which is okay so long as there’s a budget for frequency of exposure. But it’s when the budget is low and the expectations high that the thing to lose is your reservation. Risk is good. Don’t underestimate audience reaction by way of shocking them through advertising. They know it’s place in the grand scheme of things i.e. it’s just an ad and not an environmental disaster. Given that advertising is what’s left when everything you’ve communicated is forgotten, it’s sensible to commit to your communication the kind of creative energy it needs to succeed with impact in the market. Which means, making the most of advertising creativity now.
Over 100 years ago, Victoria seemed to know the secret. About time we catch up.