Shock advertising sometimes necessary, expert says

Women walked topless in public in Toronto recently; they were advertising the need for greater awareness of breast cancer.

Joy Thorne-Enright, co-ordinator of Centennial College’s advertising program, says charities and corporations are more likely to use these kinds of in-your-face images to capture attention.

“Because we’re so bombarded with messages on a minute-by-minute basis, people … trying to get a message across need to do it in a powerful way,” she said. “And sometimes for health issues, shock value is needed.”

The anti-smoking lobby has also used shock value on cigarette packages to make get its message across. Thorne-Enright believes that the technique has been proven effective.

“If you look at (the statistics), you’ll find that smoking has gone down so that would back up the point that shock value is working,” she said. “They’re trying to reach a younger audience … A younger crowd doesn’t want to have their teeth looking like that and don’t want cancer of the mouth.”

Garfield Mahood, honorary executive director of the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, said advertisements on cigarette cartons have less to do with shock value and more to do with law.

“In Tort law (the tobacco) industry has an obligation to warn consumers of over 20 terminal diseases,” he said. “They have to warn them of the nature of the risk and also the magnitude of the risk.”

Mahood added that an individual’s influence to begin smoking comes from a variety of places.

“Kids see these things on the coffee table. They see them on the seat of the car … They see them all kinds of places before they ever try their first cigarette,” he said. “The name of the game for the tobacco industry is to grab as many of (the) kids who have mixed influences … and get them hooked on their products for life.”

Mahood said the best way to show young people the dangers of smoking is through real images.

“If you have 37,000 deaths (yearly) … if you have more people dying from tobacco than from AIDS, homicide, suicide, alcohol and traffic accidents combined, why would you want less drastic measures?” Mahood said. “This industry kills one out of two of its long-term customers … If you can affect just one per cent of the population … that’s 370 (fewer) deaths.”

Thorne-Enright said variety in advertising is important, which is why a subtle approach may not always be the most effective.

“Done in the right place at the right time for the right target audience (a subtle approach) works,” she said, “If it’s done all the time the message can get lost. And a lot of campaigns don’t lend themselves to that and it’s a good thing. That’s why we need variety.”