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SHOCKING – or De-sensitizing? 2 December, 2007

Posted by paralleldivergence in advertising, education, Internet, Life, shock, TV Shows.

GOVERNMENTS and authorities around the world have been using shock tactics in “Public Service Announcements” for several years now, but their use of graphic advertising has been on the increase. Certainly, it is universally acknowledged that smoking, driving without a seat belt and drugs are dangerous and carry certain risks, but it seems the public needs to be reminded, often on a daily basis, of these dangers in gory detail.

In the above advertisement from Australia, we are shown the real, personal aftermath of a short lifetime of smoking. This is literally one of hundreds of such ads now being aired in countries all over the planet. These may cause smokers to try to quit, but will this stop people taking up smoking in the first place?  Many young people have a short attention span and that is especially when it comes to thinking about the future. If they know smoking is not going to kill you within days, then the youth won’t care. This will again be dismissed as everyone who starts smoking believes they can quit at any time. Despite these shock ads, that’s not going to change.

Maybe authorities should move away from the graphic scare campaign and onto more behavior-related methods. Most non-smokers (young and old) are turned off by smoking. Seeing someone you find attractive turn and light up a cigarette is a huge turn-off for so many people. If smokers realised this they might think about it a bit more.  Shame not scare.

Now what about all those “horror” safe-driving campaigns? The next one here is a quite powerful one from a series of UK ads based on the “Think!” concept. This one asks from two angles, “How does what you do affect others?”

From Norway came a clever and highly visual example of how seat belts save lives. Here is the Icelandic version of it.

And another of the UK “Think!” ads, this time looking at how driving just a little over the speed limit can really alter a situation, with deadly consequences.

Finally, this is probably the most graphic Public Service Announcement I’ve ever seen. It’s a Canadian Work Safety ad aiming to alert employees to be more vigilant and careful at work. It also pulls at heartstrings by introducing the human in the story to the audience, so she’s not just some nameless, faceless crash test dummy.

So, the real question is, do they work? Are smoking rates going down because of these ads or because its being banned from most indoor areas across the western world? Do more people wear seat belts and less people talk on their cell phone while driving because they’ve been terrorised by these graphic public service announcements or because more and more people are being fined for these offences? Are people slowing down because they are terrified of killing a child or because of the ever growing use of speed cameras? And as for the last ad, hell, I don’t know if I want to go to work tomorrow!

Whether the ads are working or not, there is a pretty serious side-effect. The more these types of ads are shown, the more we as a society are being de-sensitized. Most of the comments at YouTube attached to these ads are mocking the people and situations in them. There’s very little sense of horror and more of the opposite – hilarity. The people commenting at YouTube are Internet veterans. They’ve seen everything there is to see. From hostages being decapitated in Iraq through to the worst imaginable XXX porn. All just a few clicks of the mouse away. Just what will a de-sensitized society be like, I wonder? We may not have to wait too long to find out.



1. Shock and Awe - 2 December, 2007

I have never seen those ads. A few of them were very stirring, but I agree, after you’ve seen them a few times, I guess it would be a lot easier to switch off. Do they get their point across? I reckon they are very heavy-handedly preaching to the converted.

2. Friendlypig - 2 December, 2007

I have seen a couple of the ads before, and the first time you seen them they do shock. However the se-sensitising effect occurs with repetition.

You can only see something for the first time, once. After that the effect diminishes. So the only way they could work is hit & run.

About 40 years ago the local Council decided to so something about the accident rate on one of the major dual-carraigeways. They decided on shock!!

They went to scrap-yard and got 6 accident damaged cars. Then they went to the regional medical school and borrowed 6 (real) skeletons. They dresed the skeltons up and placed them in the cars and put the cars in the centre of the dual-carraigeway.

The local residents complained because the cars with accompanying skeletons were outside their homes. The local kids played in the cars and with skeletons and the accident rate tripled because the drivers were rubber-necking.

The idea was good but as with most local authority plans there was a decided lack of critical thinking.

3. Elvira - 3 December, 2007

I think Shock and Awe got it right. They are preaching to the converted – and terrorizing them. The last two ads were horrible! I’d hate for my kids to see them.

4. paralleldivergence - 3 December, 2007

Thanks Shock and Awe. I can’t see governments stopping using the tactic any time soon.

Friendlypig, that’s terrible. What were they thinking would happen?

Elvira, that’s an important point. What impact does this horror advertising have on our children?

5. Friendlypig - 4 December, 2007

What were they thinking of?

Who knows?

This is a very large municipal authority that we’re writing about, and in the 1960’s, then as now, they always knew or know best. Now of course they would have to be a little more considerate and consultative.

We laugh now but it’s not really funny. They thought that they were being pro-active; the sad thing it was all done with the agreement of the Police. I rest my case!

6. Ivan - 12 December, 2007

These are some pretty amazing ads. We don’t have anything like these in the U.S. Maybe we should. I’d really like to see some shock ads in the area of gun control. But as if THAT’s gonna happen.

7. tobeme - 9 January, 2008

Good thoughts. We do need to consider the impact of these adverts and come to understand the long term impact of desensitizing the viewer. Worth considering. You gave a good example for teens, that is use shame or social non-acceptance rather then scare tactics.
What do you suggest for the other type of ads that would create impact that is desired.

8. paralleldivergence - 9 January, 2008

Great question tobeme! I remember seeing an ad where a woman gets home from the hospital, distraught because her husband was just killed in a car accident. The house is empty and she’s alone. There’s a light flashing on the answering machine. She presses the button to retrieve the call and it’s her husband telling her he’s running a little late at work, but he’ll be home soon. She breaks down.

It’s pretty powerful stuff without all the graphic blood and gore. For a lot of people, the heart rules the mind and it’s the emotion rather than the visual that’s going to have the more lasting impact in any message. I think focussing the message on the repercussions for friends and relatives might make people think twice and consider their actions.

I believe these types of ads do have a desensitizing effect and society is becoming more blase about things that were otherwise considered taboo discussions just a couple of generations ago. The further effect we see everyday is the loss of childhood that media like the Internet are bringing to the world. I alluded to this in the last few sentences of the article.

Glad you liked it.

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