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How not to do marketing 2 – shock and disruption


Being a bit harder-hitting in our marketing can be a powerful way to create an emotional trigger to encourage action.  That said, it’s also at the riskier end of communications techniques because there is a greater potential to shock or offend recipients rather than inspire them to action.

Anti-fur clothing campaigners like PeTA famously use shock tactics (and lots of stripped off celebrities) to get across their point about animal cruelty and appeal to the audience’s raw emotion.  But, as we know, this doesn’t always work in their favour as even sympathetic audiences can be turned off by communications they deem have simply gone too far.

Here’s a less extreme example.

Direct mail pack using disruption tacticI received this mailing a while ago – it’s in a plain brown envelope with no commentary stating that this was a promotional message.  The main headline reads “URGENT: WAITING LIST INFORMATION ENCLOSED”.  The letters are capitalised and in red.

Wearing my marketer’s hat I suspected this was a direct mail campaign because the NHS does not usually need (or can afford) to resort to red text.  But the vast majority of the intended audiences won’t share my career knowledge.

If I wore only my personal hat at the time, my view was very different.  I was waiting for news on an MRI scan for an ongoing back problem which left me in pain every day and which wasn’t getting sorted out any time soon.

When this person opened the envelope to find a charity fundraising campaign from the YMCA’s YCare International to support orphans in Sudan, my initial reaction wasn’t positive or empathetic.  This isn’t the fault of the campaign directly but they understood the risk of using these tactics at the outset.

The risk is exacerbated further when you consider the likely target audience for such campaigns.  More Dorothy than Felicity Donor and therefore considerably more likely to have ongoing health questions.

I don’t know if this campaign worked for YCare or not but we do know that getting people to open the envelope (email, text etc.) and feel something for the cause described within is key to encouraging donations.  So if you want to use ‘shock’ or other disruptive tactics, think about the following:

  • There is a difference between disrupting and shocking.  Disrupting means giving people a reason to pause and read… shocking has a greater likelihood of resulting in offence and no donation or support (and it’s this last point that matters).
  • Is the tactic suitable for your target audience?  Sending an older audience mail that looks like it’s from the NHS may do more harm to your cause than good.  Using imagery of injustice to a politicised student audience may be spot on.
  • Does ‘shock’ fit with your brand?  If your organisation is concerned with caring and empathy then perhaps none of these tactics will lend you any credibility.  Brand credibility is why people will support you more than once and if your marketing messages don’t reflect who you are as an organisation, you are less likely to encourage the action you want.
  • Is your marketing agency persuading you to adopt a tactic that they believe will work without really understanding your culture, your audience dynamics and how your existing customers or supporters will react? (they aren’t doing it negligently by the way, they just don’t know as much about your organisation as you do)
  • Are you picking a tactic just so it will go viral?  All of the above still apply to the digital world – it’s all about the end action you want people to take as a result of your communications.  If simply sharing the message is the key driver, then this approach can be very effective (although evidence suggests the less contrived campaigns often work better in these channels)

Disruption and even shock tactics can be useful tools to achieve cut through in today’s media saturated world but getting the recipient reaction just right is crucial.  We’re after;

STOP – read – consider – act


STOP – read – get offended – react

Spot the difference?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 21/03/2012 6:37 pm

    Absolutely. I thought this was now outlawed by the ASA after a famous Playstation mailing that claimed to enclose medical test results (and of course went to people who were awaiting the results of biopsies, HIV tests etc). You can tease but you can’t mislead. R

    • 22/03/2012 9:43 am

      Me too. In fact the only campaign I’ve ever had pulled by the ASA was a fake X-ray sent as a magazine insert. Even though it had the statement “This is a promotion, not a real X-ray” printed on the envelope 1 complaint to the ASA was all it took to have it withdrawn!


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