Do ads with high shock value work?

An ad campaign in New York City depicts a bottle of soda pouring into a glass and coming out as liquid fat. The shock campaign cost the city $300,000.

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BOB MOON: Viewer discretion is advised if you'll be taking a subway ride in New York anytime soon. I'm talking about some creepy images on display for the next few months, as part of a new public-health ad campaign. It's aimed at scaring people away from too many sugary drinks. The graphics are, well, graphic depictions of what I'll just call the abominable abdominal results. The campaign cost the city almost $300,000 to develop. But it got Sally Herships wondering: do in-your-face ads like this really work?


SALLY HERSHIPS: There's some new posters in New York City subways. One shows a soda being poured into a glass, but the drink turns into globs of veiny fat. The tagline reads "Are you pouring on the pounds?" "Don't drink yourself fat." It's kind of gross, but this type of shocking ad has been around for a while. Remember this?

DRUG AD: This is drugs, this is your brain on drugs.

Or how about this from the truth campaign?

DRUG AD: Do you know how many people tobacco kills every day?

Shock ads seem popular. But do they work? Why do advertisers use such over-the-top ads? Patti Williams teaches marketing at Wharton. She says with a lot of consumption, especially junk food, we, consumers are very aware of the pleasure we'll get in the short-term but not so good when it comes to thinking about long-term costs.

Take flossing your teeth.

PATTI Williams: People don't do it because they neglect the long-term benefits, and they focus to a greater degree on those short-term costs, which is that flossing maybe isn't the most exciting way to spend a couple minutes of my life.

Herships: I know I'm suddenly thinking I don't floss enough.

Williams: Nobody does.

Because we're not thinking about the future. So advertisers try to shock us into doing it. But most people know we shouldn't smoke cigarettes. And that doing drugs is a bad idea. Chip Heath is author of "Made to Stick, Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die." He says because people already know this, advertisers use shocking ads to try to change the way we feel.

CHIP HEATH: Nobody, has a baby because they understand intellectually that having kids would be a good idea. Nobody ever gets married because somebody says let me explain to you why we should be married. We change in our life because of a deep emotional desire to change.

But can an ad really change someone's behavior? Heath says, the ideas in an ad are more likely to stick with people if they possess certain characteristics.

HEATH: Unexpected and emotional, with very concrete, visualizable images.

But just because an ad sticks, doesn't mean it's successful. Heath says consumers need clear-cut instructions, like drink one less soda a day, and you'll lose 15 pounds a year. Otherwise they won't change. And Patti Williams says there's another reason shock ads can backfire. They can scare audiences too much.

Williams: Sometimes the fear appeal can be so effective that people focus on the fear itself and miss the underlying message associated with the appeal.

Herships: They're distracted because it's so scary.

Williams: Yeah, so they miss the point.

So the anti-soda ad in the subway uses another strategy: disgust. Williams says people like to be grossed out. Will it work? I headed for the subway to find out.

RIDER 1: I'll definitely remember that image for sure.

Herships: Does it gross you out? Do you think it's a gross ad?

Rider 2: Yeah, I'm pretty queasy. It's pretty disgusting, but it's effective, I'd say.

Rider 3: I think it's gross, but I don't think anyone would really pay that much attention to it.

And that's why both Patti Williams and author Chip Heath say in order for any ad to be really effective they have to be part of a larger campaign. And New York City says it's doing just that -- posting calorie counts in fast-food restaurants and funding healthy eating programs throughout the city.

In New York, I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace.

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