“In a culture radically revamped by the ascendancy of mercantile values, to ask that images be jarring, clamorous, eye-opening seems like elementary realism as well as good business sense. How else to get attention for one’s product or one’s art? How else to make a dent when there is incessant exposure to images, and overexposure to a handful of images seen again and again?” – Susan Sontag, Regarding The Pain of Others
I do not doubt the current effectiveness of emotional advertising. I do, however, doubt emotional advertising’s long-term ability to have the same impact. I believe that (in the very distant future) there will come a crunch-point. Here’s why:
There is too much advertising. Fact.
Advertisers are competing to stand out. Fact.
Advertisers are getting ahead through emotional-engagement-one-upmanship. The result of this emotional-engagement-one-upmanship can be seen in the evolution of Christmas adverts, which have effectively evolved into a heartstring tug-o-war.
Such adverts could start to foster emotional defensiveness, cynicism and apathy as consumers come to understand and resent that it is also their pursestrings that are being tugged at.
Sontag argues that advertising has commodified emotional shock therapy and is degrading emotion into meaningless cliche. Sontag remarks, “The image as shock and the image as cliche are two aspects of the same presence.” It’s not just advertising, however, that is contributing to this worrying trend: all aspects of media are to blame (not that the blame game gets us anywhere). Sontag recalls, “As the old advertising slogan of [newspaper] Paris Match, founded in 1949, had it: “The weight of words, the shock of photos.” The hunt for more dramatic (as they’re often described) images drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value.”
(“These paintings mute what is present in the single front page each day, and emphasise what is present persistently day after day in slightly different variations. Looking at the papers, we do not consciously make the connection between today’s, yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s “repetitions” which are not repetitions.” – Gwen Swenson on Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster Series)
Simultaneously, it is not just advertising and brands that will suffer when crunch-time eventually comes. We are emotional beings whose actions, values, behaviours are connected to how we feel. If we become emotionally deadened to films, books, TV shows and adverts then how can we form our own value systems based on these strongly felt emotions? As Sontag writes, “In a world saturated, no, hyper-saturated with images, those that should matter have a diminishing effect: we become callous. In the end, such images just make us a little less able to feel, to have our conscience pricked.”
If I had no reaction whatsoever to a picture of a homeless man then the wider issue of wealth inequality has not received my emotional attention. Consequently, I am unlikely to donate my time or money to a soup kitchen any time soon. Our emotional reserves are being drained on adverts for soap, laundry powder and trainers – and it will be charity adverts that struggle to keep up, despite their genuine intentions.
The above campaign from SAIH Norway hits the nail on the head with all that is wrong with charity adverts. For me, the more important message here is not it’s attempt to battle stereotypes, but rather the concept of a charity advert actor. The advert is about the artifice of advertising. The very artifice and staged quality of advertising is an emotional barrier. A rational evaluation of an emotional appeal as disingenuous/engineered discredits the authenticity of any emotional reaction. For us to feel that our emotions are real we need to feel that what produced them is also real. We need to be reacting to something authentic to believe in the authenticity of our reactions.
As Sontag writes, “In a world in which photography is brilliantly at the service of consumerist manipulations, no effect of a photograph of a doleful scene can be taken for granted. As a consequence, morally alert photographers and ideologues of photography have become increasingly concerned with the issues of exploitation of sentiment (pity, compassion, indignation) in war photography and of rote ways of provoking feeling.”
This year the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert received 727 ASA complaints. It’s hardly surprising given the disingenuous use of those who suffered in WWI to sell tinsel, turkey, sprouts and stuffing. As Ally Fogg wrote in The Guardian, “Somewhere close to 40 million young men were killed, lost or mutilated in the first world war. Sainsbury’s has all but dressed them in a sandwich board.” If you’ve been keeping up with this blog, you can understand why the advert made me feel slightly sick. I imagine somebody piping up in an initial meeting: “Yeh, the 100th year anniversary of WWI is so hot right now, maybe we should do something with that.” Some poor junior planner probably spent weeks researching the emotional tug of this subject matter amongst Sainsbury’s middle England target audience. As evidenced by comparative prominence of the Sainsbury’s logo to that of The Royal British Legion, the ‘do-gooding’ was an afterthought. The chocolate bar made it no sweeter.
More concerning is that the advert has now had over 15.5 million youtube views and 83,000 likes compared to just 3,000 dislikes. Either I have underestimated the naïvety of the majority of the UK population or I underestimated AMV’s strategic abilities. The ASA still haven’t pulled the advert, and, to be entirely honest, they can’t; it acknowledged the rules of the beautiful game and played it safe, despite standing in a minefield. Meanwhile, so many charity adverts are pulled because they are too shocking despite their much more noble intentions. The reason why Sainsbury’s advert “worked” is because it didn’t aim to shock; it aimed to be beautiful and moving.
Shock requires entirely different tactics to your standard ’emotional’ advert. Shock is visceral. Shock is negative. Shock is fight or flight. Shock can turn people into babbling husks of human beings. Shock is such a strong emotion that it’s necessary post-rationalisation into something comprehensible can take hours, days, weeks and even months. Shock is downright uncomfortable and therefore we have our barriers up all the more to avoid it.
Shock must present something wholly believable yet almost unbelievable. We are most shocked by that which we have not encountered before. An A&E nurse is rarely shocked by broken bones protruding from skin, but she probably flinched first time round. She has post-rationalised her shock in order to defend herself from such a disruptive negative emotion. Another defence mechanism against shock is disbelief. “I couldn’t believe my eyes” is a usual response to being shocked. We need to be eye-witnesses because we need to believe in the authenticity of what we have been exposed to, and even then we might distrust our own senses. The need to believe is all the more prominent considering the ‘newness’ of what we are witnessing – we have nothing in our memory bank against which to compare the scene, which will help us to ‘believe our eyes’.
Consequently, shock tactics do not do anything other than build immunity, incredulity and inaction. You can only be shocked by something once. Shock makes things strangely intangible and ‘surreal’. Shock paralyses.
Shock has not once contributed to me donating money. Every morning I ride the fondly dubbed ‘Gingerline’ and despite the number of emaciated children I see staring out at me with doleful eyes, the number of bruised and battered women or dogs cowering in the corner of bleak concrete yards covered in fleas and their own faeces, I haven’t donated a penny as a consequence of seeing these adverts. In fact, they’re mere white noise. I barely notice them.
I do not have deep pockets and short arms, however. I regularly donate chunks of money to food banks. I shop at Pret because they feed the homeless. I have an uninsurable geriatric one-eyed rescue cat (who believe you me, bleeds my bank account dry). I financially support friends running cancer marathons, growing beards or whatever crack-pot fundraising effort they come up with.
Sainsbury’s advert was not intended to shock anybody, and yet, it’s been remarkably effective in raising money. 5000 charity chocolate bars per hour were flying from the shelves at one point. Maybe there are lessons to be learnt? It inevitably boils down to their integrity and intentions – which viewers are becoming increasingly savvy to. Unfortunately, this was emotionally manipulative advertising that used charity as a principal lever in that manipulation. As Sainsbury’s plans to knock down a war memorial in Bristol were revealed, we were left in no doubt as to their total lack of sincerity.
Perhaps if they had led with a charitable message, but employed the ‘advertising-y’ way of selling in that message (an emotionally engaging narrative, beautifully shot) then perhaps it would have been fine? Perhaps this would have been a welcome departure from ‘shock therapy’ charity adverts. Perhaps a bit like this anti-drug driving advert aired in New Zealand this year…
Fogg was not to be fooled by Sainsbury’s cunning use of chiselled-jawed pin-up soldiers and twee robins perching on barbed wire. Sontag would have applauded his article’s finale: “The film-makers here have done something to the first world war which is perhaps the most dangerous and disrespectful act of all: they have made it beautiful.” Idealising the war had the effect of trivialising it.
“Beautifying is one classic operation of the camera, and it tends to bleach out a moral response to what is shown. Uglifying, showing something at its worst, is a more modern function: didactic, it invites an active response. For photographs [adverts] to accuse, and possibly to alter conduct, they must shock.” – Susan Sontag
Sainsbury’s ‘bleached out a moral response’ to a subject matter that demanded a moral response.
When dealing with sensitive issues we demand realism. We need to be reacting to something authentic to believe in the authenticity of our reactions all the more when our reactions are so intense. Therefore to elicit a truly visceral emotional response only the most undeniably authentic of subject matter and medium will suffice.
“People want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance. Pictures of hellish events seem more authentic when they don’t have the look that comes from being “properly” lighted and composed, because the photographer either is an amateur or—just as serviceable— has adopted one of several familiar anti-art styles. By flying low, artistically speaking, such pictures are thought to be less manipulative—all widely distributed images of suffering now stand under that suspicion—and less likely to arouse facile compassion or identification.”
The problem is that we no longer know what is authentic anymore. When do people expect me to cry and when do I actually want to cry?
More importantly, where does crying get us anyway?