The latest MLC pigmeat ads have set out to disturb. How big a risk is there that such shock tactics will merely backfire, asks Karen Dempsey Using shock tactics in an advertising campaign is a high risk strategy. Get it right and it's an effective way to kickstart awareness of an issue. Get it wrong and it can backfire and cause irreparable damage to the advertiser. With the current controversy surrounding the Meat and Livestock Commission's pigmeat campaign, the jury could vote either way as to its effectiveness. The first phase of its £4.6m campaign to promote the British Quality Standard Mark for pigmeat has been deliberately inflammatory. The first ad says that "in many parts of the world" pregnant sows spend their lives tethered in stalls with about 18 inches to walk back and forth. And the second ­ alleging animal cannibalism "on many farms across the world" ­ shows a sow suckling her piglets with the strapline: "After she's fed them, she could be fed to them." The Dutch and the Danes are angry that, by inference, the ad is aimed at them. The multiples are furious that the war between pigmeat producers could turn shoppers off pigmeat altogether. Critics say the MLC is acting irresponsibly in only giving half the message. Consumers may not bother to read the small print ­ believing it to be another animal rights ad ­ and be put off pork for good. So what's to be gained from playing with the shock tactics fire? The cynical among us may think that it's just a cheap, calculated attempt to create easy publicity. Indeed, it is always controversy, celebrities and sex that are the most effective ways to get PR coverage, according to the Propeller Group, which for the past few years has monitored "ads that make news". MD Martin Loat says: "Shock tactics are the quickest route to making an ad get talked about and it is used as a technique to maximise the value of ad spend. Charities often use them to get more bang for their buck. "It's a bold route that creates big awareness but carries high risks ­ and in the MLC's case it may have shot itself in the foot by putting doubt in consumers' minds about pork." But, on the plus side, says Loat, it has arguably created a canvas for other bodies linked to the debate to paint their own picture. The Danish Bacon and Meat Council has not been slow in putting its own point across and in filing a detailed complaint to the ASA. But it denies it is doing this just to capitalise on the PR opportunity. A DBMC spokesman says: "This campaign is the result of old fashioned thinking predicated on the notion that there is no such thing as bad PR. But it has created an unhelpful and oversimplified media debate that benefits no one, in a market we care about. The past couple of weeks have been more damaging than beneficial to anyone who has a stake in the market. If they have a victory, then it is an entirely pyrrhic victory." The MLC doesn't agree. Chris Lukehurst, marketing manager for pigmeat, MLC, admits "the PR side wasn't accidental". But he says it was a highly calculated and researched risk. It went to a lot of pain to use subtle psychological cues that move the ad away from the stark animal rights genre ­ so the image wasn't too stark and it was colour, not black and white. He says: "I prefer to say thought provoking rather than shocking, but the reason we went down this route is to get across a message that consumers are trying to avoid. We want consumers to feel uncomfortable and make the connection between the animal and the meat. We want to arrest them into taking notice of the ad so we need a shocking headline image. And then we've countered the discomfort by giving them a way out ­ and that's to buy a product with a mark. He adds: "I'm not someone who says shock advertising is the best way ­ it all depends on the brief. I'm here to promote marked product and now we've got the issue on the agenda we have to move forward from there." But once that negative image has been created it's not always that easy to move forward. Martin Smith, chief executive of ad agency Grey Worldwide, says: "You have to be so careful when using shock tactics. You can wake people out of their apathy by using them, but you have to treat people with a degree of respect. Sometimes the shock tactics message is too full on for people and it can raise the issue so high it becomes unreal, and people just can't relate to it. There are occasions when shock tactics are acceptable ­ but not when they're obfuscating the truth rather than getting to it." One of the last high profile shock tactics campaigns in the food sector was by the Vegetarian Society ­ and it found to its cost that this method was not at all acceptable and it learnt a hard lesson. In 1998 it ran a campaign with photographs of post-operative cancer scars saying It's much easier to cut out meat'. The ad was banned by the ASA because it exaggerated the link between red meat and cancer, and because it was "shocking, distressing and offensive". Since that ad backfired so spectacularly the Vegetarian Society has now shunned shock tactics in favour of sexier and more humorous images in its advertising. A Vegetarian Society spokeswoman says: "You can only play the shock card so many times before the general public get bored. They are much more receptive to other forms of advertising. People know what's wrong with eating meat and if you point it in their face they'll run away and hide. So it's much better to keep them on side and nudge them occasionally." Mention Benetton's continued strategy of using shock tactics and you polarise some people into lovers and haters. But most people are just left scratching their heads as they wonder what Aids victims and people on Death Row have got to do with jumpers. But it is often charities which have the most to benefit from going down the shock tactics route as there is more of a point to it. One of the most controversial charity campaigns this year has been from kids charity Barnardo's. In particular, it was an ad showing a baby injecting itself with heroine that caused uproar. The Committee of Advertising Practice, the advertising advisory body, told newspapers not to run the campaign but then had to issue an apology when the ASA did not uphold the complaints. John O'Keeffe, creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the ad agency behind the campaign, defends the tactics not as shocking but as a way to raise awareness of the preventative work Barnardo's does with children and young people. The campaign was researched twice among its target audience which showed most people understood the ad's message. "Shock tactics is the wrong term. It's truth in advertising," says O'Keeffe. "We didn't use shock tactics in the gratuitous sense. But it's a matter of judgement how far you can go ­ and we never went too far. People were shocked but shocking things happen, and we just showed things Barnardo's deals with every day." A similarly shocking campaign for the Health Education Authority's drug education campaign won the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising's Grand Prix award for advertising effectiveness in 1998. While the ads ­ through ad agency Duckworth Finn ­ were vividly disgusting in depicting the effects recreational drugs can have on your body, the IPA says there was much more behind it than just the intention to shock. It says that it educated with empathy and got inside youth culture and gave young people the facts to encourage them to reappraise their attitudes to drugs. Post campaign research even indicates that it has helped turn the tide of drug use. But Grey's Smith points out that a campaign to raise money for multiple sclerosis a few years ago backfired because it made MS sufferers feel worse about their disease. And the images and shock tactics used during the Aids crisis of the early 1980s "created this ogre that everyone rejected" ­ it was only when it was dealt with in a calm and direct way that it was taken seriously. Now that the MLC has raised awareness of the issue it, too, plans a softer side to the campaign to push some positive welfare benefits. But that may be too late. {{MANAGEMENT FEATURE }}