Will social marketing ever outgrow its dependence on sex and violence?

Lust. Disgust. Two of the most primal urges that all people share.

The former has been a mainstay of consumer advertising since the very early days.

The latter, although sometimes employed commercially, is a really common tool used in attempts at behaviour modification.

As is sex.

But why? The obvious answer, in the case of overt sexuality, is that it captures attention and arouses pleasure — unless you’re offended by the objectification, in which case it’s in the same camp as violent ads.

Getting viewer attention, male and female alike, with provocative sexual suggestions or imagery is dead easy. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. But does it work?

According to a study conducted by Yale, it does. At least on a primate level. Male capuchin monkeys shown explicit images of sex and power really did prefer “brands” associated with them. “Monkeys have been shown in previous studies to really love photographs of alpha males and shots of genitals, and we think this will drive their purchasing habits,” commented Keith Olwell, whose agency Proton Studio provided the ads.

So naturally, sex is used extensively in the branding of social causes. PETA is an obvious example, as they continue to use nudity and overt sexuality to spread their cause.

If awareness is the main objective, then sex certainly does the job. Why are breast cancer and AIDS constantly top-of-mind while other killers like high blood pressure and malaria are not?


It’s the old “SEX! Now that I have your attention…” trope. And it does draw eyeballs, shares and press. But does it make a difference? Do we really need to be more aware of breasts, or do we need to put more resources into research, prevention and treatment of breast cancer? Does a naughty picture make us remember to stop in the heat of the moment, and put on a condom? That’s the real problem with many social marketing campaigns. Awareness is easily tracked, but opinion shifts and actions are less frequently measured.

Now on to violence:

This ambient campaign won a Bronze Lion at Cannes. But I doubt it did much else but sicken those who encountered it. Awareness of online predators is hardly a new issue. Will this shocking reminder make people more active in protecting their kids? No measurement is given.

And then there’s the classic road safety approach

Violence, like sex, provokes a strong emotional reaction among viewers. But does it change the behaviour of those at risk, or is it simply reinforcing the perceptions of those who abhor those actions?

In recent years, social marketers have begun to doubt that shock advertising works at all. Last year, Ad Age reported on a study by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management that indicated students who were exposed to an LCBO anti-binging ad that showed a young woman puking in the toilet actually made the audience more likely to binge.

It’s well-worth quoting at length:

The reason, said Kellogg marketing professor Nidhi Agrawal, is that people who are already feeling guilt or shame resort to something called “defensive processing” when confronted with more of either, and tend to disassociate themselves with whatever they are being shown in order to lessen those emotions.

And it doesn’t have to be drinking that a viewer is feeling ashamed about in order to render the ads ineffective or damaging. “If you’re talking to a student about cheating on an exam, and one of these ads comes up, you can bet they are headed straight to the bar,” said Ms. Agrawal, who conducted the study along with her Indiana University colleague, Adam Duhacheck.

Given that the shaming, consequence-centric approach is commonplace in any number of ads focused on smoking, steroid usage and sexually transmitted diseases, the ramifications of the findings could be significant. “There’s a lot of money spent on these ads that could be put to better use,” she argues.

Ms. Agrawal suggested two fixes for PSA makers. The first involves media: Ads placed in more-positive surroundings — such as in a sitcom or a positive magazine article — have a better chance at resonating than those placed in tense or negative contexts. Second, she said, anti-alcohol groups would be better served focusing their messages around how to avoid situations that lead to binge drinking than on the consequences of the behavior, because attempting to shame people out of binge drinking doesn’t work.

“It’s important that the messages be toned down and as positive as possible,” she said.

If negative emotions are such ineffective drivers of personal behaviour change, why do social marketers keep things so bloody? It’s because they are, at heart, marketing people and they still believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity. If it bleeds, it leads…

So the answer to the query posed by my headline is a resounding “no”. As long as social marketing campaigns are judged by their ability to go viral, get talked about in the ad industry and win awards, anyway.

But there is a better way. A harder way. It involves doing serious scientific research on the real drivers of target market behaviours. It requires setting measurable objectives of perceptual or behaviour change, and spending the time and money to measure that change over the long term.

If we want to create social marketing that does its job, both agencies and clients need to apply all of our intelligence, empathy, commitment and patience.

Are you willing to do that? Or would you rather just go for the easy buttons of sex and violence, over and over again?

Go To Top