'Shock Ads': Do They Get People to Stop Smoking or Drive Safely? Or Do They Go too Far?

Public Officials Hope to Shock People Into Quitting Smoking or Driving Safely

AAA of the Carolinas is airing a so-called shock ad, a powerful public service announcement, or PSA, that shows a carload of teenage girls who get in an accident while texting and driving. The accident plays out in gory, throat-grabbing detail.

This extreme genre of advertising is reaching new levels, and while the cause may be honorable, some people are wondering if perhaps it has gone too far.

To media watchers like Barbara Lippert of Adweek Media, this particular PSA is one of the most effective of its kind. "I think the 'Texting While Driving' ad is the new way to go because it's almost like watching in real time," she said.

Shock PSAs: Do They Work?
Shock PSAs: Do They Work?

"I think teenagers are used to seeing shocking scenes and shocking accidents, and they want to laugh at it or tune it out," Lippert said. "I think the brilliance of this ad is that it doesn't let them stop there."

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Shock ads are intended, as your grandmother might say, to "put the fear of God into you."

"With the media environment the way it is, you have to break through the clutter -- get people's attention," said Jeffrey Willett, director of the New York state health department's tobacco control program. "You have to then back that up with a compelling message."

Public Officials Hope to Shock People Into Quitting Smoking or Driving Safely
Graphic Texting PSAs May Go Too Far

The New York state health department launched several "high-sensation" ads of its own. Its tobacco control program sponsored "Artery," which featured a surgeon squeezing fatty deposits from the arteries of a smoker. Another, "Bronchoscopy," gave audiences a look down the air passages of a smoker, straight into cancerous lungs.

"They're hard-hitting ads," Willett said. He also said that while the ads are designed to unsettle people, their purpose is "also to help smokers quit smoking, to motivate them to make a quit attempt."

Willett said probably their most effective ad is the one called "Separation." The ad focuses on a mother and her young son walking through a train station. Within seconds, the mother has vanished, the boy is alone, and viewers witness the long, painful emotional reaction of her son when he realizes she's gone. The announcer then says, "If this is how your child feels after losing you for a minute, just imagine if they lost you for life." The closing message: "Quit smoking now for your child."

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Boy's Reaction Too Real?

"Separation" definitely got a response; the boy's reaction is heart-breakingly real. As it turns out, the ad features a very real mother and her very real son. In reality, the boy's response lasted only a few seconds. Cameramen filmed the scene from five different angles, and cut it together to give the impression of a drawn out, slow realization from the boy.

"He really was upset. That was his reaction to being separated from his mother," Willett said. "That was a sincere reaction. It was a brief reaction."

Willett doesn't see this ad as one that goes too far. "It's definitely not crossing the line," he said. "This was a very controlled environment. It captured a reaction for a very brief amount of time…This is an enormous public health issue that we're trying to address," he said.

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