'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 SafelyABC News
Public Officials Hope to Shock People Into Quitting Smoking or Driving Safel

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.

"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."

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."

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.

"If you can use a reaction that was captured in a very controlled, very safe environment to illustrate the impact that a person's smoking might have on their children if they become sick or if they die from tobacco use," Willett said, "if that motivates thousands of people to quit, then it's an effective ad. It was worth the investment, worth that approach."

Many of these shock ads, including "Separation" and the texting while driving ad are made in Britain or Australia. According to Bob Molineaux, a partner in Venables Bell & Partners, an advertising agency responsible for similar ads, "They're a lot more open-minded in Australia and Britain than we are, so they're at home with that type of what you would call shock advertising."

Lippert, however, is concerned that American audiences are becoming more desensitized to gore and gross body parts, which they see on TV shows like "CSI" and "House." For example, she said, in the case of the "Artery" ad, "I can just see two teenage boys going, 'Hey, did you see that aorta? It was so cool, the amount of fat that came out of that!' I don't think that's the way to go."

In 2005, the state of Montana was battling a huge problem with meth usage among teenagers and young adults. The Montana Meth Project began a gritty campaign of shock ads aimed at cutting the state's raging meth problem. Molineaux's agency created the ads, and he said they work by appealing to kids' vanity or by shifting their focus to their families.

But Are Shock Ads Working?

"Kids often don't really think about themselves, but if you tell them, 'You're going to hurt your sister or your brother or your parents,' they're like, 'I would never do that,'" he said. "All of a sudden they start to really grab hold of what this could mean if they got addicted to meth. It's not just about them, it's about their families and people that they love."

The Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the Montana Office of Public Instruction in coordination with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,found that between 2005 (when the ads began running) and 2009, that meth use in Montana dropped by 63 percent while meth-related crime dropped by 62 percent.

As for New York smokers, the state Department of Health used focus groups to determine which of the ads might make smokers quit. According to Willett, "Over 70 percent of smokers said the ads made them stop and think about quitting. That's the first step, to make them think about it and the next step is to make them act."

Willett said that while 70 percent think about quitting, over 60 percent of smokers who see the ads actually attempt to quit. Whether or not they were successful in their attempt is unclear.

Molineaux said that the shock ads will most likely continue, and viewers could eventually see ads that up the shock factor even further.

"Eventually, what we call shocking will become the norm, so people will have to step out even further," he said.