Sunday, October 12, 2014

Dangerous Advertising and Disingenuous Controversy

Students of mine have turned in papers this week that critique different advertisements. Their papers have prompted me to think, as I have before (gender in advertising, political advertisements, religion and advertising, interactive advertising, and exclusionary advertising) about different advertisements that propose a cause or campaign instead of a product. My students had the choice of a traditional product advertisement and one form a non-profit. It was much easier to see the direct purpose of the for-profit advertisement: to sell a product. Oftentimes, however, the advertisements for non-profit groups have to be more creative in order to peddle something far less tangible than a car or a purse. These attempts to be innovative can backfire, causing more attention to the advertisement campaign itself than the message it is trying to convey.

Retrieved from this site.
In rhetorical theory, this is called disingenuous controversy. Fritch, Palczewski, Farrell, and Short proposed the term to describe situations when an ancillary aspect of an event occupies attention and the actual message (which itself could be controversial and counter-hegemonic) is lost. Their example was the comments by Ward Churchill where he compared the workers in the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns" when describing the justifications for the 9/11 attacks. The purpose was to raise questions about the American economic structure and how it constrained and motivated the actions of the 9/11 terrorists. But, instead of this critique gaining media attention, people focused on his comparison between the Nazi bureaucrat and workers in the World Trade Center as offensive, insensitive, and unpatriotic.

Following the Nazi theme, I first want to discuss the advertising campaign that ran in Germany to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. The campaign features graphic images of infamous leaders such as Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Saddam Hussein having sex with women. This campaign was eventually pulled in part because of its graphic nature and outrage over the use of these infamous faces in relations with women. The campaign read, "AIDS is a mass murderer" and encouraged viewers to associate something traditionally thought-of as pleasurable with something inherently disgusting and deadly. The graphic depiction in the advertisement coupled with the unique history in Germany that makes the presentation of Hitler challenging, however, overshadowed the consciousness-raising of re-thinking about the dangers of unprotected sex.

Retrieved from this site.
The second campaign I'd like to present is a campaign by 10:10, which is a climate change advocacy non-profit. The advertisement shows various situations where people are asked about their opinions on climate change. A few that declare that they do not believe in global warming or that we should not act towards it are shown exploding violently. The version that received the most attention featured children exploding in their classrooms. The campaign seemed to be questioning the value of dissenters and how those who do not engage or pay attention are ultimately doomed. The violence, especially towards children, however, became the focus of the campaign instead of the message of the future of humanity.

These "dangerous" advertisements risk an audience backlash in favor of capturing people's attention. When the alternative is complete silence or apathy, perhaps a bit of attention-grabbing is in order. There are certainly risks to this type of advertisement. Non-profits may be more likely to risk these strategies because they are not beholden to shareholders or a bottom line. When attention is at an all time premium, with the variety of options for viewing, being offensive or crude is one way to be sure one gets eyes, if not support.