Sometimes it seems as if advertising people will do anything to sell us their wares. Many of the things they do are outrageous, and if the rest of us did these things, we would be admonished for being unethical or worse.
In advertising, shocking images are used to draw the viewer’s attention to the ad, with the intent of making him or her want to buy the product. Such methods are meant to make the product memorable.
This is done because research has shown that people tend to remember things that they associate with vivid images. If you can get the image to stick in their minds, they may well associate your product with that image. And, with any luck, they will buy it.
Unfortunately these methods can lead to unintended consequences, which precipitate a backlash from one group or another. I used to think that such unsavory techniques were unique to the U.S., but I recently read about a similar thing happening in the UK.
The company behind the marketing effort did not consider that there were people who might be harmed by their efforts; they just wanted to get attention.
What happened was that a London-based vitamin drink company produced a video showing helmets adorned with their logo which they place at various bike sharing stations around London. Admittedly, this, in and of itself, would not be very exciting.
To add to the drama, they mentioned the deaths of cyclists as a reason for distributing the helmets, leading viewers to conclude that wearing a helmet would have prevented these deaths. In addition, they showed images of cyclists, without helmets, crashing in the presence of cars, which gave the impression that they were being struck down and possibly killed.
In order to draw attention to their video, they spammed cycling bloggers and cycling organizations on Twitter. This might have been done to increase views of the video which had been posted on YouTube. Unfortunately for those of us who wish to analyze this video, (or fortunately for cyclists) due to a social media backlash, the company has removed the video from YouTube.
Cyclists who saw the video were offended for a variety of reasons. One was that the death of cyclists was glamorized. It was done on the pretext of promoting helmet use, but was actually designed to promote their product.
On the surface, promoting helmet use might look like a good thing. However, most of the time, cyclists who get hit by cars die from internal injuries caused by the impact of colliding with a motor vehicle. Head injuries can occur, and they can cause death, but this is usually the result of falling and hitting one’s head. So, it can’t be said that wearing a helmet guarantees a cyclist’s safety.
Other cyclists were just angry at the company for using cyclist’s deaths to sell a product. Doing so trivializes a tragic event. And it normalizes death, instead of making it repugnant, as it should be.
Even though this company offended cyclists, there’s no telling how their stunt affected non-cyclists. Non-cyclists are generally less outraged by discrimination against or danger to cyclists than cyclists are.
Only the advertising personnel know what the real goal of all this was. It was done to allegedly raise awareness about the dangers of riding a bicycle without a helmet. But, ultimately the goal might have been to cause controversy in order to make people talk about their brand.
We might interpret their taking down the video as an admission of poor judgment. Or they may have done it out of self-interest to make themselves look better by appeasing angry cyclists.
There is nothing wrong with advocating for helmet use, if you think it enhances a cyclist’s safety. But you must do so with the understanding that some people are opposed to wearing helmets and view them as unnecessary and a disincentive to riding a bike. In other words, the thinking runs along the lines that helmets make cycling look dangerous, therefore people will avoid it out of fear.
Advertisers need to step back and look at what they do from an ethical perspective. Getting attention for a product is one thing. But trivializing serious dangers to others or using this danger to sell a product is simply unethical. You must consider who you might hurt before you use outrageous wording and images because to do otherwise may backfire on you and drive consumers away from your brand.