Biting the hand that feeds: the trouble with ‘that’ dog-fighting billboard

I will never forget the day my first year marketing communications lecturer showed us a series of shock tactic ads, mostly from NPOs (Not for Profit Organisations). Kids were burnt, dogs were hacked, and women got klapped. It was horrific. The debate that raged after this particular lesson in humanity’s seemingly boundless capacity for evil was nothing short of painful. Everyone was upset. People started shouting at each other, and things got pretty ugly pretty quickly.

The moral of the lecture was, be bloody careful when you use shock tactics in advertising. It’s a fine line between playing on people’s emotions and playing with people’s emotions. It’s like being the victim of a prank: in a great prank, everyone laughs afterwards. In a bad prank, someone gets hurt — or is left with some permanent fear of praying mantises (and other worthwhile terrors).

Take Grey’s latest campaign for the NSPCA. On Monday morning, Joburg residents were slammed with a snarling billboard advertising a dog-fighting tournament. People went nuts. Social networks went off. The phone line that was advertised on the billboard was so inundated with calls from both keen customers and angry activists that it was quickly suspended.

A couple of hours later, it emerged that it was all a hoax, all an ingenious, clever idea from the NSPCA and its agency.

On the SA blog, it was revealed that the ads were a drastic response to a startling 500% increase in dog fighting over the last couple of years, and NSPCA spokesperson Wendy Wilson was quoted as saying that drastic action was what they felt was needed.

One could imagine the creative team sitting there in the days leading up to the campaign launch, rubbing their palms with glee, “Oh how they’ll laugh when they work out it’s us.”

Except this thing went viral in a huge and terrifying way.

People were trying to track down and (possibly) murder the mobile billboard driver. They went into full Angela Lansbury mode online — “Whodunit?!” they cried. The campaign had so many surprising side effects. Some people assumed that it was an MMA ad – and you don’t want to upset those guys. It also rather macabrely triggered a response from dog fighting fans, so now the NSPCA has a database of dog fighting aficionados, which I think is great.

But overall, the reaction has not been positive. Death threats cut this three-day hoax short on the first day. And now people feel foolish. Some people probably spent a whole day at the office ranting about this. It feels cruel. It doesn’t feel like a good joke where we all had a good laugh in the end. It feels like the time your brother told you that your mom had died… and then she didn’t.

NPOs often resort to shock tactics in order to achieve their goals. It’s the shock factor that makes you feel guilty/lucky/awful/outraged enough to pick up your cell and SMS PUPPIES for your R20 donation. But do you put yourself through it again and again? The next time that ad flights, I change the channel. It might have worked the first time, but you won’t get me to watch it twice, I am afraid.

Sure, this dog-fighting billboard will become a marketing case study and might even win the agency an award (why else pick up pro-bono clients, right?). But I have to wonder what effect this tactic will have.

Will it feed into a cry-wolf scenario in which people take these things less seriously in future? Or have people been sufficiently moved to donate or make a positive difference in any way?

Perhaps a series of ads angled around the affectionate and nurturing nature of pit bulls, something with a more educational message, something a little more positive might have played on people’s emotions rather than toyed with them.

But most of all, I wonder whether this campaign left the majority feeling breathless and ready to donate. Or whether it left them feeling a little sick.

Like a bad prank that had gone too far.



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