Ad It Up

Shock Treatment

Another way to grab attention is to use shocking, or even disturbing, ads. Nike tried it last year with a "Slasher" ad, featuring a man with a chain saw chasing a woman through the woods. Her Nikes keep her just ahead of her attacker. But, as Nike found out, you have to be careful. The "Slasher" ad was quickly pulled from network TV when viewers complained it was offensive.

Last summer, The Seva Group, a 3-year-old software firm based in Baltimore, wanted a new campaign that would stand out from the competition. "We wanted to build brand awareness," says Seva's co-founder and principal, Jon Byrd, 36. With the help of its ad agency, the company, which pulled in $3 million in 2000 sales, decided to play on a belief in the software industry: the idea that software fixes everything. "There's a perception in the IT industry that the next version of software will fix all the problems," Byrd says. Why not play on situations that software can't fix, while pushing the visual limits?

By the end of 2000, the company had three new shock ads. One is a parody of The Exorcist featuring a bedeviled Linda Blair look-alike lying in bed as a priest stands before her with a crucifix and some software. The tag "software fixes everything" appears with a few sentences of text and the company name. The ad has appeared in regional business journals, and there are plans to run it nationally sometime this year.

Is this approach working? "Folks are noticing us," he says, adding that company revenue has increased 17 percent since it placed the first of the ad series. The public likes them, too: People line up at the company's trade-show booths for T-shirts featuring the shock ads.

How to use shock: Know your audience's tastes and stay away from anything extremely offensive. "Shock value tends to work better on younger audiences," Stutts says. Also, you'll need that strategic link between the product and the customer."Shock is meaningless unless it's teaching, telling or reinforcing what consumers know," Zien says. As with offbeat humor, shock may not work with every product. Think about your brand and what's appropriate.

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog,

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This article was originally published in the May 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Ad It Up.

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