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Shock Treatment

Shock value may grab attention, but it can put your company's image at risk. Science has a better way.

What's offensive marketing? Like pornography, it's hard to define, but we usually know it when we see it. In the race to grab audience attention, some advertisers are willing to cross the line into blatantly sexist or even racist imagery. Yet there is little evidence to suggest this tactic is actually effective.

The reward centers in the human brain are activated by food, sex, drugs, money and anything that feels pleasurable. A recent brain-imaging study at Massachusetts General Hospital found that the reward centers in the brains of young heterosexual males were activated by beautiful female faces. Dr. Nancy Etcoff, a leading author of the study, describes this as "a kind of visceral response to beauty." It's no wonder, then, that beautiful women are used to market everything from motorcyles to soft drinks.

The problems start when advertisers create images that denigrate or objectify women. Just ask the members of GraceNet, a networking group of high-tech businesswomen who give DisGraceful awards for over-the-top sexist ads from technology firms. Founder Sylvia Paull says advertisers may depict women as prostitutes or make them appear stupid or trivial, ignoring the fact that women are a segment of the prospect group.

Sexist advertising doesn't just denigrate women. Advertisers increasingly depict men as incompetent or foolish, particularly in the areas of cooking or parenting, in a misguided attempt to appeal to women. And some advertisers even poke fun at ethnic groups.

Advertisers who develop objectionable ads may actually create a mental link between negative images and their products, causing buyers to avoid them. According to Etcoff, "If an ad elicits negative emotions-disgust, fear or anger-it will pull you away from the product, causing a kind of avoidance reaction."

Two Proven Tactics

So what are the best ways to motivate audiences? One tactic is to use pleasant associations. Just think about how those greeting card and diamond ads work to pleasantly push our buttons. "We have very strong biological responses to anything in the social world that's positive-families, mothers with children, friends," says Etcoff.

Another great tactic is to use novel approaches in advertising. Our brains are hot-wired for novelty. Dopamine, the same chemical that's produced in response to food or sexual imagery, is also activated when we're learning. A new product or an interesting advertising twist is compelling because our brains become alert to it.

The bottom line is, you don't have to resort to shocking or potentially offensive images to stand out. When we know so much about what makes people feel good, why risk making them feel bad?

Kim Gordon is the owner of National Marketing Federation and is a multifaceted marketing expert, speaker, author and media spokesperson. Her latest book is Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars.

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This article was originally published in the April 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Shock Treatment.

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