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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.

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This story appears in the April 2003 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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.

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