A game of ads: Why violence in advertising is seizing the throne
Seven hundred fifty-two stains makes for a lot of laundry.
That's how many stains Tide tallied at the close of Season 4 of HBO's popular fantasy drama "Game of Thrones" in a Twitter advertisement earlier this spring.
Most of the stains were blood (530 by Tide's count), but the list included two "giant stains" (a nod to the show's slaying of two giants) and one "royal stain" (signifying the death of evil King Joffrey early in the season). In a grisly acknowledgement of Prince Oberyn's death scene (assassin The Mountain crushed Oberyn's skull by pressing his thumbs into Oberyn's eye sockets), Tide also plugged its "Stain Brain" app with a graphic of hands with bloodied thumbs. The app helps users figure out how to best get certain kinds of stains out.
The ad was cleverly hashtagged #TideGetsItOut. The Twitter response to Tide's ad was warm — the stain tweet and another "Thrones"-related tweet netted a combined 2,612 retweets and 3,197 favorites. AdWeek, A List Daily and Trend Hunter all applauded the ad as a shrewd and innovative way to engage with the 18 million who watch HBO's most popular show.
Violence in advertising is nothing new. The difference, these days, seems to lie with viewers who have an elevated threshold for violent advertising content. As Slate reported back in January, even humor relies on violence to get its message across: Researchers at Wright State found that the number of Super Bowl ads that relied on "violent, aggressive humor" rose dramatically from 13.6 percent to 73.4 percent between 1989 and 2009. Slate's story concluded that the uptick was advertisers' attempt to better grab a veiwer's attention.
The hike in violent content is call for concern, says Dr. Kirk O. Hanson, a business ethicist and executive director of Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
"The backdrop of this ad is that we’re having a national debate about increased violence in the media in general, but particularly on cable-produced shows," Hanson said. "Younger demographics like Millenials may have a higher threshold for violence like this, but it doesn’t mean that violence is not doing something to their values and sensitivities."
Struggle for relevance
Because shows like "Game of Thrones" generally attract younger viewers, Tide actually made a good business decision by targeting its ads to youth-driven social media, argued Boston University advertising professors Tobe Berkovitz and Ed Boches. These ads, Berkovitz argued, are not controversial or overly violent.
"Advertising frequently tries to see what it can get away with. That's the nature of it. You've got to get people's attention," Berkotvitz said. "The modern world of advertising is social media. As long as you stay away from social hot-button issues like sexuality or race, you have a better chance of getting away with things."
Boches, who worked in advertising for decades before he turned to teaching, also pointed out that advertisers are adapting to media shifts away from TV and print as the only avenues to reach consumers. That's likely why ads like Tide's appeared on Twitter rather than on TV: To target and appeal to the very specific-but-large audience that watches "Game of Thrones."
"My mom is probably never going to see this because it’s on Twitter. Another way to look at this is that the likelihood of this being seen beyond 'Game of Thrones' audience is slim," Boches said. "Tide is just smart enough to realize there's a huge number of people watching this show."
The other key for advertising, Boches said, is to stay relevant not by pushing a product, but by joining cultural conversations. Century 21, Boches pointed out, worked around "Breaking Bad"'s expensive $400,000 final season TV slots by putting Walter White's fictional Albuquerque house on Craigslist. The listing included hints to plot points only fans would recognize, including "Two-car garage for a Pontiac Aztek, Chrysler 300 or both," "Water heater replaced in 2009," and "Crawl space perfect for kids."
"You now have advertisers realizing, 'I used to be able to attract people to me, now I can’t. I have to go someplace where there’s this cultural gravity, but I have to do it in a way that’s relevant to what’s going on,' " Boches said.
Since Boches and Berkovitz cite social media ads like Tide's as the future of advertising, Hanson said those who object to the violence in advertising should also use social media to talk back to brands.
"Because many brands are using social media and mass outreach like this, the proper response (if you object) is a crowd-sourced message of disgust," Hanson said. "It falls to those who object to this treatment of violence to criticize it on Twitter or in other communities to the company."
Often, companies will pull ads that offend audiences if the outcry is loud enough, Hanson said. One such "false start" Hanson cited was a 2000 Olympics Nike TV spot that depicted Olympic runner Suzy Favor Hamilton outrunning a chainsaw murderer. The public objected that Nike was leveraging laughs at the expense of a "helpless woman," forcing NBC to pull the ad.
The cost of not speaking up may be the continued broad desensitization of American audiences, Hanson said. Some research suggests that regular exposure to scenes of violence through media accounts may cause PTSD, but data is hardly conclusive on the subject. Hanson suspects that in the future, Americans may look back at the violence in what's currently considered good advertising and not like what they see.
"In some ways we are in an unplanned national experiment to make everyone into a witness to blood and gore. Now, shows are violent more for the purposes of entertainment than for thoughtfulness," Hanson said. "We don’t know what the long-term effects of (violence in the media) are and we seem to have a national death wish to ignore developments if there is any uncertainty associated with it — be it violence on TV or climate change."
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