Recently, I attended the Future Foundation's Trending2015 Conference. One of the marketing trends they've identified for 2015 is 'Surprise Marketing'. They played a video from the North Face's 'Climb or Die' campaign in Korea to demonstrate. (The name says it all.)
Individual shoppers were in a side room off the store. Suddenly, the floor starts to disappear. The shopper is forced to climb a nearby climbing wall. While gripping on for dear life, a jacket descends from the ceiling. It hangs suspended in the middle of the room. A screen appears telling them they have 30 seconds to get the jacket. Cue teen skater music circa 1999 and high jinks. The video ends with slow-motion shots of shoppers leaping from the walls to grab their prize and land on the crash mat below.
There are two possible reactions to that video: 1) Cool! Wish I'd been there. And 2) If I'd been there, I would've kicked off. In fact, you immediately start wondering how many shoppers refused to play ball. The video shows one guy, with an annoyed look, opting out early on. That's assuming they weren't actors.
Cuisinella paid actors in their ' ça sent le sapin ' (Smells Like Pine) video. Passers-by on the street are shot. Put into an ambulance against their will. Pronounced dead (no matter how much they protest). Then forced into a coffin screaming. Eventually, they are released to an applauding crowd of Cuisinella pranksters. They and we, the viewers, see the latest kitchen promotion. Many viewers online found the video stomach wrenching. The screams are terrifying. At no point are you told that the victims are actors. Buried alive taps into a deep-rooted fear in many humans. So many viewers reacted angrily that the company was compelled to take down the video. Of course, you can still watch it today.
The shock marketing trend is worrisome for two reasons. First, it's a desperate response to the decline in advertising. Huge TV audiences have splintered and the media environment is noisy. So advertising is escalating like a toddler throwing a tantrum for more cake. Even though the cake is gone.
But second, and more dangerously so, popular psychology has become more accessible than ever. Just head to Amazon. You'll find a lot of books on influence, emotional manipulation, making things go viral, etc. These are written for the layperson to understand. Some are even applied specifically to marketing. Surprise marketing, in fact all emotional marketing, is a shiny toy marketers have found to gain attention. And once they get attention, they think it's worked. But what works? Marketing today should be about customer experience. Creating better, and deeper, customer relationships. These ads seem to be alienating.
That's because marketers aren't psychologists. Using psychology to understand and reach consumers might be part of the job but how far should they go? Shock marketing is not covered by subliminal or covert advertising regulations – mainly because its tactics are plain to see. But the industry needs to self-regulate on these practices. And the impetus is this – a bit of psychology in inexperienced hands does more harm than good.
Humans love shock and surprise. But read wider and you'll find we also need comfort and security. The North Face and Cuisinella ads (and loads of others) make some people feel uncomfortable. For no good reason. We're not exactly driving Ebola donations here. And if it gets too uncomfortable, it becomes painful. When humans find things painful, they tend to avoid them. Do you want consumers to avoid your brand at a deep subconscious level?
Humans have lots of different needs at the same time. The need to feel special or successful. Watching people fail at the North Face task might make a viewer wonder if they would be successful forced into the same situation. That could lead to feeling bad about the brand. Again, disengaging.
And about feeling disengaged: human beings also need to feel connected. That's one of the reasons things go viral. We love sharing experiences. But both ads were characterised by individuals going through these strange, scary experiences all alone. I suppose a marketer might respond, "Exactly. We made it that way." One of my peers even suggested, "Maybe they only want brand fans who are adrenaline junkies. A way of pre-qualifying their customers?"
I doubt the thinking behind these shock tactics goes that deep. Enough with emotional manipulation in advertising. You think it works, but it doesn't. You're winning eyeballs at the expense of real customer connection. Oh and that goes double for Christmas ads.