Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Disturbing Commercials

This past Sunday saw what was to many the darkest and most depressing commercial to ever air during the Super Bowl. The 45 second spot for Nationwide insurance entitled "Make Safe Happen" began with a mop headed boy telling how he would never learn to ride a bike, how he would never get cooties, how he'll never learn to fly, how he'll never travel the world with his best friend, and how he'll never get married. The boy's narration is accompanied by the most whimsical imagery, from animated cooties to the boy in a boat at sea with his dog. Unfortunately, it turns out the boy will never do these things because, in his words, "I won’t grow up because I died from an accident." The whimsical imagery then gave way to the stuff of parent's nightmares: an overflowing bathtub, an open cabinet filled with poisonous chemicals, and a gigantic flat screen TV that had crashed to the floor. The reaction of viewers on various social media sites was swift, immediate, and almost universally negative. Many were shocked by the commercial's morbid tone, aired during an event when funny and inspirational commercials generally rule the day. Others were outraged, thinking that Nationwide was preying upon people's emotions simply to sell insurance. Nearly all viewers hated the advert.

In response to the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the commercial, Nationwide issued a statement saying "The sole purpose of this message was to start a conversation, not sell insurance. We want to build awareness of an issue that is near and dear to all of us — the safety and well-being of our children." Whether Nationwide succeeded in starting a conversation about child safety is perhaps debatable. They did succeed in getting people talking about their commercial.

While Nationwide's "Make Safe Happen" may be the first truly morbid commercial to air during the Super Bowl, it is hardly the first disturbing commercial to air on American television. Non-profit organisations from the ASPCA to Save the Children have been known to use disturbing imagery to get their point across. Even federal agencies have created some disturbing adverts over the years, the most recent example being a series of ads by the Centres for Disease Control to discourage people from smoking. That having been said, it is a rare thing for a product manufacturer or a service to create a commercial that is intentionally disturbing, which is perhaps why Nationwide's "Make Safe Happen" made such a negative impression with viewers.

Even political commercials, not generally known for their subtlety,  tend to avoid anything that is overly shocking, disturbing, or morbid. Of course, this isn't always the case. In fact, what may be the most controversial, most disturbing advertisement of all time in the United States was a political commercial. Its official title was "Peace, Little Girl", but it is better known as the "Daisy" commercial. "Daisy" was a political commercial for the campaign to elect Lyndon B. Johnson President of the United States. It aired only once, on Labour Day, September 7 1964 during a broadcast of the film David and Bathsheba (1951) on NBC Monday Night at the Movies. Although his name is never mentioned, the advert implied President Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, would start a nuclear war. The commercial capitalised on fears of nuclear annihilation that were still all too real less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The controversy resulting from "Daisy" was immediate. The commercial appeared on newscasts for all three networks at the time (NBC, CBS, and ABC). A still from the commercial appeared on the cover of the September 25 1964 issue of Time, the magazine's "Nuclear Issue". As might be expected, the Republican Party was incensed by the advert.  Republican National Committee Chairman Dean Burch  not only denounced the commercial, but filed a formal complaint with both the National Advertising Council and the Fair Campaign Practices Committee. Republican Minority Leader Senator Everett Dirksen wrote a letter to the National Association of Broadcasters maintaining the commercial violated the NAB's  Code of Ethics. The National Advertising Council, the Fair Campaign Practices Committee, and the NAB all declined to get involved in the controversy. Other Republicans also spoke out against the commercial or took action against it.

Despite the controversy, it seems possible that "Daisy" was only meant to air once. According to Bill Moyers, then a special assistant to President Johnson, the commercial was only ordered to run once. According to Lloyd Wright, then Democratic National Committee Campaign Media Coordinator, the commercial was ordered to be run more times, but after the reaction to the commercial it was decided the one time was enough. Regardless, the commercial has run many times since on documentaries and newscasts and is even available on YouTube.

"Daisy" was not the only disturbing commercial created by the campaign to elect Lyndon B. Johnson as President. Only five days later another advert for the Lyndon B. Johnson campaign aired that was nearly as disturbing as "Daisy". "Little Girl, Ice Cream Cone" aired on September 12 1964 during a broadcast of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. In the commercial a little girl eats an ice cream cone while a motherly voice discusses the danger of radioactive poisons in the food supply from nuclear testing. She goes on to mention how Barry Goldwater had opposed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The message of "Little Girl, Ice Cream Cone" was clear. Barry Goldwater was unconcerned about the possibility of radiation poisoning from nuclear testing.

Although not as well known now as the notorious "Daisy" commercial, "Little Girl, Ice Cream Cone" also generated a good deal of controversy. The two commercials were often mentioned together. Like "Daisy", "Little Girl, Ice Cream Cone" only aired once as a paid advertisement in prime time.

"Peace, Little Girl" (AKA "Daisy") and "Little Girl, Ice Cream" marked the advent of modern day political advertising. While there had been  attack ads long before 1964, the two commercials were the first political commercials to utilise Madison Avenue advertising techniques that appealed more to emotion than intellect. They would also remain two of the most disturbing commercials of all time.

Of course, both "Daisy" and "Little Girl, Ice Cream" are rare as commercials in referencing nuclear annihilation. That is not to say that there aren't commercials that have not relied upon other disturbing material to get their point across. Car crashes can be among the most catastrophic events in life. Most of us have known at least one person who was killed in a car crash, and the list of famous people who have met their ends in cars have been long ones. For the most part only public service announcements and some rather dodgy law firms have relied on automobile accident imagery in their adverts. It is for this reason that it was rather shocking in 2006 when Volkswagen released a set of commercials that rather graphically portrayed car crashes.

These Volkswagen commercials had roughly the same format. The commercials would begin with people in a Volkswagen Jetta going about their business when suddenly they are hit by another vehicle. The commercials would end with the passengers standing on the street safe and sound and staring at the remains of their Jetta. Text on the advertisement would then read "Safe Happens". The car crashes in Volkswagen's "Safe Happens" commercials seemed so real because they were. Stunt drivers were at the wheels of the vehicles as they actually crashed into each other. It was this very realness that made Volkwagen's "Safe Happens" commercials so shocking for many. Previously when auto manufacturers wanted to demonstrate the safety of their vehicles they simply filmed crash tests with dummies in the car.

As might be expected, the commercials did upset many viewers. At the time Volkswagen's "Safe Happens" adverts were circulated widely on YouTube, where many viewers complained about them. Many viewers did not simply find the commercials upsetting, but downright traumatising. Some even went so far as to write Volkswagen with their complaints.  Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, the Miami advertising agency responsible for the commercials, won a Creativity Award for the adverts despite the complaints.

As disturbing as Volkswagen's "Safe Happens" commercials were, they were perhaps nowhere nearly as disturbing as a series of public service announcements from last year. In April 2014 a commercial created by the United States Department of Transportation began airing as part of their “U Drive, U Text, U Pay" campaign. The commercial featured three young people talking in a car. Unfortunately, the driver decides to text while she is driving, at which point their car is hit by a rather large truck. Unlike the Volkswagen Jetta commercials from 2006 there was no happy ending. In fact, it seems unlikely that anyone survived the crash. While there can be no doubt that many viewers found the "U Drive, U Text, U Pay" commercials disturbing, there seems to have been little controversy as a result of the ads. This is perhaps, as mentioned earlier, historically public service announcements in the United States, even those created by government agencies, have used shock tactics to get their message across.

While the Department of Transportation's "U Drive, U Text, U Pay" campaign caused little controversy, this was not the case for a commercial for Life Alert that started airing in the summer of 2014. Life Alert is a personal emergency response service. Its customers wear a pendant-like device with a button that when pushed connects them to the company's call centre, who can then notify the local authorities of the customer's emergency. As expected their clientele mostly tend to be older people. For most of its history Life Alert commercials centred on testimonials from their customers. Any scenarios portrayed in their commercials were always so unrealistic as to verge on camp. In fact, their advertising catchphrase, "I've fallen and I can't get up!", was inherited from a rival company called LifeCall. LifeCall's original commercial featuring the phrase was so unrealistic and so campy that it was often mocked and parodied when it first debuted in 1989. The line even became an oft quoted catchphrase in the Eighties. 

Life Alert's commercial "Basement" was then a sharp break with their earlier commercials. As ominous music plays, the camera moves through a person's house. We hear an elderly woman whimpering in pain. She cries for help, the line "I've fallen and I can't get up" now taking a more frightening tone. At last the camera arrives at the basement stairs, where at their base lies an elderly woman on the floor, her laundry spilled out before her. She has clearly fallen down the stairs. The commercial then shifts to what one would usually expect from a Life Alert commercial, an explanation of what Life Alert does, complete with a testimonial. As to the old woman at the bottom of her basement stairs, the viewer is left to assume she received no help and died.

Reaction to the commercial was almost entirely negative. The general consensus was that the commercial was much too disturbing and frightening, to the point that it was exploitative. Indeed, many thought Life Alert was using fear to sell its service. Not surprisingly, several people posted their complaints on Life Alert's Facebook page, while others tweeted their complaints about the commercial on Twitter. There was even a petition to remove the commercial created on Change.org and a community page created on Facebook simply called "Boycott Life Alert". Neither the petition nor the Facebook page appeared to get much reaction from people, but they do show the intense response many people had to the commercial.

In response to the complaints Life Alert issued a statement that basically said that the commercial was worth it if it convinces people to get a medical alert system for family members who may need it, even if it is not Life Alert. Despite Life Alert's initial response, "Basement" would be pulled two months after it first aired and replaced with a commercial in which an individual uses the Life Alert pendant and is saved.

Despite their occasional use over the years, it is unclear whether disturbing and shocking commercials are truly effective. It is often assumed that the "Daisy" commercial played a pivotal role in Lyndon B. Johnson's defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, but that might not have been the case. After the "Daisy" commercial had aired there was no real change in Barry Goldwater's poll numbers. That having been said, a Harris poll conducted the week that the advert aired indicated that 53% of women and 45% of men thought that if elected Mr. Goldwater would get the United States into a war. In the wake of the "Safe Happens" campaign sales for the Volkswagen Jetta actually rose.

While the "Daisy" commercial appears to have had some impact and the Volkswagen "Safe Happens" commercials appear to have been effective, it seems possible that they could have been isolated cases. After all, there have been several instances in which an unpopular commercial has resulted in a drop in sales for a company. While Burger King's "Herb" campaign of 1985 was in no way disturbing (at least not in the way the above commercials are), the campaign was actively hated by many people. During the run of the campaign Burger King's sales actually plummeted. Overly disturbing commercials are generally hated by large numbers of people. If the unpopularity of a commercial can have impact on sales, then, it would seem that an overly disturbing commercials could result in a drop in sales. One has to wonder what impact on sales Life Alert's "Basement" commercial actually had.

It is perhaps for this reason that, beyond public service announcements and the occasional political commercial, truly disturbing commercials tend to be rare. Quite simply, companies do not wish to offend potential customers with a commercial that shocks or upsets them lest sales fall. It will be interesting to see what will happen in to  Nationwide in the wake of their  notorious "Make Safe Happen" commercial.

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