Shock charity campaigns: A guide for fine research

Have you read the blog post written by Ouidade Sabri on the article of Jeanne Albouy that was recently published in Recherche et Applications en Marketing? No? For a catch-up session, you can go to: Using shock to incite donation, how far can we go?

Now, have you read this post? Bravo! What did you think? It’s time to leave a comment on the AFM blog, before or after you’ve read Darren Dahl’s article on Jeanne Albouy’s work. Professor of Marketing at the Sauder School of Business (University of British Columbia, Canada) and receiver of many research and teaching awards, Darren Dahl is an expert on social influence; his work notably sheds light on how to conduct research in this field and opens avenues for research.


An example of a shock and unconventional ad (for a public radio)

Two key features of a shock advertisement

Let’s start with a definition. Broadly speaking, a shock advertisement is an ad that “deliberately, rather than inadvertently, startles and offends its audience by violating norms for social values and personal ideals” and which objective is to emotionally engage its audiences. Several visuals can be used: images that are disturbing (e.g. image of an emaciated child for an ad that wants to take action toward ending world hunger), vulgar, or that contain violence or sexual connotations, etc.

Two characteristics of a shock ad deserve special attention: shock level and congruence with the charitable cause. First, what level of shock to use: low, moderate, or high? For what effectiveness? To whom? The work of J. Albouy is a fine example of experimental manipulation of three levels of shock.

Second, which strategy to choose: alignment or misalignment? Alignment suggests that the image fits with the charitable cause whereas misalignment implies a gap (visual or semantic) between the stimulus and the charitable cause. An obvious decision criterion is the effectiveness of the ad, and thus its ability to attract attention, be recalled and persuade the receiver. Given that shock images by definition are used to startle and offend, one might argue that “a mismatch would effectively break through the clutter and better motivate the consumer to consider the ad appeal”. Now, it needs to be proved!

The characteristics of the ad are one thing, but ad exposure is important too!

The context of ad exposure has an impact on the effectiveness of the ad. In the case of experiments, the direct exposure of ad stimuli is prone to social desirability bias and/or reactance bias when the topic is socially sensitive. It is therefore necessary to turn to more realistic procedures that come closer to a cluttered environment (individuals are potentially exposed to more than 5,000 messages per day) wherein the likelihood of paying attention to the shock ad is low. It is possible to use relatively conventional methods such as magazines or “look books” in which a test ad is inserted among decoy ads. A more innovative approach consists in exposing the participants to an ad while they are involved in an unrelated task; thus, the exposure is incidental and the individual is in a cognitive load situation, just like in a real-life setting. Let’s remember this for future research and let’s study the impact of these more naturalistic procedures on the results!

“Actions speak louder than words”

The effectiveness of shock ads can be evaluated in terms of changes in attitudes and intentions; though, ultimately, what really matters is the change in behavior: word-of-mouth behaviors, online sharing of the ad, call for solidarity among friends, donation or willingness to receive a donation form, volunteer work, etc. These effects are both more difficult to measure and obtain (a simple exposure is not enough to induce a change in behavior). Yet, it is unavoidable (!) and possible (!); for example, by incorporating secondary data from actual charities that partner with the researchers, or by collecting data from online reactions to charitable campaigns.

Darren Dahl also mentions slacktivism. This portmanteau word is formed by mixing “slacker” and “activism”. By clicking, the Internet user participates in a collective movement without engaging himself/herself more actively and concretely. A new form of activism… and an exciting behavior to study.

Let’s hope that these warnings and suggestions will lead to fruitful and qualitative research papers on shock advertising but also on other topics. Ready for a JCR?

Dahl, D. W. (2018), Shock charity campaigns: Building our understanding on their effectiveness: Comments on “Emotions and Prosocial Behaviors: A Study of the Effectiveness of Shocking Charity Campaigns” by Jeanne Albouy, Recherche et Applications en Marketing (English Edition), 33 (1), pp. 88–91.

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