On New Years day, as the Victorian and Northern Territory governments followed NSW, WA and the ACT by implementing laws  preventing cigarettes from being put on display to the public, the Australian Medical Association called  for a $25 million TV and newspaper advertising campaign showing “damaged vital organs or people drinking liquefied body fat” to shock Australians into giving up junk food and sugary soft drinks. The good doctors based their call upon a belief that the fear-based advertising campaigns used by the TAC (in Victoria) and Quit have been effective in changing behaviour around driving and smoking. The mistake that they are making is that there is much more to the change of behaviour in relation to driving and smoking than the shock advertisements that have formed part of these long social marketing campaigns.
The advertisements that the AMA are suggesting are based on similar advertisements launched by the New York Health Department  in October, 2010, highlighting how much sugar is in a bottle of soft drink. A video that was released as part of the "Pouring on the Pounds" campaign aimed to “educate New Yorkers about the potentially serious health effects of consuming sugary drinks.” One of the videos  in the campaign showed a man drinking fat poured from a soft drink can with the tag saying, “drinking one can of soda a day, can make you 10 pounds fatter a year”, while another showed a man consuming sixteen packets of sugar to demonstrate the amount of sugar in an average sized soft drink.
And at the far end of the obesity shock spectrum, a viral execution called “Break the Habit” developed as a community service by The Precinct Studio  in October, 2010, featured a mother preparing to inject her son with heroin before the scene changed to show him eating a hamburger. The end tag read, ”You wouldn’t inject your children with junk, so why are you feeding it to them?
At face value, and amongst those who think that consumers are rational, thoughtful creatures that just need to be reminded of their vices to persuade them change their behaviour, this seems like a reasonable approach.
Frighten the masses. Give 'em the facts. Change their behaviour.
But shock advertising, on its own, is unlikely to have the desired effect of getting people to stop eating junk food and eating more healthily. Research in marketing and consumer behaviour suggests that some forms of shock advertising can have the opposite effect of increasing attitudinal loyalty to the brand or the product category, particularly amongst regular users. One explanation is related to the need for the ego to protect itself against any attacks on previous decision-making, thus avoiding or combating feelings of guilt. Advocacy groups need to recognise that shock for its own sake does not change behaviour. An emotional creative execution is useful, because it helps the brain to form memory connections when our emotions are heightened, but we need to be careful not to activate the “reject” or flight response.
In a paper published in April 2010 in the Journal of Marketing Research, Nidhi Agrawal and Adam Duhachek found ads that were designed to trigger guilt amongst the target market actually triggered a defensive processing mechanism. This mechanism, they argued, was explained by the notion that people tend to think things will go much better for them than for the average person. In other words, we think our own personal greatness buffers us from all potential negative consequence, whether it’s driving, smoking, or eating junk food.
However, the bigger problem in relation to obesity, and the more difficult one to counter, has been the growing sophistication of all facets of marketing to create an environment where highly processed and energy dense food is easily available to those living in developed countries. Over the past 30 years, consumers have been encouraged to eat more through highly sophisticated marketing activities, which includes supply chain management allowing easy access to convenience and processed food, lower pricing, including better "value" and longer perishability of processed foods, as well as integrated marketing campaigns that encourage consumers to purchase and consume foods that provide a high fat, high sugar, and high salt "hit"
Similarly, consumers who are asked whether they "want fries with that", to upsize, or choose a "Value Meal" instead of a single burger because it works out to be “cheaper”, are being influenced by a social discourse that says we should always try to capitalize on our consumption options and get the best “value for money”.
While we have increased our energy intake over the past thirty years by more than 1000 kilojoules a day according to National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in the US, other research suggests that physical activity has not significantly declined over that period. In other words, we are eating nearly 25 per cent more "food", but have not really changed our activity levels (either way).
Marketers need to recognise that their activities have an effect far beyond simply selling products. When consumers make choices in their local supermarket, it is the highly processed and packaged foods that have a powerful "push" effect. For example, although a 625 gram block of cheese (promoted as the same price as 500 grams) is presented as "good value", the consumer will buy (and consume) 125 grams more cheese than they had planned, simply because it is a better “deal”. This effect of consuming what we are given even has a name – consumption rebound effects – where consumers will increase their consumption based on the availability of the resource.
Shock advertising can work, but it has to be more than a couple of scary images, followed by an educational message. Behaving responsibly on the road, and not smoking have become normalised, which creates barriers to the bad behaviour, and easier for individuals to practice the good behaviour. The QUIT campaign, which has been running for more than 25 years, has been assisted by of government legislation that has progressively made it more and more difficult for cigarettes to be marketed, promoted and sold. The first TAC campaign, the drink-driving shock advertisements began in 1989, but all of their campaigns have been supported by increasing funding towards booze buses, sponsorships, and education programs, to the point now where friends are encouraged to “Yellow Card” poor driving behaviour.
Advocacy groups have to have same level of sophistication and understanding of consumer behavior as commercial businesses, otherwise they simply end up talking to themselves, rather than those they are trying to help. The most successful social marketing campaigns are those that help people to change their behaviour through policy interventions, change programs, and, most importantly, the normalisation of the “good” behaviour.
A shorter version of this post was published on The Drum, Unleashed  at ABC Online