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Shock vs. Schlock: Dignity in Unconventional Marketing

Guerrilla marketing, at its most effective, includes creative, low-cost strategies that literally ambush a potential audience. It’s best used by small businesses, NGOs and nonprofits, but large corporations often apply their near infinite resources in the pursuit of guerrilla campaigns—which often produces schlocky results. These schlocky results, in turn, inspire the little guy (NGOs, nonprofits, small businesses) to emulate them. This post will discuss the difference between shock and schlock, and will also emphasize on the importance of dignity in unconventional marketing.

An Example

First, let’s look at an example. Guerrilla marketing hits when its audience is most vulnerable, and by nature it takes direct advantage of that vulnerability in order to leave a strong impression. In this campaign from 2009, the Australian agency Publicis Mojo designed a ketchup packet. This ketchup packet featured the legs of a child, and when torn open the pictured child’s leg was removed while blood-simulating ketchup poured out. It turned out to be a campaign for CALM, a New Zealand NGO. CALM is an organization dedicated to landmine awareness, banning landmines and the removal of landmines. Once the ketchup packet is severed, the connection is made and the image is burned into the audience’s brain. Shocking.

While it is shocking, it is not schlocky. It does not aim for the lowest common denominator or rely on lowbrow, obvious humor. It’s simple and visceral, but there it goes far beyond a simple gross out tactic. Some people were turned off and offended, but that’s the nature of unconventional marketing. The NGO, the little guy, succeeded with a fairly brilliant guerrilla marketing campaign in the end.

Why Avoid the Lowbrow?

For large corporations, the lowbrow is a way of life. It’s not uncommon to see clothing companies engage in sexually provocative ads, some of which are even perverse. Violence and gore are often used when marketing video game consoles and televisions shows (Sony’s PSP handheld and HBO’s The Sopranos come to mind). IF the campaign fails, they brush away the controversy and move onto their next marketing strategy. In fact, some people even like these ads. For a small business, however, simple body humor and gross outs cannot be relied on. They can be creatively utilized, of course, but a small business must realize that a campaign will be directly associated with it. Possibly forever. A small florist shop or an ad agency crammed into a tiny office does not have the same budget as Sony or Levi’s, and therefore does not have access to a magic eraser.

Your Dignity

While you can put a price on a marketing campaign, you cannot put a price on your dignity. When you aim to shock, make sure you think it out. “Is this campaign something I’m going to be embarrassed about in 5 years?” is a question you must ask yourself. “Could I successfully explain the campaign and the motives behind it to a person I hold in high esteem?” is another great question to ask. If it’s a campaign that’s shocking while remaining thoughtful and memorable while remaining true to your core values as a person and a business, then you can safely answer “No!” and “Yes!” respectively. Avoid the easy scare and the lowest common denominator. It’s sciential– In the internet age, any loss of dignity a small business or agency suffers will be preserved for eternity.

There is no magic recipe for a guerrilla marketing campaign that is both meaningful and shocking. Not every strategy will succeed, but even those that fail don’t have to be a black mark as long as they’re carried out with insight and dignity. The big guys don’t have to learn from their mistakes, but a small business can learn a lot about what not to do from their example. Avoid the schlock and think hard before you aim to shock.

Written by Adam Farwell

Adam Farwell is a writer, blogger and designer. He generally blogs about design, marketing, small business branding and the various creative projects he’s involved in. He currently writes for the funny shirts retailer funnyshirts.org.

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