Catholic church has been “selling death” for years – AW Europe panel debates effectiveness of shock tactics in advertising

By Jessica Davies | News Editor

March 31, 2014 | 4 min read

The Catholic church has been “selling death” for thousands of years and now boasts an “excellent market position”, according to Enlightened Tobacco Company founder BJ Cunningham.

Speaking on the Take Stock of Shock panel at Advertising Week Europe today, featuring The Drum’s editor Gordon Young, and chaired by The Drum’s editor-at-large Dave Birss, Cunningham spoke of the controversy surrounding his own product – an addictive-free smoking product called Death Cigarettes.

He said the marketing activity around the products were aimed at “galvanising” opinion, kick-starting conversations around it, whether positive or not.

“The one thing you’re not meant to mention in marketing is religion, but my view is the Catholic church has been selling death for thousands of years and they have an excellent market position, with a great logo and retail outlets all over the world. A great example of branding and marketing,” he said.

When citing the different tactics used to promote its products without much of a marketing budget, Cunningham said the aim wasn’t just to shock, but to fuel debate.

“Branding is about virtual bonfire building. We are all sticking our stories on that fire like logs and the brighter that fire burns the more likely people are to come to your bonfire and listen to your story.”

However, he warned against traditional brands deploying shock as a tactic for the sake of it, adding that shock is the “fire starter” for the bonfire, rather than the bonfire itself.

Meanwhile fellow panellist, creative director of Leo Burnett John Jessup, referenced the agency’s work for Virgin owner Richard Branson, who used to encourage them to push the boundaries when it came to winding up rivals and creating controversial ads.

One of the results to this encouragement produced at the time, was an ad which said: ‘Visit the USA before the USA visits you. Only £229'.

According to Jessup, Branson loved the ad, but it had to be shelved due to its timing conflicting with the Gulf War.

"Although we didn't use it Branson used to show it as an example to people as the kind of work he wanted to see more of... At the time he was challenger brand, so that was his way of surviving. You don’t have to be rude or vulgar – but you must be smart and make people think,” added Jessup.

In today’s content-cluttered landscape young people are increasingly expecting brands to stand out, which will result in an overall push in the amount of shock marketing activity from brands, according to Jessup.

“Kids are taking all sorts of risks to get themselves noticed these days and they expect brands to be taking similar risks. Businesses are having to take more and more risks to get noticed by young people – so I think we will see more stunts from brands looking to draw attention,” he predicted.

Also on the panel, Manifest managing director Alex Myers said shock advertising is all about “finding an enemy and shooting it down”. Having been the retained agency partner for BrewDog for the past four years, Myers said using shock tactics can help brands punch above their weight and take on some of the bigger players more effectively.

He said Manifest and BrewDog set out to overhaul the image of the beer industry to move away from the previous image of “fizzy yellow lager” and directed much of its marketing toward dispelling the "lies" told by other "mainstream" beer brands.

The Drum's editor Gordon Young referenced the Chip Shop Awards, which he launched to reward work which didn't make it into mainstream awards due to their controversy. He said that there was an "arms race" around the time of the launch, to clamp down on those kinds of works from being published.

"The more they tightened the rules, the more inventive the creative became in circumventing those rules," he said.

Also speaking on the panel was Peta press officer Ben Williamson.

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