15 Aug 2014

Is this ad offensive? And if not, what does that say about us?

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A recent public safety ad by the Northern Ireland Department of Environment tests the boundaries of taste and appropriateness. Is it effective messaging, or does it go too far?

I've never considered myself as someone 'easily offended.' For the most part, I ignore most of the faux-outrage in the media, as it's usually just a tactic to score political points or aggrandize oneself by claiming a position of moral authority. But I recently came across an advertisement, a public service ad no less, that went to such extremes to illustrate its point, it shocked me.

The advertisement entitled Classroom cross-cuts a presumably kindergarten school field trip to a wooded glen with a twenty-something man going to work (perhaps I should say 'speeding to work'). What follows is a startling, graphic and unsettling CGI collision.

Cultural Disconnect?

The controversial ad, which has been banned from airing before 9 p.m. throughout Northern Ireland, definitely resorts to a convenient scare tactic to convey its message about the horrors of speeding. The folksy cover of Guns 'N Roses hit Sweet Child O' Mine used as score added to the cheapness of the experience. And yet, I'm left to wonder if my negative perception of this ad is more a matter of my nationality than being confronted by universal affront to decency.

Every country, even down to localities, have varying mores, generally unspoken standards of what's socially acceptable. Many ads that run in other countries definitely wouldn't make the air in the U.S., especially those that contain nudity or have racial-overtones. And we in the States have our own public service shock ads, particularly for the dangers of smoking and hard drug use. So, I feel like somewhat of a hypocrite for chastising the Northern Ireland speeding ad. However, I can't escape that idea that there's something fundamentally different at play here.

Did we need to see that?

It's increasingly difficult to get the public's attention, even for Hollywood blockbusters with enormous marketing budgets, and one sure fire way to grab your audience is to jolt them in their seats. But I always thought there was some invisible line we all adhered to in regards to graphic violence against children, especially on open airwaves. And I'm not talking about suggested violence; I'm talking about a car rolling over children, on your screen. The moment before is elongated, and the actual collision is thankfully brief, but all the more shocking for its brevity.

I can only imagine the creative meetings for this ad: 

Do we show it? Can we...? Do we really do it? Are we really doing this?

Well, they did it. And they upped the ante on an unwelcome trend of graphically injuring children in ads, such as this 2012 Think UK road safety ad, in which a dead girl actually resurrects because the driver didn't stop when hitting the girl, and other ads around the world that exploit our nurturing and protective natures by placing children in harm's way.

Is all fair?

As much as I dislike this ad, I must say that it is effective in its aim to startle and spur conversation. Unfortunately, most of the talk is about the ad's means, and not its message. But if it keeps even a small number of heavy footed motorists to ease off the gas pedal, and local highway injury and fatality statistics show improvement, does it really matter if took some digital grade-schoolers getting flattened by a hatchback?

Maybe we've reached that point where we think we've seen it all, and these unpleasant, shocking and emotionally manipulative ads are just reminders that we can still be viscerally effected. But what do we do when the pretend massacre of children for the public good is no longer shocking?

Watch the controversial video on the next page. WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT - if you don't want to see this video DON'T TURN THE PAGE



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Patrick Jong Taylor

Patrick Jong Taylor is former North American Editor of RedShark Media. He is currently the Director of Strategy at bigSTORY, a consultancy specializing in story-based analysis, strategy and production for corporate clients.

Website: bigstorybiz.com/

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