Shock Advertising: Theories, Risks, and Outcomes Analyzed Using the Case of Barnardo's

By Catrise P. Noel
2010, Vol. 2 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

Barnardo's Cockroach AdFounded in 1867 by Dr. Thomas Barnardo to help "abused, vulnerable, forgotten and neglected children," children's charity Barnardo's now helps over 110,000 children every year (Barnardo's, 2009). Although traditionally has been used to "equate products with positive cultural or social experiences" (Klein, 2000, p.29), Barnardo's has abandoned such "positive" practices, alternatively opting for a "disturbing image [to present] the need for support" (Goddard, 1998, p.10) thus making its advertisements a vivid reality (Klein, 2000). As a charity, Barnardo's is subject to closer scrutiny and tighter accountability than many organisations (Brassington & Pettit, 1997, p.1104), specifically relating to how they use advertising to communicate with the public.

Barnardo's "Child poverty campaign" (2003) is largely regarded as the charity's most controversial print advertisement which was banned by The Advertising Standards Authority (Carvel, 2003). Williamson (1978) asserts that advertisements are ubiquitous and unavoidable; therefore it is imperative to examine the theories which dictate the potential interpretations of this advertisement.

The most striking aspect of this advertisement is the appearance of a cockroach crawling out of a baby's mouth. The cockroach is not authentic, but a metaphorical reference to the destitution of many children. Max Black's (1909-1988) interaction theory of metaphor is useful when examining the use of such an image as "the image's signification is assuredly intentional" (Barthes, 1964, p.22), designed to create a "maximally effective impact" on the audience (Forceville, 1996, p.68). A metaphor, be it linguistic or pictorial, does not divulge itself at merely the word or the isolated image, but at the discourse, thus placing importance on the relevance of the nonverbal context (Forceville, 1996); how the singular image of the insect interacts within the other elements in which is it proposed, specifically the baby and the white background. Ricoeur (1977, p.74-180) explains that "metaphor…is a phenomenon of discourse…language passes outside itself [and] reference is the mark of the self transcendence of language."

The image presents a visual statement whereby elements are identifiable as a primary and secondary subject, the baby and insect respectively. Both are systems rather than things, interacting via an "implicative complex" understood as a totality of properties belonging to the secondary subject which are projected upon the primary subject (Forceville, 1996). Theoretically, the architect of the advertisement has selected characteristics of the insect to induce endoxa (Aristotle, c.350 BCE) in the audience; a set of shared opinions rendering the image of the cockroach synonymous with the concept of squalor in which the baby will develop.

However, as the association is made in the minds of the receiver, the metaphorical statement must be understood in context hence requiring an inquisitive response from a proficient reader (Forceville, 1996). Arguably, the limitations become clear when proficiency is not present on the reader. Kittay (1987) argues that to understand the projection of properties from the secondary subject to the primary only in terms of Aristotle's endoxa is too restrictive, therefore hindering the scope of Black's theory. Henceforth, the theory disregards some associations that may not be articulated by spoken terms (ibid), which are apparent in some readers.

The theory of Semiotics encompasses the concept of metaphor providing an alternative explanation of Barnardo's" advertisement. Two prevailing models of semiology are presented by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who offers a dyadic approach and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) who offers a triadic approach to semiology (Chandler, 1994).

Saussure defined a sign as consisting of the signifier (the form of the sign) and the signified (the conceptual representation), thus a sign is recognisable as a combined signifier with a specific signified, both of which are psychological and subjective (Saussure, 1916). The signifier is the cockroach whilst the concept of squalor is the signified. Umberto Eco (1976, p. 9) states that "a signification system is an autonomous semiotic construct that has an [independent] abstract mode." Therefore, the function of the image of the cockroach is to provoke associations of unpleasantness, irrespective of reader interpretation.

However, Peirce argues that without interpretation, signs are non-existent (Peirce, 1931-58), reinforcing the notion that signs do not have an intrinsic value, but rather, meaning is interdependent, reliant on subjective interpretation. Peirce's triadic approach to semiotics involves three inter-related elements; the representamen which is the form which the sign takes, an interpretant: the sense made of the sign and the object to which the sign refers (Chandler, 1994). Specifically, how we understand the relationship between the sign and the object (Atkin, 2006), in this case how the reader interprets the relationship between the depiction of a cockroach in a baby's mouth and conditions of child poverty.

Peirce was also concerned with the perceptual judgement, explaining "percept" as the "total content of immediately present awareness" (Robin, 2006, p. 48). This judgement one makes, based on the presence of a cockroach and a baby in a connective context, "works without the control of rationality." (Andersen & Sørensen, 2009, p. 85). So, rationally one may chose to disassociate cockroaches with dirt, however, the absence of such control means the association is forged in ones psychological sphere pertaining to, at least, an awareness of the notion of what is being represented.

The presence of "awareness" is elaborated on in the uses and gratifications approach whereby the focus lies with what people do with media based on the psychological & social origination of their needs and expectations (McQuail &Windahl, 1993). "Advertising texts are seen as potentially involving complex notions of audience, where readers have to work hard to decode messages" (Goddard, 1998, p. 8) therefore the audience is always active hence media content is always subject to interpretation (Livingstone, 2004). Accordingly, interpretations of what a cockroach in a baby's mouth means in the context of an advertisement will differ; many may perceive it as just a strategy (Hamstig, 2005), used to evoke pathos in those who are emotionally receptive to the campaign, causing them to use the advertisement as a motivation to donate money, in turn gratifying their need for esteem or respect one obtains from others (Maslow, 1943).

Whilst critics and scholars alike will continue to dissert a plurality of perspectives regarding the justifiability of ostentatious, provocative and controversial advertising, examining the theories provides an exposition of the way the elements interact with each other, explaining the potential impact of such advertising on an audience. Sensationalised media coverage may appear to detract from the validity of the charity that risked insulting the public, yet Barnardo's acquired attention, made the audience aware of a commendable cause (Goldstein & Daniels, 2002), irrespective of varied decoding, ensuring future donations that place Barnardo's at the forefront of the struggle to end child poverty in the , suggesting that even contentious means may ultimately be justified by the result (BBC, 2001; Hamstig, 2005 & Cassidy, 2009).


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