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Is shock factor passé?

Posted on 10/12/2015 by Emma Dadswell

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United Colors of Benetton has launched a new advertising initiative to highlight youth unemployment. Unlike previous campaigns, the brands latest imagery lacks the controversial edge that propelled the company into the public consciousness. Which begs the question - are shock tactics outdated?

The Unemployee of the Year campaign centres on a competition for unemployed people between the ages of 18 and 30. They will submit ideas for projects that will have an impact on local communities. The 100 most popular ideas – determined by an online vote – will win a €5,000 (£4,000) grant from Benetton.

According to Benetton Group’s chairman, Alessandro Benetton, who took control of the business from his father in April - provocation alone is not acceptable anymore. This ethos marks a subtle yet significant growth in the brand’s image – which can most certainly be attributed to the changing media landscape.

In the early 1990s when Benetton unveiled ads featuring a new born baby, a man dying of AIDS, and a woman breastfeeding somebody else’s baby – opportunities for reaction were limited. Traditional print adverts were rarely a topic of discussion and debate within traditional mainstream media. Benetton broke the mould by elevating its brand recognition beyond its target consumer base.

Today we have constant access to an infinite stream of thought provoking, uncensored and even disturbing photographs and videos. We share material in seconds and we are the masters of our own media consumption – the days when a brand could cause such a reaction through a linear campaign are over. Audiences have changed.

Although Benetton’s current marketing message is based on the core values its target consumers expect, the mode of delivery is more sophisticated. At the heart of the campaign lies engagement – the audience are not just asked to recognise a social issue – they are invited to help solve it.

The severity of youth unemployment and the idea of the lost generation need no elaboration. And the absence of shocking visual imagery gives the adverts more fluidity. By deviating from their default tactics, marketing professionals are encouraging audiences to take a second look - and draw their own conclusions.

The social media reaction, communicated through the #UNHATE hash tag (which last year was linked to images of Pope Benedict XVI kissing Ahmed el Tayeb), has been overwhelmingly positive. Benetton is displaying a level of maturity by understanding that consumers are numb to the overload of garish messages which they receive each day – marketing has moved on.

A brand’s longevity depends on its ability to adapt – and Benetton has once again created a campaign that stands out from the crowd. We’d love to hear what creative professionals think of the campaign – what’s your opinion? Hit of miss?