Touching a raw nerve

HARISH BHAT | Updated on March 07, 2012

When advertisers touch open wounds, it often pays off.

Each year, television advertisements which appear on Super Bowl Day in the US are keenly watched. This year, the clear winner was an impressive Chrysler commercial titled “It's halftime in America”, which has touched a raw nerve across that country. This film, set against images of an industrial America brought to its knees by the recent recession, features the legendary actor Clint Eastwood. Here are extracts from what he says in the commercial:

“It's halftime in America. People are out of work and they are hurting. They are all wondering what they're going to do to make a comeback. And we are all scared, because this isn't a game.”

“All that matters now is what is ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And how do we win?”

“Detroit's showing us it can be done. This country can't be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do, the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.”

“Yeah, its halftime America. And our second half is about to begin.””

The advertisement has made a huge impact. On YouTube alone, it has been viewed more than 10 million times. When it was previewed to several hundred Chrysler dealers a few hours before it was broadcast, it is reported that the dealers cried, cried and then applauded for what seemed an unending lifetime.

Clearly, the commercial has touched a sore spot among Americans who have been hurt badly by the economic crisis for several months now. And having opened these fresh wounds, it has appealed to their sense of patriotism, their intense longing for the power and the glory always associated with the US. As it did all this, the advertisement has also brilliantly positioned brand Chrsyler as the flag-bearer of American resilience and pride.

Success of raw nerves advertising

The fabulous success of the Chrysler advertisement opens a new line of enquiry, which is relevant and interesting for marketers. Do advertisements which touch a raw nerve always make such a huge impact ? If so, why?

A few more examples provide a good starting point for this exploration. Fairness creams in India and West Asia have always tried to touch a raw nerve in girls' minds, that their dark skin inhibits their progress in life. For instance, one such advertisement was built on the theme “The obstacle to obtaining my dream job was the colour of my skin.” Many of us may find such themes inappropriate and indeed, the subject has been hotly debated. However, the consumer need continues to prevail, and fairness creams make their pot of gold by repeatedly touching this tender spot that literally sits on the surface of the skin, claiming to offer an easy solution.

Similarly, Benetton has excelled in advertising built around the controversial subject of race. Across the world, any such communication which even remotely hints at any superiority of the white Anglo-Saxon race instantly touches a raw nerve. In some cases, Benetton has had to withdraw its campaigns. But across the years, these contentious advertisements have certainly made Benetton an edgier and more appealing brand. Benetton has, of course, stood for the equality of all races, and its advertisements only make the point by provoking sharp contrast.

There are many other examples of impactful raw nerve advertising. Some featuring the Nazi movement or Hitler; others featuring politically incorrect stances; and yet others addressing issues such as lung cancer and smoking, euthanasia, or corruption. Clearly, if done well, advertising that touches raw nerves appears to have the potential to strongly impact consumers' minds.

The fundamental reasons for the success of such advertising lie in consumer psychology. First, by definition, a raw nerve is always very sensitive, and if touched it makes us jump or react immediately, with agony and pain. Therefore, consumers will never be passive to any communication which touches a raw nerve. No wonder Americans, labouring for so long now under high unemployment, an unprecedented housing crisis and a general perceived loss of national competitiveness, have responded so spontaneously to the Chrysler Super Bowl advertisement.

Second, a raw nerve is often a symptom of a subject which lies wide open and has not been resolved. In many cases, there may not be easy resolution either, and an uneasy history lies behind. Therefore, advertising which addresses such subjects immediately attracts consumer attention by provoking sharply differing points of view, leading to anger and debate. Benetton's advertisements on race and colour, or its recent ‘Unhate' campaign, have achieved this marvellously, time and again. In today's marketplace, where thousands of brands vie for consumers' attention, this delivers excellent clutter-busting.

Third, consumers are constantly seeking solutions to important and painful issues in their lives and in their immediate worlds. Therefore, when an advertising campaign highlights such problems, and then presents a solution, consumers warm up immediately. The solution being highlighted may be practical and real, or even rhetorical and far-fetched, yet the nature of the human mind is that we tend to often grasp at these straws. Seen in this context, Chrysler's Super Bowl assertion that America cannot be knocked out with one punch, that it will get right up again and win its second half, makes an immediate and positive impact even if it is largely rhetorical. On the other hand, so does advertising for fairness creams, which offer a practical solution to a personal problem.

Finally, in today's relatively civilised yet increasingly complex world, there are so many fault lines and open wounds which often lie unacknowledged. Like dormant volcanoes, these are waiting to erupt. Raw nerve advertising suddenly probes one such dormant wound, which leads to an outpouring of pent-up emotions and feelings on the subject. The brand which does this first wins recognition and applause, provided, of course, that the matter being highlighted is relevant to its category and ecosystem.

Some guidelines for success

Brands considering raw nerve advertising should, however, take care to ensure that the communication they put out is not repulsive or distasteful. There is a clear line dividing advertising which deals with a sensitive matter in a provocative yet sensible manner, and advertising which crosses over to being disrespectful or vulgar.

Brands should also bear in mind that for advertisements addressing painful or raw subjects, there is always the important issue of getting timing right. The mood of the moment is very important. America at the start or in the roughest phase of its economic crisis may not have responded as positively to the Chrysler advertisement as it has done now, when employment figures have shown some improvement, and the first glimpses of light are visible at the end of the tunnel.

As you think further about raw nerve advertising, I recommend that you view the Chrysler Super Bowl advertisement on YouTube or elsewhere. It is a very impactful piece of marketing communication and a lesson to all of us.

(Harish Bhat is Chief Operating Officer – Watches and Accessories, Titan Industries Ltd. These are his personal views)

Published on March 07, 2012

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