The latest GoCompare.com car-insurance ad sees Gio Compario, the spoof opera singer, drive his car round a bend, crash into an unseen fallen tree and crawl from the wreck rather feebly.
In its favour, this spot has achieved the first goal of any advertising: to get noticed – no mean feat in the low-interest, low-involvement category of car insurance. The ad is still running despite the number of complaints it has received, so it must be generating some positive short-term responses alongside the flurry of negative ones.
But does the end justify the means? The road-safety campaign Think! has used shock tactics in the past to jolt people out of complacency and encourage them to change any behaviours that could have disastrous consequences on our roads. One of the hardest-hitting was for rear seatbelts. The ad, called "Julie", first aired in 1998 and told the story of a mum driving her two teenage children to school. She and her daughter were wearing seatbelts, but her son was not. Attempting to avoid an oncoming van, Julie crashed into a parked car. Her son, who was sitting directly behind her, was thrown forward, killing her instantly.
I can honestly say that commercial changed my behaviour instantly. It didn’t require legislation for me to start wearing a seatbelt. Here, I would argue, the end (saving lives) justified the means – but I am not so sure for car insurance.
There is a growing body of academic research that suggests shock tactics work best if people think they are able to prevent the disaster from happening (as in the case with the rear seatbelts ad). In this instance, a fallen tree on a blind bend is not something people can do much about. But for car insurance, it is a rather good scenario – you need it because of events not in your control. This research also suggests that you need to empathise with the victim in order to want to engage with the message. A mother driving her children to school? Yes. A fake opera singer? Not so much.
For me, the main problem arises because of the set-up of the commercial. It proports to be the "real-life case" of Margaret Mahoney, but then treats this event comedically, thus blurring the lines between fact and fiction. If the commercial had stayed in the made-up world in which Gio resides, the crash may well have received less criticism. But as soon as it ventured in the real world, it opened itself up to criticism for trivialising something as serious as an accident.
I can’t help but think this was a wasted opportunity. We have historically left the business of road safety to government. But why couldn’t a car-insurance ad help people drive more safely? After all, their premiums could be lowered if fewer people made claims. I, for one, would think more favourably of a brand that shows me how to be a safer driver. And then perhaps it wouldn’t have to shout quite as loud to get my attention.
Bridget Angear is joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO