Paddy Power’s ‘mischief’ strategy with Pistorius ad is a misjudgement


Advertising designed to shock has always existed. It even has its own name – “Shockvertising”. But the last few years have seen a decline in such marketing, due to research showing that giving consumers a positive “nudge” is more effective in encouraging behaviour change.

But it seems shockvertising is back. Paddy Power, Save the Children and Pancreatic Cancer Action have all released campaigns in the last few weeks that ignore nudge theory and go for a big old wallop of controversy instead.

Paddy Power ran an advert this week offering bets on the murder trial of acclaimed Olympian Oscar Pistorius. The runner is currently standing trial in South Africa, accused of the murder of his girlfriend.

The Paddy Power ad, which features the runner mocked up as an Academy Award, states: “It’s Oscar Time”. It then promotes an offer to users for “money back if he walks”, which not only references Pistorius’ trial but also puns on his status as a double-amputee.

This is not Paddy Power’s first foray into controversial marketing. The gambling firm has its own ‘head of mischief’ to dream up challenging marketing campaigns. Previous stunts have included footballer Nicklas Bendtner flashing his Paddy Power pants to celebrate a goal, breaking UEFA rules.

But previous tactics have tended to err on the side of cheekiness, rather than focusing on a very sad situation in which a woman died at the hands of their partner.

Although the brand has argued that “given intense global media interest”, the Pistorius court case is up for discussion, the topic of potential murder seems non-existent on the cheekiness scale. I’m not alone in that view. Sixty four thousand people have signed a petition to demand the ad is scrapped and the Advertising Standards Authority has launched an investigation after receiving 46 complaints.  

This brings me to the point that it does matter what you are trying to promote with shockvertising. A gambling company encouraging a rich footballer to flout rules and flash underpants is cheeky. A gambling company capitalising on the death of a woman is not.

The other two controversial ads out at the moment from Save the Children and Pancreatic Cancer Action, which feature a live birth and real-life pancreatic cancer sufferers wishing for another type of cancer with a better outcome, have also attracted consumer complaints over the last few weeks.

But these are situations where the charities are acting with the greater good in mind, not profit generation. They are using emotive images and messages to try and improve lives and even save them. Whether or not you agree with these two ads, the shock is being employed for good reason.

So here is the lesson for brands: if you’re going to use shock tactics, make sure your cause has public permission to push the boundaries. Charities will be forgiven for taking a tactic that people disagree with. Using dead women to encourage betting will not receive such respect.