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New TV Advertisements Shock Viewers

A series of distinctively styled, realistic television advertisements have been causing a stir in the United States. Called 'shock ads,' they use disturbing images -- such as actual car crashes -- to sell consumer products. Marketers say the shock approach has been used for decades. But as VOAs George Dwyer reports, some critics see these new ads as distasteful and perhaps even manipulative.

In a "shock ad" for Volkswagen's Jetta model: two young men are seen casually driving along when… they are in an accident

The collision is real. The victims: professional stunt actors, as are those in another advertisement. The implied message: drive this auto and you can survive a crash. But why the shock approach?

Professor Roland Rust chairs the Department of Marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He says that these days advertisers feel they need shock value to capture people's attention.

"It is a fear appeal really. That is what it is called in marketing and advertising. And that means that you try to scare people to make them change their behavior. And that is really what they are doing. I think it is really just breaking through the clutter -- the idea that people really do not pay much attention unless you just hit them over the head."

But some critics say ads like Volkswagen's leave a false impression -- that the automaker appears to suggest results similar to those seen in their ad. Consumer safety advocate Judie Stone says the ads are misleading.

"I think the ad probably should have been a little bit more clear about the fact that not every crash is the same and that you are not necessarily going to walk away from every crash just because you have safety systems."

But the Volkswagen ad appears to be part of a larger trend toward more 'shock' value in advertising.

Anti-smoking public service announcement have become increasingly graphic…

And food products firms now regularly invoke mortality to play on people's fears…

Rust and other experts say although the intensity may be new, the technique is not. "A lot of the old ad agencies used to say, 'You sell the sizzle and not the steak.' And that is really what is going on here. Emotional appeals are something that has been used in the business for many, many, many years."

And while there are those who question their tactics, few can doubt the ads are effective. Sales of Volkswagen's Jetta are up 20 percent this year.