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The Head-Butt Heard Around the World: Why Shock Tactics Have Become Advertisers' Only Tactics

A Bet-at-home.com TV ad -- which shows a woman doing a Zidane-style headbutt on an office harasser (video below) -- has been banned in Austria because it promotes violence, thus ensuring that many, many more people will see it had the ban not been imposed.

On one level, the campaign is genius. Is there a person on the planet who isn't fascinated by the surreal incident in which France's Zinedine Zidane brought Italy's Marco Matterazi to the ground with his head in the 2006 World Cup final? And wouldn't you like to see that re-enacted by a cute blonde in a tight skirt and high heels? (See the other two ads in the campaign here.)

It's clever but cheap. Bet-at-home surely knew that its solving-problems-with-violence campaign would be banned or complained about somewhere, which would result in valuable earned media (like this).

Fact is, just a year or so ago, fake advertising controversies were a mere add-on to a brand's core marketing strategy -- a piece of fluff to get punters to pay attention to what you're really doing. Example: Calvin Klein's "orgy" ad. It was eye-candy that reminds us of the apparel line's longstanding claim to being sexy, but it wasn't CK's entire campaign.

Today, the tactics are reversed. Companies routinely make fake controversy their entire advertising strategy. Look at Lane Bryant with its almost certainly false claims that its ad showing a curvy chick in lingerie was banned by TV networks; or Mancrunch's equally questonable claim that it was pushed off the Super Bowl because it's gay (its credit report for the $3 million buy didn't check out); or KGB's tasteless head-up-your-ass spot that was also probably not banned from the Super Bowl.

More proof: The third-most watched web video commercial of last week was Hi-Tech's "liquid mountaineering," a fake account of athletes who have learned to briefly walk on water (the film was reported as real by a District of Columbia NBC affiliate in May).

Why is this happening now? The media landscape is more cluttered (more channels, more web sites, more mobile devices) and, simultaneously, more easy to shut out. So anyone who wants to reach a large audience needs to produce something so compelling that it can't be ignored. Hence, head-butts, orgies and plus-size models with no clothes on.

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