Shock Value

written by DARIA LOCKE


A Chef slips on the kitchen floor and drops a pot of boiling oil all over her face.

A retail store employee tumbles off a ladder and smashes into a glass display below.

Your jaw drops.

A construction worker falls off a building onto the windshield of a truck.


A man operating a lift-tow machine accidentally drives into a shelf where he is impaled by a metal bar that falls in the collision.

That’s gotta hurt.

The Workers Safety and Insurance Board’s (WSIB) social marketing campaign was meant to get people talking about workplace accidents and prevention, and it’s working. The ads have had people’s attention ever since the ads were aired – even if viewers promptly changed the channel.

“People called in and say they couldn’t get their kids to talk to them about workplace safety,” says WSIB Chairman Steven Mahoney.  “But now that the ads are out they can’t get their kids to stop talking about it.”

Facebook and chat room groups have been created to yay or nay the ads, arousing some debate about the need for such graphic commercials.

Mahoney makes no apologies for the five ads that have run in the past two years. “What’s really too shocking is the fact that we lose 100 people a year in incidents like that, two every week in Ontario alone and have 360,000 work-related injuries and illnesses. People should be shocked by those numbers, not the ads.”

A member of the creative team at communications agency Draftfcb in Toronto, Darrell Hurst says they’ve received feedback from the Ontario Federation of Labour and independent employer business organizations. “Most of them found the balance between the employee and employer responsibility to be a delicate one so we were always walking a fine line.” Hurst says they didn’t want to point the finger. “It was more about responsibility than blame.”

Hurst, vice-president business director at Draftfcb, says they were nervous at first because they had many people to answer to.

“Research tells us that this campaign broke through better than any other [WSIB] campaign we’ve ever done,” Hurst says. But he feels next time around it may be different. All the CSIs and Law & Orders of the world may have pushed the graphic nature to a point where people aren’t even paying attention anymore.

Not everybody is a fan of these commercials. Advertising Standards Canada vice-president Janet Feasby says she generally hears from consumers about ads that they find disturbing or upsetting. “They don’t want their children exposed to those images.”

Hurst says some veiwers complained because the commercials were aired in earlier timeslots. However they wanted to get the issue on the radar so they didn’t shy away from controversy.

Shocking advertising began in the late 1980s when the United Colors of Benetton, featured images of parts of men’s and women’s bodies with tattoos saying “HIV Positive,” a priest and a nun leaning to kiss each other, as well as a group of real death row inmates hinting at the issue of capital punishment. After much scrutiny, the commercials received praised for raising awareness of prominent social issues. 

Terry O’Reilly, the host of CBC Radio’s Age of Persuasion, a weekly program about advertising says the toughest thing for an ad to do is break through “There is advertising everywhere – on top of gas pumps, inside golf holes, on condoms, in washrooms.”

He says Benetton wanted to be looked at as a company encouraging relevant conversation to happen even though they were selling clothes.

The WSIB has a very important message to get out and the softer they are with it the less of an impact they will make.

Mahoney says the ads for WSIB are based on reality and the injury claims that come in every day from workers all over Ontario. “These are not Disney World fictitious types of incidents. So we really do need to tell it like it is and that’s what those ads do.”