“Shock value” describes the planned action of bombarding masses of people with images, text, or other communication that has the potential to shock, disgust or anger them. Shock value is commonly seen in popular cultural via fashion trends and musical videos from artists that seek to break the normal standards of society. Yet shock value has more purpose than an artistic tool. Shock value can use the negative reactions it generates in order to push a serious message across to a large number of people. Such communicative shock value is excellently illustrated in a seriously controversial 2005 UNICEF commercial that depicted an animated Smurf village being bombed by warplanes.
The Smurfs are beloved children’s book characters. The Smurfs are depicted as being blue humanoid creatures that live in a peaceful village (consisting mostly of mushroom houses) in the middle of a forest. Created by Pierre Culliford, the Smurfs first appeared in Belgium in 1958 in comic book format. Their popularity quickly expanded into books and even a television series that lead to mass marketing of merchandise with their images on it. Hence, most people know who the Smurfs are on sight and movies are still being made that feature the characters (see video). Although storylines often involve the Smurfs running away from the wicked sorcerer Gargamel or handling an internal problem in their own society, the world of the Smurfs is usually synonymous with all things cute, innocent and gentle. It is the very peacefulness of the Smurf brand that made them such prime targets for one of UNICEF’s most offbeat (and now infamous) commercial/public awareness campaigns ever aired.
UNICEF stands for the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund. The organization focuses on providing long-term humanitarian assistance to children and their parents in developing countries. Part of UNICEFs efforts involve raising money to fund worthy causes such as feeding the hungry and getting medical care for disabled people who live in disadvantaged nations. In order to raise awareness about these causes, UNICEF regularly releases public service announcements on radio, TV, billboards and other visual and audio media.
In 2005, UNICEF was seeking to start a campaign that would raise money to help rehabilitate former child soldiers from Africa—specifically those from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (both of which are former Belgium colonies). In order to raise enough funds to make the massive mission successful, UNICEF campaign staff decided that they needed to come out with something that was truly shocking and attention-grabbing—something that people would not be able to forget and would, therefore, be more likely to elicit funding from the majority of people who saw the ad.
The Smurfs were created by a Belgium man and they first aired in Belgium. Considering that the disadvantaged African nations at the center of the campaign had both once been Belgium colonies, UNICEF saw the potential to link the fictional world of the Belgium-created Smurfs with the reality of those who reside in the former Belgium colonies. Thus, UNICEF aired a 25-second commercial that depicted a peaceful Smurf village suddenly being attacked and annihilated by warplanes. The final scene in the commercial is of an abandoned baby Smurf, surrounded by dead and wounded adult Smurfs, sitting in the middle of the bombed out rubble wailing in distress.
The commercial was astoundingly shocking and it certainly got a lot of attention. Some people were truly outraged and distressed by the image they saw that involved their most cherished fictional childhood friends. Other people, especially those who have a dark sense of humor, thought the commercial was hilarious. Either way, it spread like wildfire across social media sites—especially those frequented by teenagers.
The use of the Smurfs in such a campaign was highly controversial. Some people supported UNICEF’s ad and felt that it aptly depicted the horrors of war and that the abandoned baby Smurf in the final scene was symbolic of the orphaned African children that often went on to become child soldiers. Other people thought that the commercial went too far and called into television and radio stations to complain. Papers were sent opinion pieces—both for and against the commercial—en masse and numerous blogs covered the topic. Clearly, UNICEF had achieved its goal of raising awareness.
Although UNICEF went on to raise money for the child soldier’s rehabilitation campaign (some of the funds undoubtedly elicited from people who heard about the campaign from the ruckus that the commercial raised), the “Bombing of the Smurfs” image is still far more well-known than the actual cause that provoked it. Even today, eight years after the commercial aired, people who have a dark sense of humor generally define it as a great means of entertainment—which is ironic since the commercial was never meant to be amusing or humorous in the slightest.
Although the bombing of the Smurfs commercial is often regarded as being funny, the message behind it was dire. The overall results of the campaign are still debated since the commercial turned out to be more popular than the UNICEF mission and its serious theme was instead adopted by proponents of dark humor (also known as “gallows humor”). Yet, despite one’s feelings about the content or effectiveness of the ad campaign, it is an excellent example of how organizations can use media to raise awareness of real-life issues and employ fictional characters to elicit sympathy for real people in tough circumstances.
To see the 2005 “Smurf Bombing” UNICEF commercial, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owo4f3QQBKc