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A game of ads: Why violence in advertising is seizing the throne

Published: Tuesday, July 15 2014 7:45 a.m. MDT

In this publicity image released by HBO, Sean Bean portrays Eddard Stark in a scene from the HBO series, "Game of Thrones." The series was nominated for an Emmy award for best drama series on Thursday, July 14, 2011. The Emmy awards will be presented on Sept. 18.. (AP Photo/HBO, Nick Briggs)

Nick Briggs, Associated Press

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Seven hundred fifty-two stains makes for a lot of laundry.

That's how many stains Tide tallied at the close of Season 4 of HBO's popular fantasy drama "Game of Thrones" in a Twitter advertisement earlier this spring.

Most of the stains were blood (530 by Tide's count), but the list included two "giant stains" (a nod to the show's slaying of two giants) and one "royal stain" (signifying the death of evil King Joffrey early in the season). In a grisly acknowledgement of Prince Oberyn's death scene (assassin The Mountain crushed Oberyn's skull by pressing his thumbs into Oberyn's eye sockets), Tide also plugged its "Stain Brain" app with a graphic of hands with bloodied thumbs. The app helps users figure out how to best get certain kinds of stains out.

The ad was cleverly hashtagged #TideGetsItOut. The Twitter response to Tide's ad was warm — the stain tweet and another "Thrones"-related tweet netted a combined 2,612 retweets and 3,197 favorites. AdWeek, A List Daily and Trend Hunter all applauded the ad as a shrewd and innovative way to engage with the 18 million who watch HBO's most popular show.

Violence in advertising is nothing new. The difference, these days, seems to lie with viewers who have an elevated threshold for violent advertising content. As Slate reported back in January, even humor relies on violence to get its message across: Researchers at Wright State found that the number of Super Bowl ads that relied on "violent, aggressive humor" rose dramatically from 13.6 percent to 73.4 percent between 1989 and 2009. Slate's story concluded that the uptick was advertisers' attempt to better grab a veiwer's attention.

The hike in violent content is call for concern, says Dr. Kirk O. Hanson, a business ethicist and executive director of Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

"The backdrop of this ad is that we’re having a national debate about increased violence in the media in general, but particularly on cable-produced shows," Hanson said. "Younger demographics like Millenials may have a higher threshold for violence like this, but it doesn’t mean that violence is not doing something to their values and sensitivities."

Struggle for relevance

Because shows like "Game of Thrones" generally attract younger viewers, Tide actually made a good business decision by targeting its ads to youth-driven social media, argued Boston University advertising professors Tobe Berkovitz and Ed Boches. These ads, Berkovitz argued, are not controversial or overly violent.

"Advertising frequently tries to see what it can get away with. That's the nature of it. You've got to get people's attention," Berkotvitz said. "The modern world of advertising is social media. As long as you stay away from social hot-button issues like sexuality or race, you have a better chance of getting away with things."

Boches, who worked in advertising for decades before he turned to teaching, also pointed out that advertisers are adapting to media shifts away from TV and print as the only avenues to reach consumers. That's likely why ads like Tide's appeared on Twitter rather than on TV: To target and appeal to the very specific-but-large audience that watches "Game of Thrones."

"My mom is probably never going to see this because it’s on Twitter. Another way to look at this is that the likelihood of this being seen beyond 'Game of Thrones' audience is slim," Boches said. "Tide is just smart enough to realize there's a huge number of people watching this show."

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