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A Saskatchewan researcher says advertisers should not be afraid to show death portrayals in their ads, but it’s important to know your audience, and figure out your message.


The Globe’s bimonthly report on research from business schools.

Media and pop culture are rife with representations of death. Through crime and drama shows on television, video games and even the daily news, modern citizens are confronted with images of death an average of every two minutes, researchers estimate.

Has the time come to introduce death – long considered a taboo topic among marketers – into advertising?

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That was the central question behind a new study from marketing professor Barbara Phillips at the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business.

Dr. Phillips sought to examine consumers’ feelings about portrayals of death in ads for products or services that are typically not associated with the topic, such as paper towels or fast food. That differs from previous research that focused on shocking or provocative images of death (considered off-putting to consumers), or ads for life insurance or social causes such as HIV or cancer that are directly linked to death.

Her study challenges the notion that talking about death is always a bad move for marketers who want to avoid trigger anxiety and sadness in consumers.

Instead, it found people surveyed were generally receptive to portrayals of death in ads, although age played a strong factor in a consumer’s reaction.

Young consumers, for instance, were open to ads that touched on death only if the images or message was brought up in a manner they considered appropriate and relevant to the product or service sold.

Seniors, meanwhile, proved much more willing to accept death as a valid part of an ad, regardless of what was being marketed.

“It’s death; it’s like birth. We all die; we are all born. So my gut reaction, first of all, is to say let's not make it such a hidden thing and talk about it openly,” said one senior who participated in the study.

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The study also highlighted that younger consumers reacted with more anxiety around death messages than older participants.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, notes Dr. Phillips. “There is quite a bit of research to show that thoughts of death do trigger consumption in Western societies,” she says.

Dr. Phillips has spent her career exploring imagery in advertising. She was inspired to initiate this latest study by a 2017 television ad from McDonald’s that aired briefly in Britain. The 90-second spot featured a boy reminiscing with his mom about his dead father, over a fish sandwich and fries. The ad was intended to trigger sentimental feelings; however, the fast-food giant pulled the ad after complaints poured into Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority from viewers who felt it was creepy, offensive and cynical.

Dr. Phillips didn’t understand the intensity of the negative reaction. “I thought it was sweet,” she says. “I wondered if I was the only one to feel this way.”

The key takeaway for advertisers is to not be afraid to show death portrayals (albeit non-shocking ones) in their ads, says Dr. Phillips. But it’s important to know your audience, and figure out your message.

She says more research is needed to determine the parameters around the boundaries between tasteful and tacky, or funny and lame. “We don’t know where those lines are yet,” she says.

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The study was co-authored by Jane Caulfield and Michelle Day, also of the University of Saskatchewan. The researchers are set to present their findings at an international marketing conference in March, and the study is under peer review for publication in an academic journal.

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