How Bloodvertising Became One of Today’s Most Visceral Trends

Designers are fleshing out PSA campaigns with macabre inks

We live in an increasingly virtual world. But some recent campaigns are getting almost uncomfortably corporeal.

Earlier this year, BBDO Proximity Thailand broke a stop-smoking campaign for the Thai Health Promotion Foundation that included giving people ink made from deceased smokers' diseased lungs and asking them to draw anti-smoking messages with it.

Then, Vangardist, a lushly produced men's style magazine based in Vienna, working with Saatchi & Saatchi Switzerland, printed an issue with ink infused with blood donated by HIV-positive volunteers, timed to the Life Ball annual HIV/AIDS charity event held there.

Meanwhile, Glorix, a bug repellent, working with BBDO Russia, kicked off a campaign in June for the blood donation network DonorSearch with an exhibition of miniature portraits painted in human blood drawn from dead mosquitos.

Vangardist's issue used ink infused with HIV-positive blood. 

Call it bloodvertising.

They're all public-service campaigns, they're all trying to break through the clutter, and they're all trying to remind people of the practical, physical effects of their actions.

"It's about taking something that's unknown and making it known, something intangible and making it tangible," said Jason Romeyko, ecd at Saatchi & Saatchi Switzerland, who created the Vangardist issue, designed both to build new awareness for HIV/AIDS and also bring attention to a new print edition of the biannual and formerly online-only publication.

Suthisak Sucharittanonta, CCO of BBDO Bangkok, who created the black lung ink work, said it was about "bringing the message from inside the body to the outside, for smokers to see" in a country where smoking rates continue to rise as people have become inured to traditional anti-smoking campaigns.

In Moscow, the assignment was about creating "brand advertising that serves a social purpose," said Victor Lander, a senior copywriter on the "blood portraits" project. Unilever tasked his agency with creating work in support of the DonorSearch charity and found Glorix on its roster of brands. "The idea was that mosquito repellent doesn't just repel mosquitos, but saves people's blood so that they can donate it," he said.

The shock value is what makes these PSAs work, said Sucharittanonta. "It grabs attention and creates buzz, which is exactly what's needed to cut through general apathy around anti-smoking messages."

Thai Health Promotion Foundation's ink from dead smokers' lungs. 

There's a history in using shocking images to make social points and cut through the noise, notes Drew Neisser, CEO of the marketing firm Renegade. "This approach perhaps reached its nadir with The Truth's startling use of body bags on the streets of New York City in 2006 to dramatize the impact of smoking," he said. In these latest examples, he said, "the medium actually becomes a truly profound, disturbing and shareable message."

And such in-your-face approaches are even more effective today, said Sam Ewen, agency partner at GUILD. "Often the more shocking the better when it comes to what gets put on Facebook and other social channels," he said.

"If we just made a print or TV ad," said Lander, "no one would notice."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 31 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.