Shock tactics: Does shock advertising still work?

Shock advertising (shockvertising) uses provocative images, messaging and sometimes taboo subjects to attract attention. But should brands risk it?  

When brands are really passionate, not just about their products and services but about the issues relating to their customers, staff and the world around us, conversations arise about how to align commercial gain with core values. Charities and activist groups have long made progress with campaigns which stop people in their tracks, create talking points and even heated debates, and stick in the memory. But in a world where news and footage of dramatic and often devastating events is accessed 24 hours a day, are these tactics still as impactful as they once were, and do they work for commercial brands at all?

Why shockvertise

The idea of shock advertising is to provoke strong feelings, boost awareness and even prompt behavioural change among consumers, pushing the line between what’s acceptable and what isn’t to its limit, without actually crossing it. But exactly where that line is can be difficult to determine, so the risk of shockvertising backfiring is high.  

Shock can be divided into categories, all of which have been used in advertising with varying levels of success. They are: 

  • Violation of social norms 
  • Shocking content/shocking product/service/issue 
  • Moral offensiveness 
  • Sexual reference 
  • Disturbing imagery 
  • Religious taboos 

Shockvertising pitfalls 

Strong campaigns raise awareness of brands or issues positively, but there are pitfalls to look out for. 

Italian fashion company Benetton is widely credited with pioneering shockvertising in the 1980s. They used a series of ads which reflected violations of social norms of the time and often featured disturbing images.   

Benetton’s campaigns raised awareness of major issues, such as AIDS and racism, and won awards. But while the ads highlighted the brand name, they rarely, if ever, featured any of their clothing.  Raised awareness wasn’t reflected in sales and the company now favours a stronger brand identity that spotlights their products. 

And remember the infamous 2017 Pepsi campaign featuring Kendall Jenner calming a civil rights protest by handing Pepsi to a police officer? It sparked widespread criticism for trivialising the issue and appropriating the cause to sell a fizzy drink. A Tesco campaign which featured ‘What a load of shitake’ and other lines which hinted at swear words, prompted complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority who eventually ruled against the supermarket. And (unbelievably), a live events company delivered a Fred-West-inspired Father’s Day ad promoting an online event which was, unsurprisingly, ruled to be gratuitous and likely to cause offence. 

So raised awareness doesn’t necessarily result in increased sales. And where a powerful brand may be able to weather or even enjoy the notoriety which comes with shock, the lasting connection between a product and a barrage of complaints, or even an ASA ban, may be too much for others. 

Why does shock work? 

One study showed that shocking content increased attention, boosted memory and positively influenced behaviour. The study also made a distinction between fearful content and shocking content. It found that content which used swear words and partial nudity to communicate a message resulted in a sense of surprise because it violated a social norm. Meanwhile fearful content, such as a compelling message about dangerous behaviour, led to the same amount of behavioural change although it didn’t violate social norms. 

So what’s the science behind the power to shock? A study done in 2016 used brain scans to look at which areas of the brain were active when viewing graphic versus non-graphic content on cigarette packs. The results showed that the areas of the brain responsible for emotions and higher-order cognitive processing were active when graphic content was viewed. 

The upshot is that powerful emotional reactions to graphic content may well last longer than reactions to fearful or informational content alone. Shock imprints itself more permanently on our minds, so it can lead to more long-term behavioural change. 

Why does shock fail? 

Research shows that in most cases when shock adverts have failed, they involved content that was too distressing or offensive. But this isn’t as straightforward as it seems. An NHS campaign ‘Get Unhooked’ showing smokers on fish hooks was criticised by the ASA as likely to frighten and distress. But it resulted in a huge increase in calls to a Department of Health anti-smoking helpline.  

And in 1999, children’s charity Barnardo’s provoked public outrage with its ‘Heroin Baby’ campaign. Although many who saw it still remember it with distaste, they do remember it. Just over two years after the campaign’s release, the charity had increased its income by £46.6 million, with the majority of new donors aged under 55 – a significant shift in its donor profile. The proportion of regular (versus one-off donors) also increased from 3% to 29%. 

Shock advertising: For profit vs. not-for-profit  

One study showed that the use of shock advertising was perceived to be justifiable in the NFP sector but much less so in the FP sector. Audiences can be prompted to donate money or correct bad habits by being presented with the gap between the way they’d like the world to be and reality.  

But even in the NFP sector, shockvertising can go wrong. 

In 2008, advertising agency DDB Brazil ran a small campaign in a local newspaper for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) using an aerial shot of New York with a number of planes circling above it, with the slogan “the tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11.” WWF condemned the ad, calling it “offensive and tasteless,” claiming that it had been released without their permission, and the agency were later forced to admit that the ad should never have been made. 

Shock: brands and products 

Shock ads can be wildly successful, making headlines in ways conventional advertising just doesn’t. But the audience for shockvertising is more polarised, with research showing that 3%% of audiences will refuse to buy from a brand that showed a distasteful ad.  

Using shock just to grab attention can create associations with uncomfortable or negative feelings and your brand. While it makes sense if you want people to dislike something which is bad for you or dangerous for others, it doesn’t make as much sense if you want people to like your product. 

It’s clear that refining campaign tactics for specific audiences is crucial when the stakes are this high. 

Does shock still work? 

While the Boomer generation can still be shocked, and are often the most vocal in terms of responding to material they find offensive, Gen Z and Millennial audiences are showing signs of ‘shock fatigue’. Given the vast quantity of imagery which now circulates globally though social media and the internet, ads become little more than background noise.   

The Third Sector is particularly sensitive to this, with charities being increasingly criticised for using emotionally manipulative ads. According to the creative director of ad agency ABM BBDO, the theory is that people have heard about the problems that they face before, and have learnt to ignore ads that try to shock them and vilify them for their behaviour. People will accept shock tactics, but only as long as they’re justified. 

In the light of this, a number of brands are reconsidering their approaches to acknowledge that shock may have its limitations. Where previously, road safety ads featured car crashes and health campaigns showed blocked arteries and ambulances, they now feature more emotional appeals, such as how people may feel at losing a family member.  

Following intense research, we found that people now want help, support and advice in changing their behaviour; they want to do what’s best for their children, rather than be scared into doing so. 

— Sian Jarvis, director-general of communications for the Department of Health.  

To shock or not to shock? 

The first step when considering shock advertising is to look at your goals in relation to possible reactions and consequences and establish how you hope to measure success.  

Be realistic about how people are likely to behave when they experience your shock and be aware of any alternative interpretations of your message. Consumers being aware of your campaign and talking about it non-stop doesn’t mean they will love you or your product, even if you’re promising to make the shock go away.  

The next consideration is the longevity of the shock. While people will remember a disturbing image or a challenging strapline, it’s key to ask whether they’ll remember your brand in association with the bad rather than the good.  

Thirdly, consider alternatives. Shock advertising should be used when you’re sure it’s the best way to prompt people to act/change/buy. It may be more effective to change tack. According to Psychology Today magazine, more people respond to positive messaging than negative.  

How to succeed with shockvertising 

  • Research and understand your audience and your market, including the quantity of shock advertising already targeting your customers. Be sure shock tactics are right for your market 
  • Consider whether shock is the right approach for your brand. Is the shock consistent with your identity? Are you known for activism? is your product consistent with the message? 
  • Test on targets and be realistic about responses. Being affected by a message or an image doesn’t necessarily result in a commitment to buy  
  • Consider the risk. How might your campaign be misinterpreted?  
  • Make sure your brand is strong enough to hold the link between your product and the solution to the shock 
  • Have a follow-through, and make your offer clear, rather than leaving the consumer with the shock attached to your brand identity 
  • Be careful to make the imagery relatable. Don’t make the shock so bad that the audience dissociates itself completely from the issue/situation (“I’m not that bad”, “this has nothing to do with me”) 
  • Compare regularity with consistency. How does the shock ad fit within your regular campaigns. Deviating from your usual approach can create impact but may also cause your customers to doubt your reliability. 
  • Be sure the shock is justified. Shock for its own sake tells your audience you don’t care about how they feel. 

Sticky asks the right questions 

These are the debates which excite us here at Sticky. We’re brave enough to challenge the status quo, and help clients decide when to maximise a trend and when to break away, when to shake consumers up and when to focus on making them feel good, and how to align brands and corporate goals with core values and responsibilities for the wider world.  

Get in touch with us today to find out more and see how we could help you. 

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