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Shock Advertising Essay Example

Shock advertising or Shockvertising is a type of advertising that "deliberately, rather than inadvertently, startles and offends its audience by violating norms for social values and personal ideals".[1] It is the employment in advertising or public relations of "graphic imagery and blunt slogans to highlight"[2] a public policy issue, goods, or services. Shock advertising is designed principally to break through the advertising “clutter” to capture attention and create buzz, and also to attract an audience to a certain brand or bring awareness to a certain public service issue, health issue, or cause (e.g., urging drivers to use their seatbelts, promoting STD prevention, bringing awareness of racism and other injustices, or discouraging smoking among teens).[3]

This form of advertising is often controversial, disturbing, explicit and crass, and may entail bold and provocative political messages that challenge the public’s conventional understanding of the social order. This form of advertising may not only offend but can also frighten as well, using scare tactics and elements of fear to sell a product or deliver a public service message, making a "high impact." In the advertising business, this combination of frightening, gory and/or offensive advertising material is known as "shockvertising" and is often considered to have been pioneered by Benetton, the Italian clothing retailers which created the line United Colors of Benetton, and its advertisements in the late 1980s (see Benetton below).[4]


Shock advertisements can be shocking and offensive for a variety of reasons, and violation of social, religious, and political norms can occur in many different ways. They can include a disregard for tradition, law or practice (e.g., lewd or tasteless sexual references or obscenity), defiance of the social or moral code (e.g., vulgarity, brutality, nudity, feces, or profanity) or the display of images or words that are horrifying, terrifying, or repulsive (e.g., gruesome or revolting scenes, or violence).[5] Some advertisements may be considered shocking, controversial or offensive not because of the way that the advertisements communicate their messages but because the products themselves are "unmentionables" not to be openly presented or discussed in the public sphere.[6] Examples of these “unmentionables” may include cigarettes, feminine hygiene products, or contraceptives.[6] However, there are several products, services or messages that could be deemed shocking or offensive to the public. For example, advertisements for weight loss programs, sexual or gender related products, clinics that provide AIDS and STD testing, funeral services, groups that advocate for less gun control, casinos which naturally support and promote gambling could all be considered controversial and offensive advertising because of the products or messages that the advertisements are selling.[6] Shocking advertising content may also entail improper or indecent language, like French Connection's “fcuk” campaign.

The effects[edit]

Advertisers, psychiatrists, and social scientists have long debated the effectiveness of shock advertising. Some scientists argue that shocking ads of course evoke stronger feelings among the consumers. One finding suggests “shocking content in an advertisement significantly increases attention, benefits memory, and positively influences behavior.” [7] The same study also shows that consumers are more likely to remember shocking advertising content over advertising content that is not shocking.[5] Shock advertising could also refer to the usage of emotional appeals such as humor, sex or fear.[8] Humor has for a long time been the most frequently used communication tool within advertising, and according to branch active people it is considered to be the most effective.

The effects of shock advertising could also be explained by the theory of selective perception. Selective perception is the process by which individual selects, organizes and evaluates stimuli from the external environment to provide meaningful experiences for him- or herself. This means that people focus in certain features of their environment to the exclusion of others.[9] The consumer unconsciously chooses which information to notice and this kind of selection is dependent of different perceptual filters which are based on the consumer’s earlier experiences. One example of this kind of filter is perceptual defense.[10] Perceptual defense is the tendency for people to protect themselves against ideas, objects or situations that are threatening.[11] This means that if a consumer finds a certain kind of advertising content threatening or disturbing, this message will be filtered out. An example of this a heavy smoker who could be filtering out a picture of cancer sick lung since the content could be perceived as disturbing and uncomfortable.[10]

Target audience: direct-to-consumer advertisements are common in popular magazines, and particularly aimed at women.

You should also consider long term branding issues if using shock advertising as communication method. Using shocking pictures could affect the way consumers perceive your brand and quality of your product. The ethics is always important to have in mind, and using fear or other strong messages might not always be the best and most effective method to use.[12]


Examples include the use of blood and gore, diseased organs and human body parts,[13] and so on. Thus, it can expose any taboo, but typically has an unnecessarily sexually suggestive image.[14]Benetton Group has had several shocking ads of a priest and a nun kissing, a black woman breast-feeding a white baby, and death row inmates' thoughts.[15][16]Legal advertising that employs shockvertising would depict or re-enact a car accident, which is now illegal in New York.[17]

This practice has been compared to extreme sports and lewd behavior,[18] and to the Jerry Springer show.[16]

Shockvertising is recognized around the world as a term of art, in Polish,[19] in German,[20] and Dutch.[21]


Benetton has come under particular scrutiny for the use of shock advertisements in its campaigns, leading to public outrage and consumer complaints.[22] However, several of Benetton’s advertisements have also been the subject of much praise for heightening awareness of significant social issues and for “taking a stand” against infringements on human rights, civil liberties, and environmental rights.[23] Benetton’s advertisements have featured images of portions of men’s and women’s bodies with tattoos that say “HIV Positive”, a Black woman breastfeeding a White infant (which could be celebrated as a championing image of racial diversity or raising awareness of racial issues yet was also denounced for its historical connotations when Black women, during slavery, were often required to become caretakers for White children), a priest and a nun leaning to kiss each other, as well as a group of real death row inmates (alluding to issues concerning capital punishment). Other shocking advertisements released by Benetton include an image of a duck covered in oil (addressing issues of oil spillage and the cleanliness of oceans), a man dying of AIDS, a soldier holding a human bone, as well as a newborn infant still attached to its umbilical cord, which "was intended as an anthem to life, but was one of the most censured visuals in the history of Benetton ads." [24]Oliviero Toscani, a photographer for Benetton who contributed to many of its shocking advertisements, said, regarding the advertisement he created of a man dying from AIDS, that he wanted "to use the forum of poster advertising to make people aware of this [AIDS] tragedy at a time when no-one dared to show AIDS patients." [25]

Calvin Klein[edit]

Calvin Klein of Calvin Klein Jeans has also received media attention for its controversial advertisements in the mid-1990s. Several of Calvin Klein's advertisements featured images of teenage models, some "who were reportedly as young as 15" in overly sexual and provocative poses.[26] Although Klein insisted that these advertisements were not pornographic, some considered the campaign as a form of "soft porn" that was exploitative, shocking, and suggestive. In 1999, Calvin Klein was the subject of more controversy when it aired advertisements of young children who were only wearing the brand's underwear. This "kiddie underwear ad campaign" was pulled only one day after it aired as a result of public outlash.[27] A spokesperson from Calvin Klein insisted that these ads were intended "to capture the same warmth and spontaneity that you find in a family snapshot."[26]

"Get Unhooked" Anti-smoking Ads[edit]

In May 2007, the UK National News reported that the British government banned anti-smoking advertisements that were part of the "Get Unhooked" campaign because they caused "fear and distress" in children.[28] These public service advertisements featured in magazines, television, and on the internet displayed images of smokers' faces and lips being hooked with fish hooks "to illustrate how they were 'hooked' on cigarettes." Although this campaign received hundreds of complaints citing that the advertisements were offensive, disturbing and violent, the Department of Health was reported as saying that the "Get Unhooked" campaign was "highly effective."[28]

See also[edit]


Woloshin, S., Schwartz, Tremmel, J., & Welch, H. G. (2001). Direct-to-consumer advertisements for prescription drugs: what are Americans being sold? The Lancet, 358, 1141-1146.

  1. ^Dahl, Darren W. et al. "Does it pay to shock? Reactions to Shocking and Nonshocking Advertising Content among University Students" Journal of Advertising Research 43 (2003): 268-280. Page 268, Retrieved January 22, 2008
  2. ^BBC news article
  3. ^Waller, David S. "What factors make controversial advertising offensive?: A Preliminary Study" ANZCA (2004): 1-10. Page 1, Retrieved January 23, 2008
  4. ^Righton, Barbara. "When did television commercials become as violent as the programming they interrupt?" December 18, 2006. Retrieved January 26, 2008
  5. ^ abDahl 2003, p.268
  6. ^ abcWaller 2004, p.2
  7. ^Dahl 2003, p.265
  8. ^Söderlund M. & Rosengren S. (2003) The Smiling Face in Marketing Appeals and its Effects on the Customer No. 2003:7
  9. ^Global Marketing and Advertising: Understanding Cultural Paradoxes, Marieke K. de Mooij; https://books.google.com/books?id=WMeFtpTRtT8C&lpg=PA50&dq=selective%20perception&hl=sv&pg=PA50#v=onepage&q=selective%20perception&f=false
  10. ^ abSolomon, Michael R. (2008). Consumer behavior: buying, having, and being. 8. ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall
  11. ^Organizational behavior, Don Hellriegel, John W. Slocum, s. 79; https://books.google.com/books?id=VAfMJO11rWIC&lpg=PA79&dq=perceptual%20defense&hl=sv&pg=PA79#v=onepage&q=perceptual%20defense&f=false
  12. ^LaTour, M. & Zahra, S. (1989). Fear appeals as advertising strategy: Should they be used? Journal of Consumer Marketing, 6(2), 61
  13. ^Anti-smoking campaigns feature these images, see:, here Bainbridge Blog, and here:Fredome to Choose UK web site
  14. ^Dolce & Gabbana ad at: Cherry Flava web site
  15. ^Market Place Word Press web site
  16. ^ abAngelo Fernando web site
  17. ^See the Legal advertising article, and N.Y. rule 1200 cited therein.
  18. ^[1].
  19. ^: Marketing przy Kawie - Specjały :
  20. ^PR Portal Genran web site
  21. ^/Geschiedenis Andere Tijden: Veertig jaar Ster-reclame - ‘Shockvertising’ en het Droste-effect
  22. ^Dahl 2003, p.268-270
  23. ^Zumbansen, Peer. "Federal Constitutional Court Rejects Ban on Benetton Shock Ads: Free Expression, Fair Competition and the Opaque Boundaries Between Political Message and Social Moral Standards." German Law Journal No. 1 (2001) Retrieved January 26, 2008
  24. ^Campaign History of United Colors of Benetton
  25. ^Pegrum, Mark. "A Big Disease with a Little Name" 1 (1997)
  26. ^ abCalvin Klein: A Case Study
  27. ^Peters, Robert. "Kiddie Porn" Controversy"
  28. ^ abGovernment anti-smoking ads banned

External links[edit]

Have you ever felt the need to reach out and shake your customers awake, leaving a permanent mark on their subconscious? This might sound violent, but cutting through the 5,000+ ads consumers come into contact with on a daily basis is difficult. For small and medium-sized enterprises (SME), it's not uncommon to feel like the marketing department just isn't pulling their weight. But, before you start pulling the plug on your marketing department, try some of these advertising strategies on for size.

1. Universally Different, and Better for It

25.5 million views and counting, Google's Android division released one of the most viral ads in history: "Android: Friends Furever". The message is powerful; we don't all need to be the same in order to get along and thrive together. Positively adorable, the ad went viral because it was packed full of cute clips of different animals playing together.

With Google's vast treasure-trove of user data, it's no surprise that they were able to create something that was so universally loved. And, part of the genius was in avoiding any branding until the last second; keeping the message pure and lovable. Viewers were bought-into the premise before Android became the driving force behind the message.

2. Poking Fun at Current Events

Saturday Night Live is no stranger to controversy, and this election year has created an incredible amount of polarizing drama within the United States. SNL has capitalized on the events of this election cycle by posting their "cold opens" on their YouTube channel. By taking something that is usually hidden behind a paywall and strategically offering bite-sized pieces free of charge, SNL has been able to dramatically increase their reach, organically online.

3. Shock Ads - Designed to Jolt the Viewer Awake

Shock advertising is a strategy centered around being memorable because the ad is impossible to ignore. It's either offensive, surprising or a combination of the two. For example, SISLEY - Fashion Junkie ads certainly caught reader attention by comparing the addiction to their products to cocaine addiction. It was edgy, but the point was made; their products are so good, they're like crack for lovers of fashion.

Shock ads have the ability to go viral for generations at a time. IP Press Men's Magazine printed an ad featuring a reenactment of the JFK assassination; only the intended target wasn't hit by the bullet. Their point is that if your goal is to reach mean, you better advertise with them, or else your ad may go to women by accident. Crass, in poor taste and largely denounced, the ad did its job. It became a conversation piece that kept IP Press in the public's consciousness.

4. Extravagant Free Giveaways via Social Media Share Campaigns

On the opposite end of the spectrum from shock advertising, you'll find posts on social media which offer a chance at winning a highly valuable prize, in return for a share and / or like. While many of these advertising efforts turn out to be scams, they are incredibly effective at generating buzz on social media.

For a legitimate example, you'll find Conan O'Brien's FB page recently offered fans a chance at winning the new XBOX One. In order to raise money for charity, The Breast Cancer Site offered their Facebook fans a chance at a $500 shopping spree.

If your company is going to attempt to follow in their footsteps, make sure you announce the winners publicly after the contest has ended. It's important that your audience understands that the contest was legitimate. If there's a sense that the entire campaign may have been fraudulent or a scam, your followers may become disillusioned with your brand; turning a social media branding win into a serious brand loyalty disaster.

5. Star Powered Giveaways

Social media isn't the only place for building awareness through strategic product giveaways. Just ask Oprah! In 2004, she gave away an entire studio's worth of Pontiac G6's. GM spent millions on the giveaway, trading on Oprah's star power.

$8 million worth of free cars and promotional consideration might be a little bit outside of your company's advertising budget, but the same type of promotion can be done on a smaller scale. For example, you'll find a variety of YouTube channels offering the ability for individuals or corporations to sponsor their show.

If your marketing team can strike-up a rapport with the influencers that your customer-base turns to for trusted guidance, you have an opportunity to place your product directly in-front of your target consumer.

No matter which of the five strategies you choose to follow, it's important to find a strategy that is consistent with your brand voice. From short, inspirational videos designed to organically go viral, to the shock ads that create immediate shock and potential backlash, it's up to you and your marketing team to find the right balance between shock and value.

Follow Ahmad Raza on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ThisIzSparta

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