The ever-reducing attention span of audiences is one of the biggest concerns of marketers today. People hardly take a break from their devices that they develop ad blindness quicker than you can say, “Hey!”
No matter what ad type you use -- social media ads, native ads, push notification ads, display ads, video ads, pop ads -- people have already developed an aversion towards them.
How then can you capture your audience’s attention long enough to deliver your marketing message? How can you make them notice you in just a few seconds?
The answer is actually obvious; it’s shocking!
Really. The answer is to shock people.
Warning: This article includes graphic content (images and videos) because, well, because we’ll be discussing a marketing strategy that makes audiences queasy. Some will make you want to look away, some will shock you to your very core, and others will captivate you to the point that you would want to learn more. This is not for the faint of heart.
Table of Contents
What is Shock Advertising?
Shock Advertising, sometimes called shockvertising, is the method of capturing the attention of your audiences in such a way that will violate their beliefs, moral sensibilities, and social values. It tends to bring controversy by overstepping the audience’s religious, political, social, and traditional norms.
Shockvertising purposely intends to be outrageous so as to prompt a strong emotion or response.
It is believed that strong feelings can make audiences remember the message more, which means shockvertising is best for brand recall. The emotions that this marketing strategy evokes are that of:
However, it remains to be seen whether the effect is in a positive or negative way. If you do it the right way, you can gain new customers, and may even propel your product to the forefront. If you do it the wrong way, you can just as easily destroy your product or brand’s reputation.
Simply put, this type of marketing is very risky.
Why do we use Shock Advertising?
Is it for excitement? Not really. As we’ve mentioned at the beginning of this article, it’s to stand out in a sea of messages and content and thousands of ads. With this much exposure, how do we get the people to notice us?
Shockvertising is necessary when normal advertising has become too typical or too dull.
One awesome example of this The Pilon Trust Charity’s F*ck the Poor advert. The ad showed how going the usual route of asking people to help the poor is ignored, but cursing at the poor causes people to be enraged and would seek discussion.
In addition to quickly capturing the viewer’s attention, shock advertising has the potential to be remembered because of the strong feelings evoked. If you were scared, disturbed, or even hurt by what you see, you tend to commit this to memory.
The downside is that sometimes you remember the ad and the feeling, but not the brand, especially if the advertiser wasn’t that creative in incorporating the product within the message.
Modes of Causing Unease
When using shock advertising, there are two modes that cause a disturbance, and these are:
This is the typical type, where people are shocked based on how the advertisement introduced the product or sent the message. It includes the use of controversial, graphic, and disturbing imagery or basically anything that offends the target market’s sensibilities.
Shocking Product, Service, or Issue
This is the one where the shock does not come from the communication method, but from the item being promoted. It is where the offer itself disturbs the sensibilities of the viewer because it is not something that they feel should not be advertised or broadly mentioned, earning the moniker “unmentionables”.
This includes adult dating offers, male enhancement products, and adult toys. Even the topic of tough social issues such as human trafficking, child prostitution, and HIV/AIDS are part of these unmentionables.
The Shock Marketing tactic can disturb, scare, or even offend people, which is why it must be done with utmost caution when applied in advertising.
Five Types of Shockvertising
If you plan on using this strategy, there are five ways to do so, and these are by:
1. Violation of Social Norms
This type breaks tradition and what audiences perceive as acceptable and how things should be.
2. Moral offensiveness
This breaks your audience’s idea of morality, moral sensibilities, and proper conduct.
3. Sexual reference
This is when you use nudity, vulgarity, and sexual connotations, even when the subject is nowhere near the topic of sex.
4. Disturbing imagery
This can come in the form of photos and videos. Disturbing images are most commonly used in shockvertising because it quickly and easily captures attention. The more graphic the image, the harder it becomes to ignore or even forget.
5. Religious taboos
This disturbs the faith-based beliefs and practices of certain audiences.
Most of the time, the images or videos used are NSFW or Not Safe for Work. Many advertisers use a combination of these types to deliver their message strongly.
How can you evaluate the success of your shock advertising?
1. Increase in Revenue
Of course, an increase in brand awareness and, more tangibly, an increase in sales during the entirety of the campaign can help you determine whether your advert was successful.
2. Increase in Awareness
Ads that become viral and generate organic traffic can be considered successful because you get additional traffic at zero cost. This is great for cause-oriented ads and organizations. But if your ad is profit-oriented, it remains to be seen if this technique will help you get more sales.
If your goal is to increase awareness of your cause, it can be deemed successful if it generates the “buzz” that you want. You would have to jump at this opportunity if it comes and keep the passing of information going.
3. Public Outcry
Another way to see if your advert was successful in shocking your audiences is if it garnered public responses, may it be positive (if you really want an outcry), or negative (which can sometimes lead to banning).
Some ads that were banned actually helped the cause of those promoting them, as is the case of the Get Unhooked campaign by the National Health Service or NHS UK. We’ll talk more about this ad in our examples below.
Generally, though, if your ad resulted in banning but no positive buzz for your product or cause, then it is deemed a failure.
Incorporating Shock Adverts in Your Marketing Strategy
According to marketing firm Yankelovich, Inc., a person sees an average of 5,000 ads per day. This includes all forms of advertising -- billboards, TV commercials, radio ads, print ads, internet ads, and more.
With this amount of promotions, shock advertising has become a norm for advertisers trying to break away from the rest and capture the market’s attention amidst the clutter.
How to Make Shockvertising Effective
First, you must understand your target market.
Sure, all marketing strategies almost always require that you understand who you are marketing to. But if you want your shock advertising to succeed, you need to really know your audience so much that you can actually predict how they will react to your advert.
To do this, you must create a very detailed target persona. Check our guide on how to build a target persona to learn more.
Many shockverts have failed because those who created the ad did not truly understand the people they are marketing to, in such a way that their promotions turned into a backlash.
The goal is to disturb your audience and push them against the boundaries of social norms. However, disturbing them to the point of offending them will not help you reach your goal.
If your goal is to show the advert to the general public, as a TV commercial perhaps, keep it PG (parental guidance). Sometimes the backlash arises not from the message itself or how it was delivered, but because it can traumatize children.
You need to know who you are for and who you are not for when creating ads such as this.
Second, have a follow-through.
What do they do now that you’ve captured their attention and shook them to their very core? You don’t just shock your audience and leave it at that.
Answer this question: What is it all for?
This is where a very specific CTA must be added. Do you want them to make a call, a donation, to visit a website, or to subscribe for updates? Make sure your call to action is clear.
Don’t plant the seed and leave it to rot!
Effects of Shock Advertising Based on Audiences
While some things have the potential to shock everyone in general, the impact is not always the same. Furthermore, while some topics can mildly interest a group of people, another group may get downright insulted.
Essentially, you have to understand your audience well to know what can shock them and what can offend them. There are two ways to lump audiences together, in case you want to show your ad to a huge audience.
1. By Generation or Age Group
While people are inherently unique, there are some characteristics that are similar among them based on their age group. This is due to the influences and situations that abound at the time of their growth and development.
For instance, shockvertising is not so effective with Generation Y because they were born right when this method is ripe for use. As such, this age group has been bombarded with tons of shock ads. But not only that, they’ve been exposed to media (images, videos, and stories) that is filled with shocking, disturbing, and surprising content since they were young.
As such, they have developed numbness and resistance towards this kind of advertising. What is shocking for older generations will typically mean nothing for this generation.
This is called Shock Fatigue.
If Millenials are somehow resistant to shock advertising, then you can assume Generation Z to be the same. However, the ever-evolving technology which the youngest generation right now is exposed to will surely influence how they react to ads, so don’t stop testing what will work, even with just a focused group.
The second oldest surviving generation right now is that of Boomers or those who are born from 1946 to 1964. These people are pretty conservative when it comes to media content. Although they use the internet a lot, they are very critical of loud media.
This means shock advertising can work rather well for this group. Disturbing images can easily capture their attention. Whether or not they see the message or the offer (product or service) offensive is the question, though.
2. By country or cultural environment
Your cultural traditions, social norms, and conventional wisdom in your country can impact how you react to certain ads.
For instance, what is typical for Americans may be shocking to most Asians because of the prevalence of conservative upbringing in the latter region. So obviously sexualized media (presence of nudity or vulgar images) can shock the majority of Asians but will feel rather “normal” now for most Americans.
Sexualizing items that were not really sexual in nature became commonplace in the USA during the late 1990s and onwards. Brands of clothing, bath products, and even food were given sexual connotations!
This is due to the rise of porn culture, as was observed by Carmine Sarracino and Kevin Scott in their book The Porning of America. They argued that sexual innuendos in advertising assume that the viewer or reader has “porn knowledge” in order for them to fully understand the message of the ad.
Without this knowledge, the message of the ad will not be well received. Even the “shock” factor will disappear.
Positive Effects of Shocking Your Audiences
Prompts viral marketing
In essence, this is basically free advertising. Plus, in today’s world, anything that went viral will stay on the internet forever.
Shock advertising helps to get people to talk about your brand or your cause. But make sure you know which one you want them to talk about -- is it your brand or is it the cause?
Some adverts fail because the ultimate goal is to increase brand awareness, but the advert becomes so powerful that people talk about it and not the brand that was behind it. We can also fault the lack of proper branding for that.
Whether it’s increased sales, subscription or donation, a good shock advert, like any other advert, will help you reach your goal.
Promotes Brand Recognition
Shock advertising helps users commit the brand to memory, when done correctly. This means more than the message, the product or brand must be distinct enough in the ad for viewers to properly link the content to the brand.
Negative Effects of Shocking Your Audiences
We have seen many controversial commercials get banned because they affected the audiences in a negative way. It could be because your ad was seen by people who should not have seen it (like children, for instance), or because your ad was more offensive than you intended.
If you get banned from using this advert, then that means you will lose money from this marketing campaign.
On the other hand, if you get banned but still get your intended audience to talk about your product in a positive way, then it can be considered a positive effect. Either way, the results speak for themselves.
Prompts brand aggression
Even if your advert gained traction and got viral, it may not always be in a good way. If it has been shared and talked about because it is awful, then it’s a huge loss, no matter how popular it has become.
Spurs the opposite action from what you intended.
Some ads are so bad that instead of getting people to be interested in your product, they end up boycotting it and encouraging others to do the same.
If your ad receives a negative response from your target market, you’re in big trouble. According to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive, up to 35% of audiences will refuse to buy from a brand that showed a distasteful ad. A third of your target audience refusing to subscribe to your offer is a huge problem.
Examples of Shock Advertising (The Good, The Bad, and The Downright Ugly)
Here are some examples of shock advertising gone right and gone wrong. Some were so bad, they almost pushed the companies into extinction! These samples will help you analyze how some shock adverts succeeded and where the rest have failed.
Let’s categorize these ads based on the tactic they used:
Violating Social Norms
Axe’s “Meet the Parents” Campaign
This ad shocked viewers because the target audience was raised to maintain monogamous relationships.
Target market: Young men who are old enough to have a job but not a career; who can purchase their personal product for themselves.
Effect: The target viewers were surprised but humored, and looked at the product in a positive light.
Unicef’s “A Storybook Wedding - Except for One Thing” Campaign
This ad shocked viewers because of the disparity between what people believe in and what others practice. Child marriage is a shocking topic in and of itself, but using a Caucasian-looking girl hits so close to home that audiences began to relate and imagine how they would react if it was someone they know; a daughter, a sister, a niece, a granddaughter, perhaps.
Target market: General public.
Effect: The ad was successful, with 32% of respondents wanting to learn more about why it’s happening and how to stop it.
Stereotyping, racism, and sexism are a few of the reasons why a viewer can deem an ad offensive. Here are examples of ads that used this tactic.
Reebok’s “Cheat on Your Girlfriend” Campaign
This print ad released by Reebok in Germany is one example of shock advertisement going horribly wrong. The ad was photographed, posted online, and quickly gone viral.
Target market: Males from 20s to late 30s who are into sports and exercise
Effect: It caused people from all over the world to call for a boycott of Reebok products, owing to the very faulty relationship advice that seems to encourage cheating. The ad was quickly pulled off and Reebok apologized for releasing an ad that’s in poor taste.
Hyundai’s “Pipe Job” Campaign
This ad by Hyundai aimed to promote their ix35 model that releases 100% water-vapor emissions, which means the emission is non-toxic. However, the ad wasn’t just shocking -- it was inappropriate, inconsiderate, and a downright abomination in the history of ads.
The advertisers showed absolutely no consideration for people who have depression and have suicidal tendencies.
Because of the upsetting topic, we will not embed the ad here. Trigger warning: this ad depicts a failed suicide, please take caution when viewing it. You can view this awful ad through this Youtube link.
Target market: Revitalizers, or what we call early-adopters of technology.
Effect: Public backlash forced the advertisers to pull it out and issue an apology.
Sony Playstation’s “White is Coming”
This billboard ad that was shown in the Netherlands in 2006 sparked outrage not just when it was put up 15 years ago, but also when it went viral again four years ago.
Target market: Young adults aged 16 to adults aged 44.
Effect: This ad also caused a backlash and was eventually pulled out, but not without resistance from Sony.
Sexualized or Sexually Suggestive
Dolce & Gabbana
We will not be discussing just one particular print ad by Dolce & Gabbana here because the company is well-known for creating shocking pieces that are not always well-received by the public and their very own customers.
The majority of this clothing line’s print and online ads are highly sexual, with men and women in various states of undress and in suggestive positions. Apart from being sexual, some even depict violence against women, like the one below.
Target market: Millennials and Generation Z.
Effect: While the company regularly receives backlash and many cry for a boycott of the brand because of ads that depict violence and even racism, most of their target market has become desensitized to the sexual theme of Dolce & Gabbana’s ads.
In fact, the target audience has gone so used to sexually suggestive themes that they don’t seem like shock advertising anymore.
Axe Detailer “Clean Your Balls” Campaign
While this ad is sexually suggestive because of the nature of the product, Axe was able to successfully send the message in a humorous manner.
Target market: Males fresh out of puberty up to those in their senior years.
Effect: This is an excellent example of a commercial that has been banned from national television due to its sexual content, but still attracted audiences who actively searched for the ad online.
It helped increase awareness not just for Axe Detailer, but also for Axe Shower Gel, which was meant to be used together.
True Fruits’ “Safer Snaxxx” Campaign
How often has a banana been used to insinuate something sexual? More often than we can remember. This is what True Fruits leveraged on -- how eating a banana in public is counterproductive because of the sexual innuendo. And True Fruits smoothie is the answer to this problem.
Target market: German smoothie market.
Effect: Moderate acceptance of audiences. It was not banned but was only funny for a while. It was successful in promoting brand awareness, though.
Burger King “Super Seven Incher”
This restaurant is popular for its highly innovative ads, especially when pitching itself against another popular food chain -- McDonald’s. Their ad campaign “Super Seven Incher” released in Singapore in 2009 was one of their low points though.
Target market: Adult males.
Effect: Aside from sexualizing food, this ad has caused an outcry for its demeaning portrayal of women. In fact, the model in the said ad herself called for a boycott of the brand! She stated that she was not informed that her image will be used in such a manner.
The print ad was pulled out, with BK releasing a statement that respect is one of their priorities.
Clinique’s “Facial” Ad
This skin and beauty company whose target market is women should have known better when creating this ad. Clinique’s marketing team was banking on people making the connection between beauty and the splash of cream on the woman’s face. Who places moisturizer on their faces like that? There’s only one place where this “look” is pretty common, and that’s in porn.
Target market: Young women.
Effect: Those who are already sexually aware realized the reason for this depiction, and were shocked by the ad. However, there are many who found the ad confusing and did not understand the point of the image. As a result, this attempt received a lukewarm response in the market. It did not even gain enough attention for women to complain against Clinique!
Skittles’ “Settle It the Usual Way” Campaign
This is one of those commercials that make you go “What the F***?!”. It is effective because viewers will stick around long enough to find out the reason behind the misshapen figure of people in the video.
Target market: From kids to adults.
Effect: This ad was shown in the 2015 Super Bowl and was well received by the audience.
NHS’ “Get Unhooked” Campaign
If there’s anyone who has the license to be graphic with their ads, it’s government agencies. NHS UK leveraged on this and featured a very disturbing ad on cigarette smoking.
Target market: Smokers of all ages.
Effect: The ad was pulled out from national television because it bothered not just smokers, but also children and parents. There were a total of 774 complaints made mostly by parents who claimed that the ad distressed their children.
Nevertheless, with its short run, the campaign was a success. More than 1.3 million people sought help by calling anti-smoking helplines and sending a message through their website.
FDA’S Anti-Smoking Campaign
If you’re a smoker in the US, you have surely seen at least one of these. The government required tobacco companies to display these graphic images in rotation in every single pack. The image took up the top half of each side (front or back) to make it noticeable. And people did notice them.
Target market: Smokers of all ages.
Effect: When these were rolled out, the effect on smokers was palpable initially. However, as expected, the effect declined gradually as smokers got used to the images. Even if the effectiveness declined, there was still a positive effect with regards to making smokers consider or attempt to quit.
Worksafe Victoria’s “If you’re not sure, ask” Campaign
Workplace safety is something we should all take seriously, as is what this Australian state agency aims to impress on us.
Target market: Blue-collar workers.
Effect: While the videos are highly graphic, the way the accidents affect people’s lives afterward made the viewers practice workplace safety more cautiously.
St. John Ambulance “Tree”
This is one of the best awareness-oriented ads we’ve seen. It’s shocking, highly effective, and has a follow-through.
The goal of the video is to encourage viewers to learn first-aid. I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell wanted to know how to save the boy after watching this clip. Thankfully, they added information on how you can “learn more” about this topic, or more specifically, how you can learn first aid.
As we mentioned above, the Follow-Through is just as important as the attention-capturing phase.
Barnardo’s “Silver Spoon” Campaign
For the uninitiated, Barnardo’s is a children’s charity established in 1867. With its meager budget for advertising, the charity resorted to shock advertising which has been very effective for them so far.
In 2003, though, Barnardo’s Silver Spoon campaign depicting how not all babies are born with a silver spoon, have shocked the sensibilities of many readers.
Target market: The public in general.
Effect: The Advertising Standards Authority or ASA received more than 460 complaints about this ad campaign, prompting the charity to take down their ads from several newspapers. Some papers stood firm and displayed the ad for the entire campaign though, helping the charity gain more contributions.
In essence, there was still a positive impact even when the ad was banned in several news outfits.
UK Department for Transport’s “THINK! #PubLooShocker” Campaign
This ad follows a “prank with a twist” style. The agency set up a hidden camera in the corner of a loo (just pointing over the sink) in a local pub. The goal was to raise awareness of the repercussions of drunk driving.
Target market: Adults who drink occasionally or regularly.
Effect: The video was very well received. In a study by Unruly, 54% of their respondents felt that the video was Strongly Shocking. This ad was so surprising that people talked about it over and over.
However, only 16% of the respondents wanted to learn more about the issue, which is very poor performance as compared to the average of 31% of shock adverts. In this case, we are left wondering whether the advert achieved its goal.
Metro Trains Melbourne “Dumb Ways to Die”
While this commercial about being safe around trains is really cute, it still uses shock advertising, by way of disturbing people on different dumb (and gory) ways they can die (albeit in colorful, pastel-colored blood).
The song is quite catchy though, and the video itself is toned-down enough for even kids to understand the message. It is PG, easy to understand, catchy, and most of all provides complete information.
Target market: The general public.
Effect: This is a great example of shock advertising gone right. It has gone viral and the message was “received” successfully. People made covers of the song and schools played the video to teach safety measures.
After the campaign, Metro Trains observed a 21% decrease in train station incidents.
To date, the official video has generated more than 208 million views.
Antonio Federici “Submit to Temptation”
We all know that sex sells. Creating sexual ads to shock people is one thing, but intertwining this with religion can be too much for some audiences.
Target market: Adults between 20 to 40 years.
Effect: The ad received numerous complaints, prompting the regulatory board to ban the ad. Nevertheless, the brand continues to shock viewers with similar types of ads afterward, making us think that the ad may have actually yielded positive results.
United Colors of Benetton’s “Unhate”
Benetton is said to be the king of shock advertising with their marketing campaigns that never ceases to make people’s eyes widen with disbelief or even horror at times. In the end, the fashion company usually receives nods of approval from many of their customers.
It is evident with Benetton’s worldwide success that their controversial ads impacted their business.
Their Unhate Campaign was one of the most controversial to date, with images showing two religious icons kissing (Pope Benedict XVI and Ahmed el Tayeb).
Target market: Adults aged 25 to 40.
Effect: The world was abuzz when the images circulated the internet. The Unhate campaign (which includes other controversial images of world leaders smacking) was the trending topic in Google and Twitter for several weeks. The most notable effect was with United Colors of Benetton’s Facebook page receiving 60% more likes after the campaign launched.
The images and the discussion were polarizing. Whether they had a positive or negative effect on the brand is still hazy at best.
Verticals Where Shockvertising Can Work While Using Native Advertising
Before you use shock advertising for your native advertising campaigns, you need to make sure this technique works for the kind of offer you want to promote. In reality, any product or service can be promoted in a shocking way, but not all of them get the desired results.
Here are some offer categories or product types where shockvertising is proven to work:
1. Adult Offers
This includes adult dating, adult toys, and male enhancement offers.
Exaggerating what the service or product can give the consumer is typical for these items (which is why adult audiences see a lot of shockingly huge male organs with male enhancement products).
Adult ads typically include naked people, shocking the sensibilities of some, while attracting the rest. We will not be showing samples of those ads here, you already know what they look like (wink! wink!).
It has been proven time and again that nudity and suggestive imagery in adult ads help gain subscriptions and purchases for offers of these types. If the goal, though, is to use shockvertising to increase brand awareness, then the business may fail. Everyone in the adult industry is already using the shockingly naked technique that it won’t shock the audiences anymore!
So nudity in this vertical is used to increase sales and not to build a brand.
2. Sweeps, Casino and Cryptocurrency
Winning insane amounts of money can catch anyone’s attention. Who doesn’t want to get lucky enough to get their hands on boatloads of money with very little effort?
So when it comes to sweeps, you can use imagery of a large amount of money, or shocking text content.
3. Skin and Beauty
Our extreme need to look and feel younger again drives marketers to display advertisements of products that show how radically we can achieve this using what they offer. This leads to graphic images that show it can be done -- even when sometimes the images look ludicrous at best.
This image of an old woman peeling off her old skin to reveal smoother, tighter skin underneath is one good example. It looks so far-fetched, but we still end up thinking, “what if?”
So what do you do? Click on the native ad to see if it’s really possible.
This landing page below shows how an advertorial for a beauty product uses unbelievable titles to entice users.
Promotions under this vertical are no strangers to repulsive images that can make people look away. However, to those that are actually experiencing the same or at the very least can relate to the topic (even if what they have is not as extreme as depicted), such visuals can hook them.
Take for example this ad for a toe fungus remedy. The image is so repulsive that I had to look away while typing this! Clearly, this kind of ad is not for me. But checking its performance in Anstrex, a Native Ad Spy Tool, this ad seems to be performing well based on its Ad Strength and Ad Gravity.
Plus, the same advertiser has created dozens of variations of the same ad (with disturbing images like this one), that has been running for weeks, some even months! It is evident that this kind of shock advertising works for this product and for a specific set of audiences.
5. Weight Loss
Disturbing weight loss imagery has been widely used in the past but has been banned by several advertising networks. Many of these images are not realistic and do not really convey what the product is capable of doing.
Some advertisers argue that those are “artistic” renderings only and should be taken with a grain of salt.
While many have restricted the use of extreme weight loss imagery, there are still some that allow this. One example is that of Celine Dion’s extreme weight loss images.
There’s nothing like extreme situations to help you rethink your life choices. Seeing a troubling image of a car accident or hints of gory scenes in hospitals will make you want to drive safely and get insurance.
Not Everything Should be a Shocker
If you are championing a cause, shock advertising can increase your chances of starting a buzz and getting people to want to learn more. That is, of course, if you do it right.
While many profit-oriented ads try to break away from the pack by shocking people, this technique does not always work as desired. Plus, if you’re using native ads, chances are you will encounter a network that prohibits such types of promotion. Sometimes it’s because the ad doesn’t properly represent the product, but also because most of the time, the network wants to ensure that users get a good experience even when viewing ads.
Remember, that if audiences report your ad, you will get a low-quality score and may end up getting kicked out of the network (if your ad has not been rejected already).
While shock advertising can increase brand awareness to dizzying heights and can encourage sales tenfold, it can also do the same in the other direction. So tread carefully, study your target audience’s sensibilities, and ask for feedback using focus group discussions.
If you’re ready to give your marketing strategy a boost, you should definitely try native advertising. We’re here to help! Sign up with Brax and get a 15-day free trial to use our platform.