SHOCK! Advertising

Shock advertising, or, “shockvertising” is a method of advertising that purposely offends and startles its viewers in an attempt to “gain attention, encourage cognitive processing, and have an immediate impact on behavior.” Ads containing disgusting images, sexual references, profanity and obscenity, religious taboos, vulgarity, impropriety (violations of societal “norms”), or moral offensiveness are considered to be “shocking” (Dahl, 2003). It has been used for many years around the world, but has recently been questioned as to whether or not it is still a productive method of advertising.
“Shockvertising” is a very controversial technique used in the field, with many critics claiming it to be an immoral and low route to take in getting a brand, idea, or issue noticed. The “shock” tactic, whether seen as immoral or not, has been proven over the years to be an effective way of gaining an audience’s attention. Unfortunately, as times have changed and people have been exposed more and more to norm violating material, advertisers must face the decision whether to keep trying to “shock” their target market, or to ditch the method completely.

What’s the point?

On average, a person is exposed to about 3,000 advertisements a day. It is easy for one to see an ad, and not pay any mind to it. In a world where we are consumed with new media, it is becoming increasingly harder for advertisers to make their message stick with consumers.
“Shockvertising” literally forces someone to take in a message, as the advertisement surprises them with material that is usually not seen as socially acceptable. Shock ads are filled with pictures and ideas that deviate from the norm, usually creating quite the alarm amongst those who witness them. Clearly, using shock appeal is a method to assure someone’s attention, but there is a fine line in what people find to be productive shocking and offensive to the public (Arnold, 2009).

Houston, we have a problem. Well, some of us…

Although shock advertising is very successful in capturing one’s attention and informing the public of pressing issues (as we will see in following sections), it is an incredibly controversial tactic to use and proves to be very risky. With every “shockvertising” campaign comes a slew of critics whom publicly speak out against those involved. Often, they find the ads to be too vulgar, disgusting, or obscene to be shown to the public and don’t feel as though bombarding people with shock is a productive way to make a positive impact (Arnold, 2009).

A recent French anti-smoking campaign from BDDP & FILS (pictured above), released in February proved to be controversial. Critics found the ads to be unacceptable and alleged that the company “trivialized sexual abuse” as the young people pictured in the ads were in compromising positions. The ad agency responsible for creating the campaign defended its message for teens to imagine smoking to be an “act of naivety and submission” (Nudd, 2010).
Shock ads will never fail to create controversy. Regardless of the intent or the issue at hand, there will be parts of society who will always find this tactic to be unacceptable and low.

But we’ve seen it all!

“Shock” advertising was a huge idea in the eighties and nineties, but with a society that’s pretty much seen it all, the effect it has on population is starting to fizzle. Younger generations have grown up with gory, sexual, and obscene material featured in movies, music, television, and most recently the Internet.
The truth is, it’s hard to “shock” an audience when they have been exposed to shocking advertisements and messages for the past ten years. Agencies in the past have sensationalized scenarios in their campaigns, resulting in the public believing that what they’re doing “isn’t that bad” (Williams, 2009).


Recent studies have shown…

In 2003, an intricate study was conducted to test whether or not “shockvertising” was still an effective route for advertisers to take in order to appeal to audiences. 105 undergraduate students (ages 18-27) were exposed to an HIV/AIDS prevention campaign containing three different types of ads—a “shocking” ad, a fear-invoking ad, and an informational ad. All three ads promoted condom usage, and contained the same message at the bottom of the advertisement. This specific group was chosen for the issue of HIV/AIDS because they were a realistic target for the issue of prevention. The subjects were tested on their attention to the ads, their ability to recall them, and their recognition of the advertisements.
The results showed that the subjects found the shock ad to be more obscene and startling than the fear and informational advertisements. But was this result bad?
A larger percentage of subjects said that the “shocking” ad drew their attention the most, and there was a higher recall of the “shocking” ad than the fear-invoking or informational ads. The subjects found the “shocking” ad made a deeper impact on them than the others. This study proved that using a shock appeal in advertisements resulted in higher measures of attention, recall, and cognitive recognition in comparison to a fear-invoking method and an informational approach (Dahl, 2003).

Reach and Frequency

With “shockvertising”, it is common for traditional media to be used, usually in the form of television commercials or print ads in magazines. Reach and frequency of “shocking” ads rely on the channels, stations, and magazines that they are featured in.
What is important to take into consideration though, is the whether reach and frequency have a large effect on an audience’s recognition of what is being advertised.
Thanks to the Internet, when a shocking ad stirs up a lot of controversy, it usually makes big news and spreads like wildfire over the web. Initially, reach is not an issue of concern. An abundant people surfing the web will be exposed to these ads.
What IS an issue of concern is frequency. People will be able to access these shocking ads over and over if they’d like, but the catch with “shockvertising” is that once someone has been exposed to the surprising and eye catching material, it has little effect on them if they see it again because the initial feeling of shock or excitement disappears (Williams, 2009). The element of surprise is what grabs a viewer’s attention, but if the ad doesn’t have a substantial effect on them the first time around, it won’t the second time either, or the third, or the fourth…


"Shockvertisng" isn't suited for everybody. "Shock" ads are far more effective amongst younger audiences than older audiences. People of older generations are more likely to be strongly offended by advertisements that include vulgar and obscene material, which in return actually does more harm to a company than good. The people who are offended likely will not support a cause or purchase a good from a brand using "shock" tactics. On the other hand, younger generations such as teens and young adults have a positive reaction to "shock" ads and are not as strongly offended as their older counterparts by material that is vulgar, sexual, or profane. The "shock" ads usually strike up curiosity in this group of consumers, and is often a good tactic to raise awareness.


"Shock" ads are usually used by charities and non-profit organizations, often in the form of Public Service Announcements (PSAs). With many PSAs being placed free of charge, many "shock" ads are scheduled to be aired late at night, when many people may not see them. This scheduling can create difficulties for brands trying to raise awareness at a low cost, as much of their target audience may not be exposed to their advertising.


Although “shock” advertising has many obvious implicit costs, explicit costs are what usually persuade advertisers to use this method of advertising. The costs of production for “shock” ads are usually very small, allowing many charities or non-profit organizations a chance to make their name be heard with a small budget to work with (Williams, 2009).
Barnardo’s , a children’s charity based in the United Kingdom, faced the challenge of achieving brand awareness with a limited advertising budget of 1 million euros a year. With the help of Bartle Bogle Hegarty agency, they released a “shock” advertising campaign titled, “Giving Children Back Their Future.”

shock_ad.jpg barnardo2roach.jpg

The campaign targeted a younger demographic of people than in previous campaigns, hoping to achieve brand awareness amongst a group other than the charities typical donors (70 yrs+). (Barnardo’s)

When to consider using “shockvertising” in our changing industry.

“Shock” advertising, though commonly overused nowadays, can still be an effective method to reach an audience successfully. Advertisers must realize that when taking a “shocking” approach with their ads, they must make sure the message will have a positive impact. It doesn’t pay to “shock” for the heck of it. Consumers who have been repeatedly exposed to norm defying advertising are increasingly likely to ignore these messages.
Today, people are more concerned with getting help in changing their behaviors for the sake of their children. Different advertisers have caught on to this, and now try to focus on how they can appeal to their audience’s emotions (Williams, 2009).

MCBD , a creative advertising agency based in the UK, released this anti-smoking advertisement titled, “I wanna be like you.” Understanding that their target didn’t want to be told what to do, they skewed the “shock” factor to appeal to their emotions concerning their children.

Final Thoughts

With the advertising industry changing dramatically through the years, as well as societal norms as we know them, “shockvertising” has seen its fair share of ups and downs. In order for a shock appeal to continue being a successful method of advertising, advertisers must be wary of what the public wants. It is still possible for “shock” tactics to work in this day and age, but those constructing a campaign using these methods must genuinely understand how to approach the situation.
People don’t want to be scared into doing what companies think is best for them. Brands must now learn how to shock their audience in a hard-hitting, emotional appeal.
“Shocking” the public isn’t as easy today as it has been in the past, and it is easier for people to ignore such ads when they have been exposed to them numerous times in the past.
Most importantly, advertisers who choose to utilize “shockvertising” must fully comprehend that without a good cause or positive intent, it is more than likely that the public will criticize and not support their campaign.
The future still looks bright for “shockvertising”, as long as it is used in moderation in fitting circumstances.

Arnold, Chris. (2009). A punch in the face can offend. Retrieved April 2, 2010, from Lexis Nexis database.

Barnardo’s-An Advertising Success Story. n.d. Retrieved April 7, 2010, from

Dahl, Darren W., Frankenberger, Kristina D., & Manchanda, Rajesh V. (2003). Does it Pay to Shock? Reactions to Shocking and Nonshocking Advertising Contents Among University Students. Journal of Advertising Research, 43(3), 268-280. Retrieved April 7, 2010, from EBSCOhost database.

Nudd, Tim. (2010). Unholy Smokes. Retrieved April 2, 2010, from Lexis Nexis database.

Williams, Matt. (2009). Does Shock Advertising Still Work? Campaign(UK), Issue 16, 11. Retrieved April 5, 2010, from EBSCOhost database (39461541).