Shockvertising – are you ready for it?

Although there is nothing like shocking consumers to get the attention that you want; but where do you draw the line between just “shocking” people to actually turning them off?

By Justine P. Castellon

benettonThe “Shockvertising: Does It Work” article brings the highest traffic to my blogsite because readers are fascinated and curious about this method of advertising. While shockvertising seems to be the answer in this advertising-bloated environment, some are too scared, too intimidated and find this technique a taboo and too offensive for target audience.  Marketers like me doubt if their audience is ready for this.  Shockvertising or shock advertising in more general advertising terminology is one among many tools in the marketer’s sack to grab the consumers’ attention. It is often use in order to gain attention for the product or service being offered.

The purpose of putting shock in the advertising message is to break through the advertising clutter, capture the audience attention and eventually create buzz marketing.  Often times, shockvertising  is offensive to some viewers, but it has been proven effective. The initial shock invariably burns the accompanying brand name into the viewer’s memory.  Although there is nothing like shocking consumers to get the attention that you want; but where do you draw the line between just “shocking” people to actually turning them off?  Is your targeted audience ready for this?
During my one-on-one discussion with Jos Ortega, Founder and Chairman of BrandLab Inc. and CEO of JWT, he pointed out that attention-getting technique is a necessary and appropriate initial step in the campaigning process. And what is better than the shock material to grab the eyeballs of viewers?  “It depends on what extent you want to shock the viewers,” Ortega challenged, “is it a positive or a negative shock?”

benetton_horseInevitably, negative is more “shocking” than the positive shock.  Benetton’s strategy in advertising is a case study, not only in universities but in the advertising industry as well. What made it more shocking is the use of institutions, which we did not expect advertising to exploit . . . churches, temples, sex, and even prisons. Their “We, On Death Row” ads include interviews about the inmate’s thoughts and dreams as they face death. Of course, the campaign has a triggering factor that catches the targets’ interest. It may have reaped public criticism along the way, but their clothes sold well!

It has been Benetton’s game in advertising during the past decades . . . a poster showing a priest kissing a nun on the lips . . .  a black stallion mounting a white mare. And how about using Down syndrome children in retail shop posters? But are Asian (to be more precise- Pinoy) consumers ready for this?

“Yes they are, it is us (the campaign developers) and the approving parties (advertisers) that are not yet ready.”  Ortega said. He added that shock is being employed to stop the consumers’ scanning mode and wandering attention, and nailing down attention requires some kind of stopping power. Although it’s difficult to show a poster of a nun-priest kissing in a predominantly Catholic country, “mix shock with humor to get away with it,’ shared Ortega. “A shock followed by humor is more forgiving.”  In fact, we are delighted and see it as not to shock, but to get our attention,and to stand out from a million mundane brand messages.

body_shop_fat_barbieThe Body Shop’s “Ruby” (a nude Barbiesque doll with bulging proportions ) poster ad in 1998 created a stir among consumers, and was banned after one mall patron said his daughter had been traumatized by seeing it. This socially-responsible company employed shock value to make the campaign for women’s self-esteem more effective. “The shock was meant to magnify the increasing views of women who are too focused on seeing beauty as anorexic figure, rather than self-esteem and self- confidence,” says Emmanuel del Rosario, CEO of  The Body Shop in the Philippines. “And we believe that women are more than that.”

Ads that stop the scanning are usually high in intrusiveness and originality.  This is particularly important for some products or issues that require special attention.   “This strategy works more for public service ads, to magnify the problem and intensify fear for the message to work,” Ortega said.  But for products, it is entirely different. “You need to connect it back to your products’ core values.”  Baygon’s Mating ad created by BBDO Guererro Ortega showed two cockroaches having sex (the pumping scene) with the suggestive song “Afternoon Delight” in the background. The final message was  . . . Time for Some Birth Control.  Though the ad focused on insects’ sexual activities, the message overturned the initial shock. Ortega explains that the ad successfully communicated the product’s core message . . .  killing the entire population of cockroaches, including the next generation of cockroach eggs.  The audience immediately got it.

While shock gives you the attention that you need to stand out from pack of advertising messages, consider the long-term effect in your branding strategy. You should also need to look closely to the long term issues surrounding your brand if using shock advertising as communication method. Remember, picture paints a thousand words, therefore, using shocking pictures could affect the way consumers perceive your brand and quality of your product you are promoting (take note of one consumer who complained about the Ruby poster and its effect to her daughter). For instance, if you exploit vulgar or tasteless sexual references obscenity, brutality, profanity or the display of images or use of words that are horrifying and repulsive may not be a wise synergy in creating your brand story. Ethics is always important to have in mind when creating your brand message, and strong and shocking messages might not always be the best and most effective method to use. However, if shockvertising is created properly, and the underlying objective is to just produce an initial shock to get attention, then by all means you are on the right track.


As ads need to scream loudly because now, more than ever, consumers are being subjected to a barrage of promotions.  Prospects will decide in a second or two (or even split second) whether your ad is worth their time or not. Sure, the extreme nature of “shockvertising” is what gets Benetton noticed and the constant image of their marketing communications lifts their brand above the clutter. But this is a calculated risk.  There’s a probability that the campaign may backfire because of consumers who may find a particular ad antagonizing or offensive.

So, when planning to use shockvertising, map out your strategic plan carefully:

  • Establish your objective of using it – to grab the consumers’ attention – that’s it, no more no less;
  • Present one central proposition. In the case of “Ruby” ad, women’s self esteem was the focus of the material.  The message was the main selling point, and the disproportioned Barbie doll image became secondary. Or you make use of shocking copy with a reasonable image – take your pick (but don’t use both).
  • Support the central proposition with your brand story in the succeeding ad campaign.   The Body Shop’ “Ruby” ad convey a message of being real, natural and ordinary. And to make the long term campaign more credible, they never use celebrities and models in their next materials.  They used real people, ordinary citizen like their store staff as models. As the campaign evolved, their products became the ultimate heroes in all the materials . . . no more shocking copies and images . . . and even real people.  The products stood alone.

The problem that shock advertising has run into is that it often goes too far. There is a fine line between tasteful and unnecessary use of shocking images and copies. Tasteful shock advertising will successfully make its point, and there is a clear reason for the use of whatever was shocking. The problem lies in distasteful use of shocking media, it only makes the image unsuccessful and possibly offensive to the viewer.

Of course, there are cases when shock advertising is the only way to get the message across.   “But never forget that shock works for brands that link back to the brand values, otherwise you’ll end up “just shocking the viewers.” ended Ortega.


A great example of shockvertising is the window poster for the self-tanning lotion called “Fake It” from The Body Shop which featured a photo of a man’s swim briefs with a bottle of the lotion shoved down the front. This witty-shocking material brought some ohhhs and ahhhs from the consumers and of course some criticisms, but it served it first objective . . .  it stopped the consumer’s scanning mode.


6 thoughts on “Shockvertising – are you ready for it?”

    1. Hi Justine,
      I’m working on my thesis on this topic as well as Manuel and i do have a couple of questions i need to get answered. Is there a chance to get in contact with you via email or such, so i could send them to you?
      thanks a lot

  1. Hi, i’m doing my master thesis on shockvertising….i’d like to know from an expert like you if you have any book to suggest me….thank you very much!!

    1. Thank you for visiting my site, Manuel. There aren’t many books on Shockvertising, But you can try Shock in Advertising by Dave Saunders. You can email me though should you have questions on this topic. Good luck on your thesis

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