The Shocking Truth About Shockvertising

Yes, shock ads will never fail to create controversy… and get people to talk about your brand

Shock advertising or shockvertising is a type of advertising designed to shock the viewers’ mind. A few years ago, a girl mocked-posed on a cross on Good Friday — a Christian holiday celebrating the crucifixion of Jesus and His death at Calvary. The photo was posted in social media and it created an instant buzz in digital space. Even the traditional media allotted airtime and discussed the issue of disrespecting the Catholic faith.  That girl got her 15 minutes of fame and perhaps substantial hits from social networking sites.


I was ultimately taken aback by how far this meme attempted to seize our attention.  There seems to be a growing number of materials pushing the limits of taste—not that they’re particularly bad thing.  A little extremism is healthy from time to time.  What’s interesting was that the more each one attempted to push boundaries, the more of an effect it had on the audience – employing a shocking message.  And in this communication-cluttered society, shock advertising in any form still works.



What’s interesting was that the more each one attempted to push boundaries, the more of an effect it had on the audience – employing a shocking message.


I wrote my first shockvertising article for Entrepreneur Magazine in 2006 and I had a very  interesting in-depth interview with the Jos Ortega of BrandLab (now the Chairman and CEO of Havas Ortega) and Manuel del Rosario, The Body Shop Philippine’s CEO .  The former developed shock ads while the latter implemented one of the first controversial ads in the history of marketing. Both considered the positive impact of shock in advertising for obvious reason that today’s consumers are exposed to thousands of messages each day. It’s difficult to cut through and secure the attention of the target audiences. However, they also stressed that one should learn to draw the line between getting tastefully shocked and just an immoral way of getting attention.


That year, I wonder if Filipinos are ready for this. Although there is still hesitation as this country is predominantly populated by Catholics.  Until I came across with an incredibly daring ad from Concordia Children’s Services titled “Piglets” in 2008 followed a small billboard along Ortigas Center “No-anorexia”, a disturbing photograph of a naked anorexic woman, blown up to traffic-stopping scale, has been drawing shocked gasps from people. No doubt in surviving the data clutter, ad developers are dipping their hands in shockvertising.




For those unfamiliar with shock advertising or shockvertising, as it is commonly known, is an advertising tactic that shows something that intentionally astounds and potentially offends the audience. The primary objective is to gain the attention of the viewers, as consumers are bombarded by advertising at every turn: TV, computers, phones, posters, taxi-bumper stickers or bus wrappers and even the MRT passenger support handles.  Advertising is everywhere, even hidden in TV shows and movies or even the newsroom as product placements.  In order to ‘cut through the clutter’, some advertisers use shock tactics to get more bang for their buck.


The question though lies on whether to use shock advertising or not, and what pros and cons this tactic provides. There are the obvious pluses, as these types of advertisements often supply the stopping power for customers who are surrounded by data clutter or whose attention has wandered.  On the other hand, these ads may be deemed unsuitable for certain age groups and cultures.


Should the campaign developer and the brand owner willingly take the risk in offending the moral sensibilities of prospective customers just to cut through the clutter, they have to review the components of the market place and its target audience.  It should align with the segments with psychographic requirements.  Psychographics refers to the lifestyles, values, and attitudes of consumers, such as social and political viewpoints. And the most important: employing a surprising mixes of communication and images in good taste, and in the right context.  Benetton, the most famous pioneer of shock advertising in the 90s took the advertising industry by storm. The brand used a series of highly controversial images in order take a firm stand on subjects like the infringement of human rights and the protection of the environment.  A poster showing a man dying of HIV ended up being “one of the most censored visuals in the history of Benetton ads.



Fashion label Sisley drew ire with their campaign featuring women snorting clothing off of a surface, with the caption “Fashion Junkie” in 2007. The ad certainly caught reader attention by comparing their products to cocaine addiction. It was edgy, but it was successful. They shocked the viewers by saying they’re like crack for fashion lovers. The shock made the audience remember the brand.

sisleySisley, “Fashion Junkie” Ad Campaign, 2007


In 1997, The Body Shop’s ‘‘Ruby’’ campaign raised controversial issues and legal dispute. The campaign was personified by Ruby, a doll with Rubenesque proportions who was perched on an antique couch and who looked quite okay with herself and her plump frame. The campaign was the fruit of the company’s long-established practice of challenging the way the cosmetic industry talks to women. The Ruby campaign is designed to promote the idea that The Body Shop creates products designed to enhance features, moisturize, cleanse, and polish, not to correct ‘flaws.’ The Body Shop philosophy is that there is real beauty in everyone, and the brand is not claiming that its products perform miracles. “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.”

BodyShop-Ruby1The Body ShopThe “Ruby” Ad Campaign, 1998


A significant number of public information and charity advertisements utilize controversial ‘fear appeals’. The WWF Brazil Tsunami  ad from DDB Brazil in 2009 purposely comparing the human toll of the 2001 WTC attack with the human death toll of the 2004 tsunami. The line reads: “The tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11. The planet is brutally powerful. Respect it. Preserve it.” While the shock ad backfired spectacularly and  World Wildlife Fund’s Brazilian branch raised international rage, the ad aligned to the WWF’s campaign of invoking fear about the issue about our planet.

wwf-brasil-tsunami-brazil-2009 WWF Brazil, “Tsunami” Ad Campaign, 2009


In the Philippine advertising, the “Piglets” campaign developed by Y&R Philippines for Concordia Children’s Services in the Philippines featured babies  lined up as piglets with a sow and  ask the question, “If you don’t help feed them, who will? Please call Concordia Children’s Services at (02) 713-3462 to provide help.” The organisation looks after abandoned babies in Manila.

concordia-childrens-services-piglets-philippines-2008Concordia Children’s Services — “Piglets”, 2008


“This strategy works more for public service ads, to magnify the problem and intensify fear for the message to work,” Ortega said in 2006.  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.  “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.

Regardless of one’s own interpretation, these ads do what they’re meant to do: they evoke fear, shock, and strong emotion in order to nail the message in the audience wandering attention. They get people talking specially men and women with liberal social and political attitudes . . .and focuses on it intently. They deliver what their brands stand for and the issues they share with their targeted customers The ads circulate and the brand name is mentioned repeatedly and awareness is brought to the company.


Regardless of one’s own interpretation, these ads do what they’re meant to do: they evoke fear, shock, and strong emotion in order to nail the message in the audience wandering attention.

This choice of advertising communication presents a big risk or a possibly  big reward option. The key is the way the campaign developer raise the consideration and retention (memory) and to produce a “not so negative” response from the target viewers. The issue is how do we define what is shockvertising and what is not in our society.


BK-7-incherThink of running the “Burger King’s Seven Incher Sex” Ad in our society which is generally conservative and  90% Catholic country. The ad is full of sexual innuendo and the apparent reference to fellatio in both pictures and wording, “Fill your desire for something long, juicy and flame-grilled with the NEW BK SUPER SEVEN INCHER. Yearn for more after you taste the mind-blowing burger that comes with a single beef patty, topped with American cheese, crispy onions and the A1 Thick and Hearty Steak Sauce,” you have to ask yourself, besides prepubescent boys and the beer-bellied-sexism crowd, who would this appeal to?  Will you take the risk of being the subject of Sunday’s church sermons and morning talk shows’ poll stats?


While shockvertising creates an immediate viral marketing effect, it shouldn’t be regarded as advertising and marketing communication lacking any goals in relation to the products or corporation communicating the message in concern.  Yes, shock ads will never fail to create controversy… and get people talk about your brand.  Regardless of the intent or the issue at hand, there will be parts of the market who will always find this tactic to be unacceptable and low.  But you have to ensure that your goal is to stand out from the heaps of promotional messages that we are exposed to daily and to leave a lasting impact and spark discussions about shared issues with your target audience.



2 thoughts on “The Shocking Truth About Shockvertising”

  1. Hi, my name is Maria and I am doing an extensive paper on Shockvertising for an Environmental Communication class at USC. Would you mind answering some questions for me to be an expert person in my essay? Please send me an email to, since this is my only way to contact you! THANK YOU and I would really appreciate it

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