Shockvertising: An Emerging Advertising Media

Published by MBA Skool Team, Published on November 25, 2012

The White House released a statement against the ad; the Vatican condemned it and got it pulled down within a day. What’s this ad? We’re talking about the “Unhate Campaign”-UCB’s latest campaign attempted to regain customers love. The campaign featured World’s leaders who have been traditionally rivals in a lip lock. If the North Korean and the South Korean leaders were to reconcile with each other it would obviously promote World Peace in a big way. That was exactly the idea behind the campaign which depicted some of these World Leaders kissing each other on the lips to reconcile. But UCB went a bit too far when one of the print ads featured Pope in a lip lock with Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb of Egypt. The Vatican considered it as an offence to the religious sentiments and forced UCB to pull it down.


What UCB tried here is popularly known as ‘Shockvertising’. According to Gustafson and Yssel (1994) and Venkat & Abi-Hanna (1995), Shock advertising is something that intentionally startles and offends its audience. It’s a particular form of communication designed to shock the target audience by using thought provoking, controversial or taboo images and/or words.

The ad may violate certain norms, customs or culture. Thus here we are talking about creating a shock to register the message in the minds of the consumers. Advertisers have traditionally resorted to this tactic to gain attention amongst the huge clutter of ads bombarded upon the customers.  The idea here is simple, to stand out and to create a buzz.

But over the years consumers have got used to the shock advertisement and thus its effectiveness has reduced. So it is necessary to first define the objective of using shock in the ad. Some shock ads try to mix humour or the brand values while some do it mostly to gain attention and increase brand awareness and brand recall. But does this translate into sales? For Eg: In 1998 the Body Shop launched the ‘Ruby’ campaign featuring a generously proportioned doll.

The ad created shock amongst the viewers and was banned subsequently. But it reinforced the Body Shop as a brand catering to real women. The ad celebrated the meaning of real beauty. Ruby was created to challenge the conventional stereotype of beauty.

Some brands targeting the youth have tried to use shock advertisements that contained explicit content to attract consumers. Calvin Klein in one of its ads portrayed a man fantasizing. The agenda behind such ads is that brands try to pitch themselves as youth icons and try to convince youngsters that they can achieve their world of fantasy by using the brand’s product. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people have to fulfil the basic needs first before they can start fulfilling higher level needs. Social needs come to the forefront for the youth and in order to be accepted by the society they buy certain clothes and accessories. Every product tries to portray itself as the most desirable through its ads. Hence, to differentiate itself in the plethora of products and similar advertisements, brands rely on shock value to increase their brand recall and make a long lasting impact on the target audience. This would propel the youth to choose the brand which is closest to their fantasies and most explicit in depiction.

The tactic of shock advertising has also been used for social causes. Organizations like PETA have always used shock and awe ads to promote their cause. TATA tea’s Jaago Re campaign gives the message of corruption free society through hard hitting dialogues and enthusing music. It has high brand recall and high sales as it promotes its message in a manner that is acceptable to the conservative Indian audience and is memorable. The Montana meth project spread awareness about abuse of meth drug through their disturbing but impact creating ads of consequence of meth abuse. Who would think of taking meth after watching their intense advertisements?

But can shockvertising be used successfully by every marketer to promote their product? Shock advertising has in the past been able to attract attention to the product. But, attracting attention is not enough. If the advertisement does not convey the message underlying the ad, it can only remain a shocking memory which won’t convert into sales. The Jaago Re campaign is a different kind of shock. It conveys its message of the lack of realisation of the truth that the activities which are considered normal by us are responsible for promoting corruption in the society. This sets deep in the mind of the consumer who recalls the brand as a socially responsible brand and associates it with a positive message to the society.

FCUK, a name that attracts attention and stays in the minds of the consumer tried to leverage shockvertising. But the idea behind the brand was not communicated to the consumers. It did not leave an impact. Hence, the shock was not converted into sales. UCB witnessed increased sales after the ‘Unhate Campaign’. However, the sales went down after some time. This signifies that controversy can generate interest in the product for a short period of time. But, shock advertising cannot be pursued as a long term strategy for the company to promote itself.

UCB has in the past used shock advertising in its promotion campaigns. Benetton's advertising draws public attention to universal themes like racial integration, the protection of the environment, Aids, Capital Punishment and more. According to the Luciano Benetton, one of the founders said, "The purpose of advertising is not to sell more. It's to do with institutional publicity, whose aim is to communicate the company's values. We need to convey a single strong image, which can be shared anywhere in the world." The advertisements of UCB have in the past maintained the image of the brand as a thread of unity in diversity in cultures. But, there is a thin line between shock advertising and offensive advertising. It might bring controversy and free publicity for the brand. But, there is difference between positive and negative publicity. According to certain psychological studies, advertisements should be designed as to deliver a message that the consumer will be happy and delighted to use the product of the company. But, if the advertisement uses shock that is remotely linked to the image of the brand and overshadows the message it wants to convey, it will not bring the desired results for the company.

Shockvertising can harm brand reputation if not used in the right way. Burger King whose target audience is families, attracts a lot of kids through the toys it offers in the meals. However, the picture as well as the language used in an ad released in Singapore was quite explicit for the young boys to understand its meaning. This would definitely not attract ladies to come with their kids to Burger King. Through this burger king succeeded in pulling attention, but distracted and repelled its target audience.

There is no doubt that shock advertisement increases brand recall. If the shock is blended with the message in a manner which creates a long lasting impact on the consumer and remains with him even if the brand changes its advertisement in future, then it will bring the desired impact on the sales. However, shock should not be used thoughtlessly in the campaigns. Its sole motive should not be to generate attention and prevent the real meaning of the brand to get through to the consumer.

As said by Jeff Bezos, ’A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person’.

This article has been authored by Nikita Singla and Ricky Sundrani from NMIMS.

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