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Essay: Is shock advertising deteriorating in the eyes of the viewer?

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Is the frequent use of graphic imagery in mainstream media causing the demise of shock advertising? Does it no longer leave us stunned? Nevertheless, I believe this method is still effective in capturing the viewer’s attention. In this Dissertation, I will be discussing the changes needed to make it thrive once more. These points will be gathered from sources such as books, blogs and articles focusing on shock tactics. I will solely use secondary research to examine human psychology and the effects of shock in order to uncover what makes it work. This will accompany case studies of shock adverts, proving the points suggested throughout this discussion. This research will help the advertising industry and myself develop shock tactics that will captivate the audience of the 21st century.


‘A painting that doesn’t shock isn’t worth painting’ (Duchamp, 2002; 69), is an interpretation that I believe means there is no purpose in designing something if it doesn’t get the desired reactions and/or outcome. This is why shock advertising at this current point in time is no longer valid or worth using.

Shock tactics are methods used in advertising with the purpose of catching the attention of their audience (The Guardian, 2008). However, despite its effectiveness in the past, its power to shock has weakened during this current decade and no longer creates the reaction or success it once did. What has caused its demise and is there a way back from this?

The evidence I will be using throughout this Dissertation will be sourced from books, websites, blog posts and articles focusing on the subject of shock advertising and the psychology of the human mind which will be discussed later in detail. I will not be using primary research, as it will not be relevant to prove my argument or justify my points. My secondary research will consist of data, investigations and case studies that I have gathered from different sources. All of the cases studies and viewers I will be discussing will be from countries that primarily speak English, such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America. This study will not represent or be supporting any other countries due to their differential cultures, beliefs and laws.

I will start with the brief history of shock advertising and why it was an essential method when it was first established; moving on to how the transformation in media and the progression of viewers has weakened the impact of shock. I will put forward points along with evidence on what needs changing. To justify this, I will be presenting three case studies focusing on different topics such as smoking, driving and awareness. In each case study, there will be one example which is successful, while the other is unsuccessful.

The research I have collected will help evaluate what changes are needed for shock advertising to become effective again. As well as recognising the importance of psychology in the advertising industry, as there is more to shocking the viewer than showing them a disturbing image.

The purpose of this Dissertation will be essential for me in the future, as I plan to pursue my career as a Graphic Designer; with the aspiration to gain experience in the Advertisement industry. I also feel that this will be important for my work during final year at University in modules and competitions.

Chapter 1: The Power of Shock Advertising

In order to understand the rise and fall of shock advertising, we need to undercover its beginning and how it became an important part of marketing and design.

Allegedly this form of advertising was brought on with the introduction of ‘scenes of graphic, irreverent or disturbing nature increasingly being presented in daily TV newscasts’ (Marconi, 1997; xii).

This development in graphic content influenced entertainment shows to follow; believing they had the same rights to these scenes as much as News Programs. This pushed more sections of the media to follow suit. Books, record covers and then eventually advertisements did the same (Marconi, 1997).

Although there is no initial date which is used to recognise the start of using shock, it is believed by many that this strategy was first used in the 1960’s; the same time viewers noticed a significant increase in violence in television (Open Vault, 2015). As stated by Joe Marconi, a Senior Marketing and Management Executive ‘In the 1960s, Decades of restraint gave way to a new openness. Some people called it permissiveness.’ (Marconi, 1997; xi). This permissiveness, referred to the new-found freedom that Advertising Agencies were now welcome to use in their practice.

‘It wasn’t until the 1980’s and 90’s a new conservatism seemed to be the rule and the mood of the market’ (Marconi, 1997; xii).

This acknowledgement began the endless argument with advertisers and society, regarding the limits that adverts should be allowed to reach until it’s considered too far.

This new acknowledgement stemmed from campaigns that originally debuted in the 1980’s by the United Colors of Benetton, an Italian fashion brand. Though their first adverts would be seen as tame by today’s standards, Benetton were the first fashion brand to focus on issues which are now often associated with shock.

In their advertisements they deal with issues that were maybe big news during that year, issues that people didn’t really want to talk about or deal with such as; HIV, wars and even hunger (Innovative Design History, 2014).

As stated by Innovative Design History, their campaign started off subtle with their 1984 campaign ‘All are United’ showing their wish to unite everyone of any race, culture or sex through the use of their clothes. Overtime Benetton’s campaigns transformed less subtle to more extreme/shock imagery, in which the company is now associated with. With this shock advertising, it helped Benetton establish the strategy as well as help the company become renowned across the world, as stated:

‘Benetton has gained a reputation for shock advertising that has whipped up controversy and stimulated debate. This helped to boost the brand’s recognition of the Italian fashion giant’ (International Business Times, 2011).

This rise in success was acknowledged by other companies who were desperate to gain the same response as Benetton’s campaigns did.

Once shock advertising had established itself, many companies and advertisers were drawn into its success; all with the same intention of gaining the attention of their target audience.

‘Companies use ‘Shock Marketing’, believing that their controversial activities or marketing methods will spark interest in a wide population of readers and word spreads more rapidly than the traffic that typical news stories’ (Forbes, 2016).

Compared to the 1980’s, the method is now commonly associated with charities, such as PETA, NSPCC and Barnardo trying to spread awareness of their cause

(The Advertising Club, 2011).

Nevertheless, the success driven by this has gradually deteriorated as we move further in the 21st century. This fall from grace is believed to be due to the overuse of shock advertising and mainstream media, as viewers feel as though they have seen it all before (The Guardian, 2016). This disconnection towards their viewers has caused advertisers to take their campaigns to a whole new level by ‘upping the stakes’ every chance they get.

‘But how far is too far? In an age when some of the most gruesome pictures circulating are on TV news channels, one can understand why charities may be trying harder to compete amid concerns that society has become desensitised to suffering.’ (Senior Consultant Cheryl Campsie, 2011).

This argument has been confirmed, through the research conducted by Fahmy and Christopher McKinley from the University of Arizona (Department of Visual Communication), as they tested young individuals to see how they react towards highly graphic imagery in comparison to lower levels of graphicness. The original purpose of the study was to be used to inform journalist of their concerns of using graphic imagery within their article focusing on war, despite this type of imagery being found in social media or on television (Phys Org, 2011). However, this study also reinforces the point that viewers are becoming desensitised toward extreme imagery throughout this discussion.

Fahmy concludes that there was no significant difference in reactions from the individuals, from seeing non-graphic images to highly graphic ones. Along with these reactions, the individuals’ perception of war did not change either. Meaning that, regardless of seeing this graphic imagery, it didn’t change how they felt towards the topic.

‘The dilemma that Photo Editors face of whether a graphic photo would be too shocking to view while gathered around the breakfast table might no longer hold true in the current media environment’ (Fahmy, 2011).

Fahmy is stating here that viewers no longer feel repulsed by extreme imagery regardless of the surroundings.

This discovery that shock advertising is no longer being as effective as it once was, has led many companies, even Benetton (Marketing Week, 2015) and especially charities to reframe from using this method.

Even charities commonly associated with shock tactics: NSPCC and Barnardo have decided to abandon it. As stated by Mark Roalfe, creative director of RKCR ‘Shock tactics don’t work all the time. You lose sympathy if you cry wolf too much’ (Campaign, 2011).

Ali Stunt, the founder of the Pancreatic Cancer action, stated ‘You have to be aware of the danger of producing shock ads that no longer shock’ (Campaign, 2011). These statements from advertisers and charities show that they realise the disadvantage of over using shock. Meaning they are having to find alternative methods to bring their audience back.

Despite this, should we actually remove shock as a method in advertising? Studies have discovered when used in the right context it increases the viewer’s attention in comparison to other standard adverts and will influence their behaviour in a positive way (Johnson, 2011).

The is due to the shock of seeing something unexpected, causing an emotional response that leaves a permanent mark on the viewer’s memory; making it easier for them to remember the shock adverts over a long period (Skyword, 2016). Professor Alex Gardner, a Psychologist and Psychotherapist quotes ‘the message became so deeply lodged in a person’s consciousness that they were eventually forced to act upon it’ (Campaign, 2009).

This is why I am proposing changes that will consist of six points, which I will validate through research:

Point 1: Sounds or Wording

The use of sound or wording is an approach associated with shock (The Advertising Club, 2011), often neglected or underestimated for its effectiveness.

The use of controversial wording can truly cause a stir in society as much as extreme imagery. Some brands use questionable slogans which have contributed to their success. French Connection are a perfect example of using inappropriate wording without crossing the line, leaving many shocked when they released their slogan ‘FCUK’. This was applauded by many, as it left adults shocked due to the obvious reference whilst leaving children oblivious (Guardian, 2000).

In 2016 Heather Andrew, Chief Executive of A Neuro-Research company, discovered that viewers took more interest in television adverts that had music and visuals synced together. Andrew also found that there was a 14% increase in memory encoding response in their audience (Campaign, 2018).

Point 2: Realism

Shock advertising uses outlandish scenarios, making it difficult for viewers to associate themselves with. These extreme situations allow viewers to justify their actions and provide themselves with a get-out clause (Campaign, 2009). This is why charities should produce shock campaigns, focusing on realistic situations.

A realistic scenario such as the effects of a disease, habit or being violent allows them to realise the consequences of not taking action and the affect it has on their loved ones (Campaign, 2009). This was found to be evident when these scenarios focused on children, discovering that adults were more willing to change their ways to benefit them (Jarvis, 2009)

Point 3: Personalised Experience

A personal experience will make it harder for the viewer to ignore or forget. It was discovered by Yahoo in 2017 that 54% of viewers found adverts more interesting when they were personalised to them (The Drum, 2017). The use of personalisation helped the viewers feel acknowledged and cared for.

Channel 4 is currently leading the way for personalised experience and explains why it’s so valid through their digital and creative leader, David Amodio:

‘The most attention-grabbing word for anyone to hear is, without doubt, one’s own name, so to be able to offer advertisers the chance to speak directly to our millions of viewers is not just unique, but an immensely powerful marketing tool’ (Social Change, 2017).

Using personalisation in shock advertising, would allow Advertisers to tailor the ad or campaign to their audience.

Point 4: Technology

Development in technology gives advertisers more opportunities (Adweek, 2017). Using technology, adverts can share their message through social media with a personalised approach that can lead to potential loyal customers (Kingston Webwork, 2018).

Smart advertising is now being introduced. This is where a digital billboard or poster, displays adverts that react to the environment surrounding it by sending and taking data (Landmark Dividend, 2018). Smart advertising is used to attract attention from passers-by. The use of facial recognition and dynamic videos that is involved would relate to the third point of personalised experience. These settings have been designed to recognise individual’s gender, facial expression and age (Landmark Dividend, 2018).

Point 5: Do Not Alienate

Though charities and businesses may receive the attention they wanted through shock tactics, it doesn’t mean an increase in company sales or donations being made. Which ASPCA found when they used this method (Brand Point, 2018).

Advertisers need to be more aware of who they are targeting, especially if they alienate age, political or religious groups.

Joe Marconi says in his book, ‘The Marketer’s goal is not to attempt to attract any one segment of the market by alienating another’ (Marconi, 1997; 26). As it leads to a negative perception to their brand (Business Broken Down, 2016) and leaves people feeling alienated.

Point 6: Stimulate Emotions

Shock Advertising is recognised for enhancing emotions (The Club Advertising, 2011). However, the emotions associated with shock are often anger and disgust due to the use of extreme imagery that is violent or disturbing. Advertisers need to experiment with the use of humour for example, as laughter is believed to be an important part of human psychology (Point Park University, 2018).

‘Humour associates the positive emotion elicited from the advertisement with the brand’ (Point Park University, 2018), meaning that people will remember these humorous adverts and the brand with a positive outlook. Who says you can’t shock people with humour?

Chapter 2: Case Studies – Road Safety

Northern Ireland’s DOE (Department for the Environment): ‘Picnic’ (2014)

The advert begins innocently, showing nursery children leaving their classroom and going on a trip to the park. As the children are playing, it shifts to a young man driving and back to the children once more. Eventually it shows the children sitting down together on a picnic blanket; the advert takes a sudden twist showing the car coming to a sharp turn at high speed. As the car swerves, the driver loses control and rolls down an embankment which shows the children before they are horrifically killed as the cars rolls over them. The scene ends with a narrator speaking over the shot of the empty nursery room saying ‘shame on you’ (Daily Mail, 2014). Please see Appendix 1.

We Saves Lives (Highway Safety Advocates): Relfections from Inside (2016)

Kris Caudilla is a prisoner who is serving 15 years behind bars for drink driving resulting in the manslaughter of a Police Officer. He talks about his crime and how he wishes to make a difference. Moving onto people setting up equipment in a bar bathroom. Once set up, we are shown several men walking in at different points. Once the men come up to the mirror, it shows Caudilla live from his prison cell. Caudilla goes on to talk to each man about why he is in prison, telling all of them to look themselves in the mirror before they decide to do the same thing as him (Youtube, 2016). Please see Appendix 2.

This case study shows evidence of realism, a personalised experience and technology.

DOE’s 2014 Picnic, was regarded as being so shocking that it wasn’t allowed to be shown on television until after 9PM (Daily Mail, 2014). Some considered it bizarre and horrific to watch, due to the amount of children killed. Despite its message to drivers, telling them that 28 young children’s lives have been lost due to speeding in Ireland from the year 2000 (Independent, 2014).

Nevertheless, the advert is so extreme that many mocked it so much that it was used as a comedy sketch on Russell Howard: Good News in 2014 due to the extremeness of the advert. Even having Howard making the joke during his sketch when looking over the advert ‘That doesn’t stop dangerous driving, it just freaks kids out about school trips’ (RYSE Up Eagle, 2017).

The We Save Live’s advert, has been shared over 200 million times on social media internationally (We Save Lives, 2017). Leaving many viewers and the men who walked into the bathroom in disbelief of what they heard. This is helped through the use of the first point: personalised experience, as Caudilla spoke to the men on the video using different conversations to get across drink driving, leaving many of the men shocked with the reality of what could happen. This follows the same tactic of my second point, realism. However, all of this was only possible due to the use of the fourth point of technology, referring to the cameras and screen placed in the bathroom.

Chapter 3: Case Studies – Anti-Smoking

NHS: Get UnHooked (2007)

A series of posters and billboards of individuals of different ages, genders and race being pulled away by a hook attached to their top lip. There are several versions of the advert: One of a man being dragged away by a hook in his mouth along the floor and walls of his office, until he’s finally outside and able to have a cigarette. The second advert shows a mother in her home ironing before she too is dragged away by the hook into her back garden to smoke whilst looking ashamed of herself as her daughter looks on (The Inspiration Room, 2007). Please see Appendix 4.

NHS: I Wanna Be Like You (2008)

A series of different children mimicking their parents during their daily activities, such as pushing a baby pram like their mother down the street and folding their legs on the sofa after their father does it whilst watching television. All of this taking place while Jungle Book’s Song ‘I wanna be like you’, plays in the background in timing with the children’s actions. Until the music suddenly stops as it shows a mother smoking in her back garden, as her child watches and mimics the actions but with a pencil (Youtube, 2013). Please see Appendix 5.

This case study will be evidence of the use of sound, realism and stimulating emotions.

The approach with the ‘Get Unhooked’ campaign solely focused on the use of extreme imagery to shock the viewer. The campaign hit the news but not with good reason, as they received over 774 complaints over the imagery due to children finding it frightening and disturbing (BBC, 2007). Even the ASA (Advertising Standard Authority) banned the campaign arguing it was ‘untargeted’ (BBC, 2007), meaning it affected the wrong audience.

In newspaper article by Chris Owen discussing smoke campaigns, he spoke to a former smoke addict who stated:

Anti-smoking ads which bombard people with disgusting images will make people switch off their brains. The only way in is through the heart (Telegraph, 2015).

This is clearly the route that Smokefree used for their ‘I wanna be like you’ Campaign which uses my second point of realism and uses Jarvis’ point, regarding people changing their behaviour or habits to help benefit their children.

This is even more evident with the campaign’s tagline ‘Don’t keep it in the family’ which is based on the evidence produced by DoH that showed that children who lived in a household of smokers were three times more likely to become smokers as well (Guardian, 2008).

This campaign uses my sixth point, by providing audience with some laughter and fun by showing children copying their parents whilst the song ‘I wanna be like you’ plays in time with their actions. The use of humour intrigues people until it suddenly changes into the serious topic of smoking and the reality of children copying their parent’s. The use of the song also associates itself to my first point regarding using sound, to capture viewer’s attention which is believed to be more effective now in comparison to adverts that focus on just visuals.

Chapter 4: Case Studies – Awareness

Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics: #SpyCops (2018)

They used window displays and social posts showing two halves of a man, one in casual wear and the other in a police uniform with the headline ‘Paid to Lie’. The advert starts in the home of a couple, showing hints through protest posters. Moving onto the couple laughing as they have dinner before it transitions to an integration room and the man now in a police uniform. The woman is confused as the man acts as though he doesn’t know her, moving in on the woman’s face stating that the police have crossed the line of duty (Twitter, 2018). Please see Appendix 5.

UK and Ireland Stop it Now!: The Knock (2018)

It shows a series of men in their homes or at work reacting startled to noises that could be associated with a knock at the door. Until it reveals the same man from the beginning with his wife with another knock at the door, but this time with the room flashing in blue revealing that it’s the police. The wife looks at the man in disbelief as the advert goes onto explains that the men were in fear of the knock from viewing inappropriate images of children and explaining that those who are still in fear of the knock can be helped before it’s too late (Stop It Now, 2018). Please see Appendix 6.

This case study will be evidence of realism, not alienating and stimulating emotions.

Lush is known for their stance on animal cruelty. This is why it came as a surprise in their recent campaign about the police. The slogan, ‘paid to lie’ caused uproar all over social media, stating that all Police Officers were liars. Of course, Police Officers as well as members of the public were offended by the accusation (Metro, 2018).

The campaign focused on scandals from 1968 to 2008 where undercover Police Officers had intimate relationships with activists, in order to infiltrate political groups (Metro, 2018). However, viewers still found the slogan, unjustified and unfair.

Merilyn Davies, a wife of a police officer stated about their daughter ‘How would she feel going into a Lush shop to see her dad branded a liar?’ (Metro, 2018). Which goes against my fifth point of not alienating, resulting in many boycotting the brand and starting the hashtag, #BoycottLUSH (Twitter, 2018).

Stop It Now! took a subtle but realistic approach with an astonishing reveal at the end of ‘The Knock’. Taking on a realistic approach of men in fear at the sound of a knock at the door whether or not it was. Though the men are suspicious of something, the viewer is never sure until one of the men comes face to face with the police. There is no need to use extreme imagery, just seeing his wife’s face is enough to make it unforgettable.

This was inspired by an interview the Stop Now! Charity did with sex offenders in their previous campaign video, saying ‘I always thought that one day there would be that knock on the door and it did’ (Youtube, 2015).

This relates to my sixth point: Stimulate emotions other than outrage. As stated in an article by Angus Crawford for the BBC regarding the charities approach to help those who look at underage sexual images, they wish for people to feel ‘Shame, guilt and remorse’ which a convicted sex offender had said in the article (BBC, 2015).

Unlike Lush’s advert, they do not alienate anyone in its advert showing three men, who are all completely different in race, age and background; showing that anyone could be looking at these types of images who need help. Since this advert, there has been a 40% increase of people seeking out help to stop looking at sexual images of children, with 2,251 calls regarding themselves, their partners or friends (IWF, 2018)


After analysing these case studies, it made me more aware of the advertising industry and why shocking imagery was once a valid method within advertising and may still be. Shown through adverts such as ‘I wanna be like you’ with a child pretending to smoke a cigarette, which is even considered by some as extreme and offensive. As I stated in my second point, it needs to be more realistic for people to truly understand the effect these things can have on their loved ones.

I also discovered that Advertisers need to strive towards originality and a psychological route. Through approaching this subject we have been able to learn that people react well to music and imagery, working alongside one another to enhance the emotions of the viewer other than to evoke disgust, means it more likely to be remembered and actually influence their belief and decisions (Hubspot, 2017). This is why it would be necessary to bring in Psychologists to help produce a successful shock advertisement, as they would be able to provide us with the information they believe shock the human mind and use it in practice within our campaigns as we can no longer rely on extreme imagery like the 1980’s (The Afropolitan, 2015).

As for my point regarding the use of technology and digital advertising, it would also mean bringing Developers or Product Designers into the projects. This would allow advertising to spread to a wider audience and also mean a more personalised experience for the viewer, making it more memorable for them, similar to the ‘Reflections From Inside’ advert.

My ambition to work as a Graphic Designer with the aspiration to gain experience in the branding and advertising industry, there may come a time where I will work on projects that require using shock tactics. I will be able to look back at this research and see the theories that I created to produce a successful shock advertisement. I can also provide my findings to other Designers in the industry, so they are also aware of the disadvantages in traditional shock tactics and what we need to do to prevent it being misused.

A lesson I took from this study focuses on the sixth point I produced and amended through the research and case studies. Not only will this study influence my future as a Graphic Designer but it has already come into use in my University work, shown in my visual communication module where I needed to recreate a campaign that was unsuccessful. I decided to focus on Dogs Trust and use shock tactics which isn’t often associated with this particular charity. Though it uses imagery it makes use of stimulating emotions other than outrage (my sixth point), I shocked my audience through laughter.

I am aware that if my points become acknowledged by the advertising industry and are used, there will come a day when they won’t be as effective like the traditional tactics are currently. This will be due to them being overused and will result in desensitisation in the audience or they will become too familiarised to it. Which is why we need to continue to study and research into the human mind and what is necessary to shock the next generation of viewers.


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