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Shock Advertising: What it is & How it Works

Feb 16, 2024

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It’s no secret that we see many ads on a daily basis. So, standing out has become increasingly challenging for brands.

But there’s one strategy that has proven both effective (and controversial), and it is a technique called shock advertising.

It’s an approach that’s designed to grab attention by startling, provoking, or offending the target audience and has become a significant part of modern marketing practices, especially on platforms like social media.


Understanding Shock Advertising

Shock advertising (also known as outrage marketing) essentially involves creating any kind of ad material that evokes strong emotions (such as surprise, anger, or even disgust sometimes) to make a lasting impression on that audience.

So, what this can look like is ads that touch on topics we tend to turn a blind eye to, graphic images, or raise awareness on sensitive issues to jolt the audience and engage them.

The primary goal here is not just to be seen but to be remembered, even if it’s classed as offensive advertising. These kinds of ads want to spark conversations and, ideally, lead to increased brand recognition and sales.


How Shock Advertising Works

As we’ve grown accustomed to seeing so many ads from all angles, we’ve become desensitised to them. Shock advertisements stand out by using surprise to grab our attention – and sometimes, it’s whether we like it or not!

Shocking ads can quite literally pause our scrolling on social media, make us not look away (even if we want to) during a TV ad or make someone stop and pay attention to a digital billboard. So, what it’s doing is using basic human psychology to its advantage.

For example, there’s a concept called the Von Restorff effect, which means that we tend to remember things that stand out from the rest. When ads shock us by being very different from what we usually see, they stick in our minds more effectively.

Social Platforms and Practices

Social media is such a big part of our lives nowadays, and it’s turned into a thriving space for bold and surprising forms of shock ads.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok give companies an amazing opportunity to connect with a wide audience and pinpoint specific groups of people with their messages. But, using these platforms to post shocking content means following their rules and knowing what people think is okay or not okay to post. So, there is a limit to what can be done.

Examples of  Shock Advertising

Several campaigns have successfully used shock advertising to great effect.

PETA, an animal rights charity, is a perfect example of an organisation that uses both its offline platform and social platforms for shocking ad campaigns. It aims to grab the public’s attention by highlighting the often harsh reality and cruelty faced by animals.

Through this bold and controversial advertising content, PETA (successfully) provokes thought and conversation about animal rights and welfare, pushing for changes in how animals are treated in various industries. Their approach is designed to make people think twice about their choices and the impact those choices have on animals’ lives.

Another example is Thursday (not the day, the dating app!). They staged a publicity stunt where men were seen across London holding signs admitting to cheating as a form of punishment. This wasn’t true, of course; the men were just in on it.

The signs, designed in the app’s branding style, said: “I cheated on my girlfriend on Thursday, and this is my punishment.” This creative yet controversial campaign aimed to grab public attention and was linked to the app due to the style of the letter ‘y’ in Thursday, matching the app’s logo.

Pictures of the guys taking part in the ad campaign went viral across social media. There are some pretty big and established names in the online dating sector, so this level of brand awareness was a great outcome for them – even if it was through shock advertising tactics.


Advantages of Shock Advertisement Strategies

The benefits of shock advertising (if they work) can be really significant.

So, when we talk about shock advertising and why it might be a good idea (when it’s done right, of course), there are some big wins to consider.

First off, shock ads are much more noticeable and memorable. From a brand recognition perspective, there’s no two ways about it – even though it’s a risk, this kind of ad grabs your attention way better than normal ads do.

Next, they get people talking, which is the whole aim of shock ads. The more people talk about the ad, the more attention it gets, spreading via word of mouth far and wide without any additional marketing costs.

And lastly, when these ads hit the mark just right, they can make you feel something strong. This can make the brand stick in your mind. In fact, you might even start feeling a bit of loyalty to the brand because it made you feel something that really resonates with you.

At the end of the day, advertising is all about creating a lasting impression that could make you choose that brand over others in the future. So, sometimes, shock advertising can be a game-changer by making sure you see and remember the ad – getting everyone talking about it, and building a real emotional tie with that audience.


The Risks of a Shock Advertising Strategy

Although shock adverts have the potential to be incredibly effective, putting them out there doesn’t come without its risks.

Depending on the actual ad itself, there’s the potential there to offend the target audience. This can lead to backlash, negative press, and even to your audience cancelling you. So, if the public perceives the ad as exploiting sensitive issues for commercial gain, it can damage the brand’s reputation long-term.

The line between shocking and distasteful is thin, and crossing it can have severe consequences for a brand. So, it goes without saying – but shock adverts need to be very well thought out to minimise this risk.


Are Shock Advertisements Ethical?

The question of whether shock ads are okay to use as part of a wider strategy isn’t easy to answer. It really depends. Some shock ads are made with good intentions (e.g., anti-smoking ads), such as raising awareness for a cause, and others are just trying to get more attention, even if they have a negative impact.

Some also believe that shock ads are not a good idea because they can take advantage of serious problems or people who are already having a tough time, to promote something. There’s also an argument that shock advertising creates the opposite effect – known as shock fatigue. This is when an audience becomes desensitised to a certain topic.

When companies think about using shock ads, they really do have to carefully consider if they’re doing more good than harm. They need to make sure their ads help people talk about important topics in a helpful way and don’t end up upsetting or harming the people they’re trying to reach.


Best Practices for Effective Shock Advertising

As a general rule of thumb, when using shock advertising, it’s smarter to stick to a few key rules to make sure it works well and doesn’t upset anyone.

Firstly, make sure the shocking part actually has something to do with what you’re selling or talking about. If it’s just random and doesn’t connect to your brand, people might not like it.

Then, think about how your ad will make people feel, not just your target audience but everyone who might see it. You don’t want to make an ad that’s going to upset or harm someone.

Lastly, if you’re dealing with touchy subjects, be really careful and respectful. The goal should be to get people thinking and wanting to make a change, not just to shock them for no reason. Keep these things in mind, and your shock ads can grab attention in a good way.

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