Shock Marketing Campaigns: Good or Bad Idea?

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A little boy screaming with a clear plastic bag pulled over his head. A little girl pushing a canary through a meat grinder. A man with multiple bloody knives stabbed through the middle of his chest. While this may all sound like a parade of horror, it’s just another day in the world of shock marketing.

Also called shock advertising, shockvertising, and sometimes shock and awe marketing, shock marketing involves shocking the audience into paying attention to what your brand or organization has to say.

It does this by stirring up emotions through different types of shock, such as:

  • Impropriety
  • Moral offensiveness
  • Sexual references
  • Disgusting images
  • Religious taboos

Why You Want It (or Not)

You’d think no one would really want to be associated with things like canaries in meat grinders, but the Caribu Bitter chocolate company seemed to have no problem with it.

They used it as a way to emphasize their product’s bittersweet flavor that’s meant for adults only, even following it up with an ad depicting a girl about to imbibe in a spoonful of poison.

Caribu Bitter ads have also become one of the prime examples of shock marketing kicking around the internet, bringing notoriety to a Peruvian candy company that no one may have otherwise knew existed.

Yes, getting people to pay attention to you amidst the massive noise is the main aim of shock marketing. While you’re getting that attention, your shockvertisement may then strive to:

  • Bring awareness to specific issues: World Wildlife Fund (WWF) campaigns against pollution
  • Change people’s perceptions or behaviors: Government public service announcements warning not to drink and drive
  • Gather donations or support for a cause: The ASPCA’s campaigns against animal cruelty and abuse
  • Sell, sell, sell: The bloody knives stuck in a man’s chest to illustrate the sharpness and durability of Saber knives

It’s OK if the goals overlap, as long as you have a goal in the first place. And no, going viral doesn’t count as a goal.

Even if your shock marketing campaign is memorable and brings attention to your brand, it may not bring the kind of attention you want. And even with positive attention, there’s no guarantee it will increase sales.

In fact, one of the pioneers of shock marketing actually called it quits in the shock zone. Known for being one of the first to try shock advertising back in the 1980s, fashion brand Benetton found the increase in brand awareness did not help sales.

So they pulled the plug and are instead focusing on building a stronger brand identity, one that highlights their clothes. What a concept!

Shock Marketing Examples  

While we’re not going to subject you to the shock marketing images mentioned in the intro (you’re welcome!), we are going to give you a few examples of shockvertising in action.

You can judge for yourself if the campaigns are effective, offensive – or perhaps both.

Masterlock (South Africa)

Hippies tied to a tree with chain and Masterlock padlock. Years later, they’re still there

Image from: BusinessInsider

Family Network Foundation (Thailand)

The ad speaks out against neglecting older parents: “Don’t make your parents jealous of your other loved ones.”

Image from: BusinessInsider

World Wildlife Fund (U.K.)

Anti-pollution campaign to raise awareness of waste that ends up in rivers, polluting the waters. “A single tin of paint can pollute millions of litres of water.”

Image from: Sookio

German Olympic Sport Federation (Germany)

Image from: BusinessInsider

An overweight statue of David takes on the role of sending the message to stay active: “If you don’t move, you get fat.”

Pancreatic Cancer Action (U.K.)

Image from: Sookio

Emphasizing importance of early diagnosis: “Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of all 22 common cancers.”

Just Liquid Hand Wash (Switzerland)

Just may be just trying to ensure you wash up regularly, especially if you’re about to touch a baby: “If you aren’t totally clean, you are filthy.”

Image from: Mondovo

Is Shock Marketing Still Effective?

For shock marketing to be effective, the audience needs to remember the brand as well as the message. Even if you had notable reaction to any of the examples, you want to keep a few things in mind:

  • You’re seeing the campaigns highlighted in an article discussing them, not as fleeting images amidst a sea of content vying for your attention
  • Your reaction may not be one intended by the company or organization behind the ad
  • You may not remember the brand or the message by the end of the day (or sooner)
  • Your reaction may not prompt you to take the intended action; it may actually prompt the opposite (like a boycott of a soap brand that combines roaches with babies)

You also need to keep your target audience in mind. Different generations have different values, as well as different levels of shock resistance. This particularly holds true when it comes to millennials.

The study “Shock Advertising: Not So Shocking Anymore,” looked at shock marketing in relation to millennials and found that it has become both ineffective and obsolete.

Campaigns are considered obsolete and ineffective if they do not:

  • Break through all the clutter
  • Violate societal norms
  • Reach the consumer or leave a lasting impression

The study noted several reasons why shock campaigns are now falling flat:

  • Offensiveness or shock value is too low
  • Controversial ads wear out with repetition, even when they’re for different brands or products
  • Easier for consumers to ignore the ads, they’re already familiar with the issues
  • People are already used to high levels of violence, sex and shock from movies and TV
  • Consumer norms have changed and ads no longer violate them
  • Shock often seen as a gimmick to simply gain attention for the brand
  • Shockvertising had been done to death by the 1980s
  • Consumers suffer from “shock fatigue;” they’ve seen it all before

What to Consider Before You Give It a Go

If you still want to give shock marketing a try, put some deep thought into it first. Make sure it’s something that is apt to benefit instead of damage your brand.

  • Determine your goals
  • Do your research on controversial topics your brand may have tackled in the past, and the reaction you received
  • Your. Audience.
  • Explore how the campaign could be misinterpreted and the potential consequences of that misinterpretation
  • Run your ideas by many – family and friends included – to get feedback from a wide range of people
  • Weigh it out: Is the risk worth the potential rewards?

As consumers become savvier to marketing gimmicks and tricks, shock marketing and similar tactics are likely to continue their plunge into the depths of ineffectiveness. That doesn’t mean a well-planned, well-played shock campaign can’t work. It just means you’ll have to work harder to come up with something that does.

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