Shock Advertising: Is It Right For Your Business?

A few days ago, Equinox released a print ad with publishing heiress Lydia Hearst. So what’s the big deal? Well, in the ad she was breastfeeding two babies in a restaurant.

A fancy restaurant!

In my country, a breastfeeding mother will not receive any flak feeding her child in a bus, waiting room, mall, or restaurant. It’s a non-issue!

But this ad was released in the US, not Kenya. The minute I saw this ad, I knew there would be trouble.

And I was right. While some people maintain that breastfeeding in public is natural and should not be sexualized, others believe that it’s inappropriate, gross, and should be relegated to the house (or a bathroom stall). That’s an equal dose of praise and bashing!

Equinox breastfeeding ad

But why would Equinox wade into such a divisive topic? Why would a fitness brand deliberately cause uproar over an off-topic subject? Have their sales skyrocketed?

Whether or not this ad means more sales for Equinox is not the point. The fact is that the brand’s exposure has exploded. We’re talking about them, aren’t we?

Shock advertising (shockvertising) has placed huge brands in the spotlight, but questions remain about its usefulness to small ventures.

Is shockvertising what you need to distinguish yourself from the 10,000 other startups out there? Should you build your brand on controversy? Let’s answer that below.


What is Shockvertising?

Let’s backpedal a little bit. What exactly is shockvertising? Shock advertising, fondly known as shockvertising, is a style of advertising that aims to offend, jolt, and upset consumers.

Why the hell would anyone want to do that?

Well, the purpose of shockvertising is to garner attention for a particular product, brand, or organization. In a world saturated with ads in and out of the home, brands need to make themselves known.

By depicting blood, gore, suffering, misery, sex, religious taboos, and profanity that will upset your values and moral ideals, the hope is that you’ll be scarred into remembering and deliberating on the product being sold or the cause being promoted.

Shockvertising is controversial and it’s pretty rebellious; no wonder everyone from PETA and Body Shop to FCUK and Diesel is using it.

And let’s not forget Benetton; we can thank them for starting all of this. They’ve run shock ads with activist David Kirby dying of AIDS, a nun kissing a priest, a duck covered in crude oil, a black woman breastfeeding a white child, and death row inmates sharing their thoughts on capital punishment.
Benetton AIDS ad


How Can I Shock Some of My Customers?

Well, you little rebel. You can shock your customers by creating a disturbing ad that offends and explicitly violates their political, social, cultural, and religious views.

And just to make sure you’re doing it right, you need to make sure your ad goes against the norm, otherwise you’ll be considered boring.

Here are the main types of shock ads that you will encounter:

1. Ads that pay no attention to traditional practices, moral codes, or societal norms.
In other words, this ad contains vulgar and salacious messages, pornographic images, depictions of brutality, and/or obscene references. It might also include fear-based messages that aim to scare customers into taking action.

This ad will efficiently horrify your customer and cause them to pinch their face in disgust. They will shield their own eyes, their child’s eyes, their mother’s eyes, and even the pup.

Superette ad


2. Ads that involve products and services that we’d rather not talk about.
It’s amazing that in this day and age where everyone heralds themselves as ‘progressive’; there are still many issues that we will not discuss in public.

These issues include feminine hygiene, contraceptives, bodily waste, and stop blushing!!

Ads that present these issues might not contain explicit messages and images, but the fact that they are discussing hushed up topics is enough to consider them shockvertising.


3. Ads that revolve around divisive topics
Discussions generated by divisive topics create 2 main camps of people; people who applaud the daring initiative, and people who get extremely offended by the topic.

These topics include race, religion, gender identity, sexual activity, breastfeeding, immigration, sexual health, abortion, death, weight loss, gambling, and guns.

Any ad that addresses these topics will be considered shocking and offensive to one camp of people. If you want to advertise a funeral home, you will be accused of glamorizing death. If you want to advertise casinos, you will be accused of promoting a vice.

You will not please everyone with this type of ad!
Pony ad


Will Shocking My Customers Work?

If you want to go forward with shocking your customer, you should have the comfort of knowing that you will witness positive results. So do shock ads work? Can you effectively provoke a positive reaction from a negative ad?

Studies show that shockvertising has a profound effect on audiences. Negative depictions can evoke strong emotions among your customer base, including fear and revelation.

In fact, a well-done shock ad is more powerful than an informational or fear-based ad, and it will act as a wake-up call to your customer.

Car accident ad

During the holidays, several highways in or around Nairobi mount the mangled remains of cars involved in fatal road accidents. The aim is to prevent drunk driving by showing people the most severe result of their reckless actions.

Many countries have also reported a drop in the number of smokers when cigarette packages depict scarred lungs in graphic detail.

It therefore goes that taking a highly debated topic, and using it to further your brand is effective. However, we also live in a day and age where violence, sex, and profanity is broadcast without censor on TV and the internet.

Video games have people killing each other, cartoons have jokes with sexual undertones, music lyrics are packed with cuss words, and erotic material finds itself on the first page of respectable news outlets. It’s safe to say that most of us are immune to shock.


Is Shock Advertising For You?

If you want to determine whether shock ads are the way to bring attention to your startup venture, read these pros and cons.



1. Allows you to bring awareness to serious social issues

There are countless issues plaguing our society.

Thousands of teenagers are dying each day in car accidents, millions of adults have STDs, millions of children face starvation, girls are dropping out of school due to early pregnancy, war and drugs are claiming young lives, women and children are dying each day because of abuse, men and women are being killed because of their race or tribe, our planet is dying because of pollution, and ISIS.

Flowery ads cannot put these messages across successfully.

A shock ad is the only way to let people know how bad a human rights or environmental issue is.

You can therefore use shockvertising to bring awareness to an issue close to your heart, while simultaneously taking a stand on that issue.
crisis relief ad

2. Allows you to create social dialog

Furthermore, you can use shockvertising to generate dialog around a particular issue.

How many times have you heard of a pressing problem, such as large corporations dumping waste in poor countries?

You probably reacted by saying ‘how sad’, and then spent half the day walking around upset. But what about the next day? With the problem at the back of your mind, you continued as normal.

The problem here is that you were not motivated into speaking up and spreading the word (whatever your position on the subject is). You were not shocked enough into taking action. You did not boycott the company, or write an angry letter threatening the company’s executives, or ask your government to intervene.

Shock ads have the ability to light a fire under you and cause you to take action.

20+ years ago, there was a campaign in the US to regulate dietary supplements and vitamins that had been proven to have adverse health effects. The Pro-vitamin industry released a shock ad starring Mel Gibson, where he scared people into believing that the government was going to kick down their doors and grab Vitamin C right out of their palms.

These unregulated vitamins had killed people, but that shock ad caused millions of letters to pour in demanding that the government keep their hands off vitamins.

More people wrote into congress about the supplement bill than about the Vietnam War. And what was the result? Killer vitamins remained on the market!

A powerful shock ad has the ability to cause your audience to act.


3. Allows you to generate attraction for your brand, and increase recollection and recognition

Research has shown that shock ads attract the attention of your customers, and boosts their memory of your brand.

Simply put; if you see a shock ad, you’ll remember the content and the brand for a long time to come. Furthermore, shock ads influence consumer behavior positively, and buying habits may increase following the ad.
ELF Super HDB Turno ad

4. Allows you to increase your reach

Controversy spreads like wildfire, and the internet is like fuel to this fire. Once your shock ad starts creating buzz, it will flood social media platforms and news outlets with impressive force.

This increases your reach and allows you to directly market to your target customer.



1. Brings up ethical questions

Many shock advertisements are considered tasteless and exploitative. While you may be trying to bring awareness to an important social or political issue, the presence of your logo on the ad characterizes it as a commercial message.

You therefore seem like you are exploiting key issues for monetary benefit.

This is a problem. There are several ethical questions raised by shockvertising, and these include:

  •  What is role of advertising? And what restrictions should its content have (if any)?
  • Should businesses appropriate important issues in an effort to sell their products and services?
  • Do shock ads fetishize images of human misery?

Kennedy assasination ad

2. Shockvertising often goes wrong

Have you ever seen an ad and wondered which idiot approved it? Shockvertising can easily go wrong, and you can quickly become the idiot that approved a horrible idea.

In an attempt to provoke your audience to act, you might create an ad that is crass and too shocking for the public. If you don’t believe me, ask shockvertising architect Oliviero Toscani. The Italian photographer left Benetton after 18 years, due to the backlash regarding his controversial campaigns.

Shockvertising does go wrong, and you don’t want to see your brand trashed because of a risky marketing ploy.

WWF Brasil ad


3. You may alienate your customers

As I mentioned earlier, millennials have been raised on a steady diet of violence, profanity, and sex. As a millennial, it is very tough to shock me or offend me for that matter. However, my parent’s and grandparent’s generation is a different situation altogether.

There is a high chance that older audiences will take offense with crass and crude messages, in turn creating a negative perception of your brand. If an older audience is your target market, then you’ll fair better if you stay away from shockvertising.
Dolce and Gabana ad


4. Shockvertising may not be effective in the long-term

Shock advertising will increase your brand exposure in the short-term, but its long-term effects are not known. If you are playing the long game, you should use marketing stunts that pay off in the long term.


Isn’t all advertising manipulative?

Here’s how the average ad works:

Person has a problem> Person is distressed> Person comes across product/service> Product/service is the solution to problem> Person is happy

Advertisements are meant to press on your pain point, and then present a certain product or service as the solution to that pain point. The product or service in the ad has the ability to supernaturally transform your sorrows into pleasure. This is unrealistic and this is manipulative.

Shock advertising does the opposite. It portrays the world at its worst. It goes against the norm and lays everything out with no sugar coating.

Is it therefore fair for us to call shockvertising unethical, tasteless, and exploitative?
UN Women ad



You need to ask yourself whether you want to be seen as offensive and distasteful, or risk not being seen at all.

Don’t create a shock ad for the sake of it; go forward with it if there’s a chance for favorable feedback. Just remember that as a startup, you don’t have the same freedom as large companies like Benetton. Perhaps consider going with humor rather than brutality and obscenity.

Whatever your choice, I wish you the best of luck.

If you found this helpful, I urge you to share this with your contact list and drop me a comment letting me know where you stand on shock advertising. Also remember to sign up to the blog newsletter; I keep it PG, I promise!

I hope you have a great week, and I’ll see you back here next week.

6 thoughts on “Shock Advertising: Is It Right For Your Business?

  1. This is a well thought-out piece on shock advertising. And you said it well – most of the time these go wrong. Personally, I can’t see myself ever taking the risk with this type of advertising!


  2. Davina, this is a very thought provoking post. I guess that I am just to old fashioned to use this type of advertising. My guess is that you will get a polarized response to it. Is it right or wrong? To me, it is just a matter of opinion.


  3. As always Davina, a well thought out and well written article. Shockvertising can and does work but rarely, but then the people who use it invariably believe that all publicity is good publicity


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