Shockvertising, or how to effectively use shock in advertising?

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Marketing is a wide field for psychologists - both those who only want to research and describe certain phenomena, and those who are actively involved in creating promotional materials. As you know, an advertising message has informative and emotional components. In today's article, we're going to tackle the very specific emotion of shock - specifically why shockvertising is so readily exploited by commercial, public, and non-profit actors alike.

Shockvertising - what is its function?

If you live the typical life of an average Pole, you see several hundred - if not several thousand - advertising messages a day. They attack you on the street, at work, in offices, at the doctor's, on the bus, subway and trams. You turn on your favorite online news service, and here the browser freezes, overloaded with a large-format advertising in the form of a clip. In the e-mail inbox - just like in the traditional one - several junk messages a day. It's hardly surprising that you have developed a defense mechanism - because if you paid attention to every single ad, you would definitely go crazy. And since each action generates a reaction, marketers compete in creating more and more intriguing promotional forms that, like a battering ram, can break your inner wall of indifference. And this is how shockvertising was created, involving the use of controversial and shocking content - violence, sex, iconoclastic naturalism or breaking social norms and violating taboos.

There has long been a dispute among psychologists and marketers about the power of shockvertising. Some point to the great effectiveness of the shock - hardly anyone will be indifferent to the unusual message containing this type of content. The spiral of interest is driven by the media that love sensation, i.e. everything that evokes extreme emotions. Analysts skeptical about shockvertising indicate that it is extremely difficult to maintain the right balance when creating such a message: a small amount of controversial content will not draw anyone's attention, too high - it can discourage the recipient. The latter is due to a natural psychological mechanism. Content that causes discomfort, cognitive dissonance, may be replaced by the person "attacked" by the message. It is not certain that a smoker who sees a picture of tar-damaged lungs will decide to quit smoking quickly. This brutal and direct image can be erased from his memory because it causes discomfort and is too difficult for the psyche to digest. So the conclusion is that effective shockvertising must simply be skillfully balanced.

Social campaigns and shockvertising

Shockvertising usually occurs in social campaigns. It is no wonder that various state institutions, foundations and non-profit organizations reach for drastic measures, since human health or even life is at stake. Such activities are about drawing attention to a problem, sensitizing it to it, and changing general attitudes and behavior.A poster dryly instructing the public about the dangers of smoking will be lost among thousands of other messages. It is different if you reach for shockvertising in the form of disturbing images or… black humor. As in the anti-smoking ad directed at African Americans, which featured a member of the Ku Kux Klan and the caption: "There''s nothing more satisfying than seeing a nigger smoke", meaning "There is nothing more satisfying than looking at a> nigger smoking <".

Controversial humor was also found in another model example of shockvertising - in the campaign "Meth - not even once", which aimed to introduce young people to the dangers of taking methamphetamine. The posters and videos show degrading behavior - such as prostitution or robbing old people - which, as the campaign slogan said, is normal at the finish line (meth). The campaign dazzled with violence and shocking images, effectively deterring young people (as shown by the statistics) from this dangerous drug. Colloquially speaking - young people "got in the face" with a drastic message, thanks to which the awareness of the harmfulness of the drug, popular in some circles, has increased. Methamphetamine ceased to be "cool", it began to be associated with giving to strangers for a few dollars and extremely damaged faces of addicts (the power of authentic "before and after" photos!).

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Shockvertising in Benetton commercials

In many opinions of experts, the prevailing view is that shockvertising can only promote a specific product (and in the case of social campaigns - a specific idea, problem), and it is impossible to advertise the entire brand in this way. The case of Benetton, a global clothing manufacturer, puts the lie to this statement. World fame was brought by her extremely bold promotional campaigns, which drew handfuls from the concept of social advertising. The topics covered in them include:

  • ethics (or lack thereof) of the death penalty - photos of American convicts awaiting execution;
  • racism and diversity of the world - a black woman breastfeeding a white child, photos of smiling babies from around the world;
  • celibacy and sexuality - priest and nun in a passionate kiss;
  • AIDS - a photo of a family by their bedside dying of this terrible disease and a photo of a newborn baby connected by an umbilical cord to his mother with HIV;
  • the sense of waging wars - a poster with the bloody clothing of a fallen Serbian soldier.

The most shocking thing about these ads was the authenticity - all the photos showed real people, not hired actors or models. What's more, most materials do not look for the brand's clothes, usually only its logo is visible. Such shockingly bold behavior resulted from research conducted by the corporation, which showed that:

  • having an extremely wide range, it is not worth promoting specific products, it is better to focus on publicity for the brand,
  • operating all over the world (120 countries), it is not profitable to create separate campaigns for each country, it is better to focus on strategies aimed at one cultural circle, i.e. Western civilization and the values ​​associated with it,
  • The brand's target (young women) highlights its social commitment and values. (This observation was very timely in the 1980s and 1990s, but today it seems otherwise, given how well companies using the slave labor of people from third world countries are doing.)

That is why Benetton marketers focused on shockvertising - not only devastating with violence and taboo content, but also touching extremely current social topics that require extensive discussion. The brand took a clear position, showing its sensitivity and commitment to humane, universal values ​​- such as life, tolerance and love. The publicity gained through stormy discussions in the press and numerous legal repercussions (including publication bans) brought the corporation benefits that cannot be overestimated. The purchase of clothes from the Benetton offer has almost become a demonstration of support for the company's pro-social views and activities.

Legal Consequences and Shockvertising

The use of shockvertising may have legal consequences - a conscious violation of social norms or taboos usually results in protests, boycotts or lawsuits. Reasonable company management always considers potential repercussions, including these in the cost of the campaign being run. It is not only about financial losses resulting from penalties imposed by courts or regulatory institutions, but also about discouraging certain social groups. Is shockvertising not worth it then? Not at all.

Take, for example, a brand that targets young people. As you know, youth is a period of rebellion against existing norms and traditions, which can be seen in the attitude towards religion and the institutional church. Therefore, shockvertising aimed at what hypersensitive people call "religious insult" can attract young people's attention - and make them feel positive about the brand. The cost of the campaign will probably be the confrontation with the incoming lawsuits from various institutions, self-proclaimed defenders of the faith, and even individual fighters for morality in the public space. Entire groups of consumers for whom religion is an inviolable taboo will turn their backs on the company. If shockvertising exceeds the unclear boundaries of legality, everything could end in a publication ban. But the word will go out into the world - the young people will have time to see the advertisement. Repression from an outraged society can only strengthen brand identification. Yes, it may sound shocking - but that's how it works.