The Flops and Successes of Shock Advertising - Brandpoint Blog Image

The Flops and Successes of Shock Advertising

Shock advertising (also known as “shockvertising”) uses taboo subjects and societal issues that we typically ignore to intentionally attract widespread attention and trigger a strong reaction. The result is a buzzworthy ad that generates more memorable brand awareness.

Take the infamous ASPCA commercial, for example. You know the one. A slideshow of sad-looking puppies and kittens (some with deformities) slowly plays while Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” plays in the background.

Shock advertising can be controversial, crass or in the case of the ASPCA commercials, disturbing. Not surprisingly, shockvertising can be wildly successful or backfire horribly, and any organization or company that uses these marketing tactics risks their brand’s reputation. Especially in the digital age, when content can become viral extremely fast on social media, shock advertising campaigns must be well thought out and executed.

In this post, we look at a few shocking examples that failed and those that succeeded, and three questions to ask before executing a shock advertising campaign.

ASPCA ad - shock advertising example
ACPCA’s commercial featuring Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel”

When does shock advertising fail?

Shock advertising can negatively impact a company when the material is seen as too disturbing or offensive.

In 2017, Pepsi partnered with celebrity Kendall Jenner, who was featured in a video advertisement participating in a protest. The issue they were protesting was unclear, and the situation was depicted as more of a party — Jenner enjoyed a Pepsi, high-fived other protesters, was surrounded by break dancers, and at the end of the video, she gave a can of Pepsi to a police officer as a woman wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf took their photo. Then, everyone cheered!

Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner - shock advertising example
Kendall Jenner in a failed Pespi commercial

DeRay Mckesson, civil rights activist and founder of Campaign Zero, told NBC News that, “This ad trivializes the urgency of the issue and it diminishes the seriousness and the gravity of why we got into the street in the first place.”

NBC News also stated that, “The ad sparked accusations that Pepsi has appropriated a racial protest movement to sell a global fizzy drinks brand.”

This is a warning to other brands to think about how their product relates to the social issues on which they comment. How can you use your brand or product to take a meaningful stance on an issue that makes sense and accurately communicates the severity of the issue?

Going viral doesn’t always generate results

Global fashion brand Benetton has a reputation for their shock advertising (they are considered one of the first that dared try it), commenting on topics from AIDS and the Gulf War, to launching a campaign that featured global leaders kissing (which got them in trouble with the Pope — the POPE!).

While their campaigns were surely memorable and sometimes applauded, the increase in brand awareness didn’t help sales. They decided to cease their shockvertising tactics in favor of a stronger brand identity that highlights their clothing products.

Even if there is no controversy surrounding an ad, it still can fall flat in terms of results. Even Sarah McLachlan admits to changing the channel during her ASPCA commercial because it’s simply too depressing to watch.

When does shock advertising work?

Shock advertising is always a gamble, but there are cases that clearly work. Here are a few examples:

The CDC’s anti-smoking campaign

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) campaign, Tips from Former Smokers, raises awareness of the most extreme effects of smoking by profiling real people who are living with serious health effects from smoking or secondhand smoke.

Examples of the startling images shown in this campaign include previous smokers who now have to breathe and talk through a stoma, and smokers who now have a large scar across their stomach after surgery.

CDC campagin - tip from a former smoker

While these shocking pictures annoy some smokers, and actually make them want to light up more, the ad campaign seems to be having a mostly positive effect. The CDC estimates that since the campaign launched in 2012, more than 5 million smokers have attempted to quit because of the campaign, and they “conservatively estimate” that more than 500,000 of those have quit for good.

Patagonia’s campaign urges consumers to buy less

Most clothing brands convince consumers to buy more of their product, but not Patagonia. In 2011, the brand began a campaign that surprised shoppers, called Don’t Buy This Jacket, which literally told consumers not to buy Patagonia products unless absolutely necessary.

Patagonia campaign - don't buy this jacket - shock advertising example

It was a smart campaign, and it proved that the brand knew its audience of outdoor enthusiasts and environmentally conscious individuals well. By telling shoppers not to buy jackets, Patagonia was setting itself apart from other outdoor apparel brands — and when consumers did need a new jacket, guess whose jacket they bought? Patagonia’s annual sales went up almost 40 percent the following two years after the campaign first ran.

3 big questions to ask before executing a shock advertising campaign

Whether you’re planning a true shockvertising campaign or are just dipping your toes into something a little more daring, here are three questions to ask before launching the campaign:

1. What are your goals?

If the reason that your marketing team wants to execute a shockvertising campaign is an attempt to go viral, think again. As we explain in this blog post, going viral is a terrible strategy. It sets unrealistic expectations for the campaign and may not even generate meaningful results.

Determining your goals will provide a guideline as you brainstorm topic ideas and create the ad. You may want to elicit emotion to inspire an action (like to donate or check out your product), or you may want to create awareness around the charitable work your brand does for a specific issue. Goals will keep your campaign focused and purposeful.

2. Did you do your research?

Identify the most shocking piece of content you can find related to your product or service. What were the reactions from this campaign? Is there potential to do something more shocking?

Using BuzzSumo or searching for key terms and hashtags on social media platforms will help you see what conversations your audience is having about issues related to your brand, and you’ll get some insight into what might be harmfully shocking, or what might grab positive attention.

It’s also a good idea to conduct some deeper research about your audience. You could poll a small portion of your audience (with an incentive) to get a better sense of what grabs their attention, what would deter them from an ad and what could enhance your brand’s image.

[Related: How to Build a Bulletproof Buyer Persona]

3. What are the potential misrepresentations or consequences?

I wonder how many people shook their heads while watching Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner commercial and wondered why didn’t anyone at Pepsi say this was a bad idea?

It’s shocking in itself that a big brand like Pepsi and their presumably huge marketing team didn’t realize the implications of the commercial. In their apology, Pepsi said that they wanted “to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding.” Those are admirable intentions, but it seems like an important meeting was missed by all the VIPs of Pepsi marketing.

But maybe they did meet and assess the issues. Or maybe they worked too quickly so that they could be relevant and comment on a current issue before it became old news.

Taking the time to thoroughly assess a campaign’s potential misrepresentations or consequences will help your team decide if it is too disturbing or offensive, or if your audience will be receptive. Ask others in the company, friends or family what they think of the idea, too. New perspectives may help your team see the idea differently.

Measure twice, cut once

Shock advertising is almost always memorable, but its effectiveness depends on the brand’s approach and how well a company understands its audience. If you’re interested in using shock advertising tactics, learn from other companies’ mistakes and successes before you begin.

And plan strategically. An ad is considered shocking because your brand, and others like it, have never done anything like it before. But be sure to assess the ad’s implications so you won’t need to send an apology and repair potentially devastating harm to your brand.


Editor’s note: This post was originally published in September 2016 and has been edited for relevancy and clarity.

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