Picture this: it’s movie night. You’ve popped some popcorn, gathered your family together, and now you’re all crowding around the TV for a fun night of togetherness with a great flick (maybe a Halloween movie?). About twenty minutes into the movie, the action is put on pause thanks to a commercial break. Ugh! Although annoying, the ads are pretty typical; they show a polar bear sipping a bottle of Diet Coke or a tabby cat going to town on some salmon-flavored kitty chow.
Then, an ad comes on that definitely isn’t appropriate for kids. Whether it’s too political or too explicit, you’re understandably outraged that it would even be on TV. You quickly grab the remote and turn the television off, but your blood is still boiling from how angry the commercial made you. Even though the ad is over, you’re still thinking about it, right?
Whether you knew it or not, you were a victim of shock advertising.
What is meant by shock advertising?
Shock advertising, also known by the snappier “shockvertising,” is a type of advertising that uses outrage tactics to purposefully startle and offend viewers by upheaving social norms and questioning personal values. It makes us feel uncomfortable or, in some cases, even outraged!
The goal of advertising with outrage tactics isn’t simply to offend, though. This unique and controversial advertising tactic takes advantage of taboo or provocative subjects to generate controversy and grab the viewer’s attention. So if you’ve ever seen an ad that surprised or startled you, it was likely shock advertising.
Despite what you might think, not all shock advertising is inherently bad! Anti-smoking companies, for example, use shock advertising to help people see the realities of dangerous habits like smoking. Meanwhile, other companies use shock advertising to raise positive controversy and help audiences question ineffective stereotypes. More on this later, so keep reading!
Why do companies make controversial ads?
There’s the old saying: all press is good press.
We rarely talk about the regular ads of daytime television. Nobody crowds around the office watercooler discussing the newest Home Depot commercial (unless said watercooler is at a Home Depot). Instead, we talk about the ads that made us feel something. When we talk about these ads, we inevitably talk about the company behind the ads. This in turn leads to Google searches, more widespread conversations, and inevitably more press and visibility for the companies in question.
Similarly, controversial ads stick in your brain like gorilla glue, as this study from the Journal of Advertising Research found.
I can attest to this! I distinctly remember an ad that was on TV when I was a kid—and I remember thinking it was pretty shocking. It showed two vultures sitting on a rock in the desert, napkins tied around their necks and forks in hand. They see a guy cross the street without looking both ways. He narrowly avoids an accident and the vultures are disappointed, until the man lights up a cigarette and chokes to death on the smoke. The tagline was “Smoking: you’re dead meat.”
While the ad was definitely a little much for elementary schoolers (you can check it out here), the point it made came across exceptionally well. To this day, I’ve never picked up a cigarette.
What companies use shock advertising?
More companies use outrage tactics in their marketing than you might think! In addition to the expected alcohol and perfume ads, companies like Dove Soap and Always have put out ads that surprise viewers. Unlike most shockvertising, however, these ads use the tactic to affect positive change!
For example, Dove Soap put out an ad back in 2016 that uses shock advertising to challenge the way we think about our own self-image. A group of women are asked to describe themselves to a police sketch artist, who draws their portrait based on this description. These portraits are not very flattering, and typically emphasize features that the subject is not confident about. Then another person describes the woman, and the sketch artist draws a new portrait. Unlike the first drawing, the second portrait shows these women in a much kinder light, showing the power of perception.
I was shown this ad a while ago, and like the anti-smoking one, it has stuck in my mind ever since. Click here to watch it! Then, click here to watch an ad by Always that asks its audience to reconsider what it means to “throw like a girl.”
After that, click here to learn more about Troomi’s belief in choosing optimism over fear. We are firm believers in empowering children to run like a girl the right way—as fast as they can.
And keep an eye on the Troomi blog for more parenting and tech info!