A Shock to the System: The Ethics of Shockvertising in Today’s Market
The advertising market is saturated with campaigns aimed at fulfilling one common purpose- to sell.
As a result, more and more businesses are turning to shock advertising methods to give their latest campaigns a tactical advantage over their competitors (or ‘shockvertising’).
What is shockvertising?
Shockvertising does exactly what it says on the tin; it shocks audiences into action by showing them disturbing and often morally questionable content. Despite its critics, shockvertising has become an increasingly popular trend in recent years.
In an age where the public has unlimited access to a variety of shocking images and information, whether through news outlets or social media channels, it can be all too easy to become desensitised to horror.
Recent studies by the University of Turku have found that audiences find thrills in witnessing shocking content, particularly if it triggers emotional distress.
In light of this, why can it be considered unethical for companies to use shockvertising tactics if consumers find it exciting?
Charities often use Shockvertising to encourage the public to donate money to a specific cause by broadcasting shocking and upsetting footage.
Greenpeace sent waves across the advertising industry with their 2010 ‘Give me a break’ campaign, which aimed to speak out against Nestle’s use of palm oil in their chocolate. The campaign came about after the charity discovered links between Nestle’s farming methods and deforestation, claiming that their palm oil sourcing was destroying orangutan habitats.
Greenpeace released a video featuring an office worker biting into a KitKat during his break, only to realise that what he’s actually snacking on is an orangutan’s bloody finger.
Although gory, the campaign received a tidal wave of support from the public, resulting in Nestle agreeing to stop sourcing its ingredients from any supplier linked to deforestation.
Shockvertising can therefore be a powerful tool to charities, who rely almost entirely on the emotional reactions of the public to stay afloat.
But should the same principles apply to commercial advertising?
A memorable example of shockvertising in the commercial sector takes us back to April 2015, when Protein World received severe backlash after releasing a poster campaign featuring a bikini-clad model with the tagline ‘Are you beach body ready?’. Many members of the public took offense to the campaign’s suggestion that only those with toned and athletic figures are ready to hit the beach, particularly as the poster was advertising the company’s new range of meal replacement supplements. After receiving a torrent of complaints, the ad was removed from London tube stations and investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Like Protein World, many businesses believe that the risk of offending consumers with a radical campaign is small compared to the sales that the added publicity could potentially generate following a scandal.
Some disagree and believe that businesses have a moral and social responsibility to protect the wellbeing of their consumers rather than damage it for the sake of sales. For example, in the case of Protein World, critics accused the company of causing severe body confidence issues, quoting the worrying increase of eating disorder cases in the UK (rising at just less than 10% each year).
Despite the controversy, Protein World reported a boost in sales of just over £1,000,000 following the campaign’s release. Oddly enough, the negative press surrounding the marketing campaign converted into positive sales. They say that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and perhaps this campaign is the perfect example.
Shockvertising can be a double-edged sword
Whilst a controversial campaign has the potential to drum up a large spike in exposure across a short period, without proper research and planning some companies aren’t so lucky. For example, Pepsi’s ‘Live for Now – Moments,’ launched in 2017, was their ambitious attempt to showcase Pepsi® as a millennial-friendly brand with a socially relevant and unifying message.
The campaign, which featured supermodel Kendall Jenner and a large group of protestors, had to be taken down just 24 hours after its release when thousands complained that it belittled the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.
In the months that followed, Pepsi experienced its lowest consumer perception levels in over 10 years, with the public choosing to shun the product in a protest of their own.
Regardless of the intention behind an advertising campaign, it seems that the best way to gain traction without losing potential customers is to create something that moves people without overtly shocking them. It is always worth thinking about whether a shockvertising campaign is the best route to follow when marketing a new product, particularly if your campaign aims to sell. As we’ve seen with Pepsi and Protein World, the results of a shocking campaign can be incredibly unpredictable.
Big questions to ask before jumping into a shockvertising campaign include:
1) What are your goals?
2) Have you done your research?
3) What are the potential misrepresentations or consequences, and can you deal with them?
A campaign put together by clothing brand Patagonia is a brilliant example of a smart shockvertising that performed exceptionally well.
While most clothing brands convince consumers to buy more of their product, Patagonia began a campaign called, Don’t Buy This Jacket, which literally told consumers not to buy Patagonia products unless necessary.
It was a clever campaign, which proved the brand knew its audience of outdoor enthusiasts and environmentally conscious individuals. By telling shoppers not to buy jackets to support the environment, Patagonia was setting itself apart from other outdoor apparel brands — and when consumers did need a new jacket, guess where they went? Patagonia’s annual sales went up almost 40 per cent the following two years after the campaign first ran in 2011.
Thinking about boosting sales with shock tactics? Call us for some advice on your strategy and campaign execution to give it the best chance of success.