Advertising’s Shock Troops

For consumers, it’s a not-so-fine line between love and disgust

Legal disputes over advertising seldom get much public attention, but a recent decision out of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was an exception: It made headlines.

In a controversial preliminary injunction, Judge Richard Leon blocked the Food and Drug Administration from forcing cigarette brands to place gruesome photos of blackened lungs and cancer-riddled corpses on its packs—a mandate that was to have gone into effect this September. Warning labels were one thing, the court said, because they were statements of empirical fact. But the proposed images, emotional and deeply disturbing, constituted “commercial speech” and as such were an effort to force a brand to advertise against itself. The FDA has since appealed, and some legal experts say that this case may well end up in the Supreme Court.

Until it does, however, the case has resurrected a larger issue that’s one of marketing’s most enduring hot potatoes: the use of explicit images to get consumers’ attention—also known as “shockvertising.”

Shock tactics have been around for awhile. Though some of the material may seem relatively tame today, the commercial featuring the 15-year-old topless Brooke Shields confessing that nothing came between her and her Calvin Klein jeans dropped many jaws in 1980, as did the Partnership for a Drug Free America’s “This is your brain on drugs” in 1987. (That spot showed a man cracking an egg on a hot frying pan.)

While some have argued that shockvertising had been done to death by the end of the ’80s, that hasn’t stopped brands from playing the shock card, from fashion label Mangano’s bisexual orgy ads (2009) to Federici ice cream ads depicting a pregnant nun (2010) to dark-horse presidential candidate Terry Randall’s ad for the Super Bowl, featuring dead and dismembered fetuses (2012), banned just days before the game. Why do so many still use it?

That’s probably an obvious one. For as much as the Web may have toughened the societal skin to amateur porn and gross-out videos, graphic images still stand out in a crowded media landscape. According to a white paper presented in London last year at the Center for Innovations in Business and Management Practices, “Advertising agencies are facing difficulties in reaching the customer effectively, so they are using shock advertisements to pierce through this data clutter.”

But the piercing can be tricky. Images that may have offended a generation ago are ubiquitous today, which means brands looking to shock must keep increasing the voltage. “The identification with and understanding of metaphor has increased so much that you need to ratchet things up, keep pushing the envelope,” says psychologist Robert Passikoff, founder and president of consultancy Brand Keys. As veteran adman Ray Black has written, “The major flaw in shock strategy is that it’s like a drug. You have to increase the dose …to remain visible, but there’s a limit to how much of that the public will cop.”

Indeed, there is a limit. Though nearly a third of consumers believed that shock value was an “effective” advertising tool, according to a Media Curves poll conducted in 2009, 58 percent of consumers preferred messages containing wit and humor. Shockvertising’s critics also note that while the tactic turns heads, there’s a big difference between generating attention and generating sales.

This is probably why many branding consultants are lukewarm on shockvertising when asked if it’s an effective and reliable way to build a brand’s reputation and bottom line. “The percentages on it are no better than with any other kind of advertising,” says Hayes Roth, chief marketing officer at global brand consultancy Landor.

“Reliable? It’s clearly going to be very unreliable as far as what’s going to happen when you shock people,” adds marketing consultant Julia Beardwood of Beardwood & Co. “It gets people to pay attention—but how do you quantify that?” asks Rick Barrack, chief creative officer of brand consultancy CBX.

You can’t. But you can draw some conclusions from the textbook cases to follow. As the FDA/tobacco case slowly snakes its way through the courts, we decided to look back at a few of the more famous shock ads of the past two decades—and evaluate just how well (or not) they did their jobs.