‘Shockvertising’: The Ugly Side of Viral Marketing

“Shockvertising” allows companies to stand out, while social media users gather the pitchforks, the torches -- and sometimes, the money.

viral marketing

Viral marketing is often seen as vulgar and cheap. You’d hope the best content would be the most effective — and go viral naturally. However, there seems to be an increasing trend toward the use of deliberately vulgar and shocking marketing.

The debate was sparked largely by the Kent State sweatshirt from Urban Outfitters, which appeared to be splattered with blood. At one point, the sweatshirt looked like it was sold out, but later statements from Urban Outfitters declared the product would be destroyed instead of shipped. But the point had already been made: Everyone was talking about Urban Outfitters.

The idea that any publicity is good publicity — even if you have to shock people —  is well worn. Sure, there are lots of worthy charities with campaigns — think Kony 2012 and Bring Back Our Girls — that seem to compel social media users to help spread the information or donating to the charity organization. But the flip side of this coin is the sharing of information that inspires disgust.

Indeed, outrage on social networks is par for the course these days. Daily Dot contributor S.E. Smith points out that this kind of outrage marketing is usually part of a larger strategy:

Has the Internet unwittingly contributed to the perpetuation of offensive products by ensuring that every time one is spotted in the wild, a prolonged response stretching across multiple media platforms will ensue, providing free media saturation and brand exposure for potential and returning customers?

It’s almost the polar opposite of the Streisand Effect: Marketers want to attract as much attention to their product as possible, and do so by making the product itself offensive (which again, is not exactly new). Companies soft launch the product with a marketing budget and just wait for the outrage, which does all the marketing for them.

Maybe Urban Outfitters didn’t get the symbolism of the sweatshirt, but it’s doubtful given their track record. More likely, it was a play for attention. Either way, so-called “Shockvertising” allows companies to stand out in an extremely public way, while social media users gather the pitchforks, the torches — and sometimes, the money.