Is advertising now designed to shock?

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Since’s marketing stunt following the Scottish Independence Referendum, we’ve noticed a lot of brands incorporating shock elements and controversial risks into their ads. Controversy is often a cheap trick – but we can’t help but think, does it actually work?

In the world of advertising, creatives want to make something good, something that gets noticed. An ad needs to somehow capture our attention and the message needs to come across, otherwise, it simply isn’t effective. If you’re not a very big brand or if you haven’t got the money or buying power, you need to be different and somehow surprise people, get them to notice you and most importantly, get them to remember you.

As a leading marketing agency, we sometimes need to challenge our clients and, in order to create effective communications solutions, often an element of risk needs to be involved. There are some great examples of how using risks can pay off, such as this ad below by The Pilion Trust Charity.

If done well, using shock tactics to create memorable ad campaigns can be extremely effective. Many brands, however, use such risks to cause a storm. It doesn’t always put their brand in a positive light, but it does, nonetheless, put them in the spotlight and gives them much more coverage than a “safe” ad campaign.

Midnight Mischief

This week, the Advertising Standards Authority banned two pages of Jack Wills’ Spring catalogue as they were deemed sexually suggestive. Although Jack Wills maintains that its target audience is university students aged 18-24, the ASA said it was irresponsible of the fashion brand as the catalogue could and would be seen by younger teenagers.

Ironically, the catalogue, which would initially only be seen by Jack Wills customers has now been shared on social and has been seen by a far larger audience – including, no doubt, more young teenagers. Pushing the boundaries may have got the content banned, but it’s essentially resulted in free publicity for the brand.

If you don’t love your imperfections …

In April we saw launch print ads for its ‘if you don’t love your imperfections someone else will’ campaign. Instantly people took to social media to display their anger at two of these ads that depicted a girl with ginger hair and freckles and a girl with two different coloured eyes. issued an apology and pulled the ads. Whether or not the risk was intentional it certainly got a lot of publicity – but for all the wrong reasons.

House of Fraser gets ‘#emojinal’

Before, House of Fraser surprised us all with its rather off-brand #Emojinal social marketing campaign. Ahead of Valentine’s Day, House of Fraser’s Twitter feed was full of tweets such as the below.

Trending on Twitter in the UK, the campaign certainly raised some eyebrows. The department store took a risk without being too controversial or offensive. It got us talking, it got press coverage and the brand received a lot of earned media coverage – but the campaign was very short-lived and quickly became old news. It also didn’t have a direct impact on sales. It was a different, rather unique attempt at using shock tactics in social marketing but it wasn’t quite memorable or effective enough to create an impact.


Back in January, Gourmet Burger Kitchen launched a risky print ad campaign which mocked vegetarian consumers. Protestors took to social media with the hashtag #GourmetMurderKitchen to publicise their frustration. GBK eventually announced that it would be withdrawing some of the ads and posted an apology:

However, a survey that took place after the ad campaign revealed that more people were willing to eat at GBK as a result of the stunt. Evidently, the publicity paid off and although GBK was in the press for the wrong reasons, the ads were still memorable and attracted new customers.

Are you beach body ready?

Starting it all off was Protein World’s memorable ‘Beach Body’ Tube ad, which sparked a lot of backlash in April last year. The ad was a hot topic on social media and a petition to ban it received over 70,000 signatures. The ASA received nearly 400 complaints about the ad and decided to ban it for its misleading health claims.

However, following the ad launch, Protein World noticed a direct boost in sales. The small protein supplement company made around £1 million within four days of launching its beach body ad.

And when Protein World returned in January with its global TV ad campaign there was much anticipation among consumers and press. The Beach Body ad secured a larger audience for this new ad, as after all the bad publicity, we were intrigued as what they would do next. What did Protein World have up its sleeves? Would it generate even more backlash or would it redeem itself? It so happens that the TV ad was fairly safe – but it all left us thinking, is this what Protein World wanted all along? Any press is good press, right?

Print ads: the online snowball effect

Most of the campaigns we’ve highlighted above are print ads. Typically, the only people that would see these ads are those who are at these locations (such as train station and Tube ads) or read the particular publications (such as the Jack Wills catalogue). However, by adding an element of shock, controversy or risk, these ads have encouraged people to take to social media – sharing them with a much wider audience. A snowball effect occurs and the ad receives a lot of earned media coverage, with more impressions than they paid for in the first place.

Is all publicity good publicity?

You can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut
Bill Bernbach

Risk can be, and often is, a good thing and using it or shock tactics in ads can be a very effective way of capturing a consumer’s attention. But when ads standout for their controversial content, it isn’t always positive. Although Protein World and GBK were at risk of offending consumers – and, additionally, at risk of being banned – the results following their ad campaigns showed that it paid off. Among other things, the ads created more sales for Protein World and made more consumers want to eat at GBK.

Good creative work often does need to include elements of shock and brands do need to take risks in their advertising, but it’s also possible to take risks and cause a social storm without offending anyone or damaging how some might view your brand.

A lot of PR is around reputation management as well as getting a brand of business’ name out there in the press, so it almost seems mystifying that a brand might intentionally shock and offend and risk potential reputational damage, but is that what we’re seeing here?

What’s your view? Are brands deliberately trying to shock and offend in order to cause a social storm or are these ill-advised decisions that just weren’t thought through? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter.

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