Whether you try to elicit interest in a cause, get rid of established codes or disseminate a strong and impacting message, any process will be suitable in order to draw everyone’s attention.

When confronted to disturbing realities, it is often difficult for us to walk through our comfort zone and to awaken our conscience. In terms of advertising, the agencies are quite aware of that and they use tricks to provoke our reactions.

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Last February, the ACNUR-UNHCR Foundation, the UN Agency for Refugees, launched a print communication campaign, in association with Sancho BBDO Agency. On each print, as close shot, a child makes a selfie picture; on top is a comment comparable to those that can be read on social networks such as Instagram. But backwards, a violent scene is taking place, for instance the arbitrary execution of several people (see left picture) or a woman giving birth in a disastrous sanitary context (see right picture). After being confused when facing this double construction of the picture, we quickly understand: our attention is drawn on facts of violence and situations of human deterioration. The selfie is used only to get in touch with us, as observers living far from this kind of event though they actually happen. Therefore, this advertisement campaign is aimed to provoke a shock and elicit our feelings of indignation and revolt, to make us aware of the life conditions of the refugees.

Shockvertising is a communication strategy that consists in using the shock in view of intensifying the attention of the public and his capacity to memorize the advertising message, in order to obtain his reaction. This process provokes an emotional impact that can make the audience react. United Colors of Benetton is believed to have popularized this strategy: The Italian range of clothes that dared, starting in the 80s, to offend the public by using shocking pictures in order to disseminate some messages in its advertisement ads, despite the fact that the defended cause or the message had nothing to do with the products of the brand.

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If shockvertising is widely used to attract an audience towards a brand or a product, in most cases, it serves a message of public interest delivered by public bodies, -NGOs or associations-, to make the public aware of health issues and great humanitarian causes. For instance, it helps preventing smoking by encouraging the young people to avoid addiction, preventing car accidents, or making aware of a universal kind of injustice such as racism or death penalty.



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This kind of advertising is often controversial. Beyond eliciting emotion, it may become plain, disconcerting and even crude, and it conveys impudent and offensive messages that will disrupt the conventional understanding of the public. Sometimes, it ends up as an offense because it disrupts with conventions and even aims at breaking the codes in view of obtaining a wished impact.

But how far can the advertisement shock go? Is there a limit to avoid trespassing?

Shockvertising always met objections and already certain campaigns endured a real bashing, namely when this process was violating moral or equality principles. That was the case with the “Tom Ford For Men” campaign, considered as sexist and degrading for women. Certain brands can easily fall into bad taste when using a shock that serves no other objective than “provocation for the sake of provocation”, just to impose a certain brand image and then sell.


The shock seems acceptable when it portrays a reality which is already shocking. If the common conscience can find repulsive certain violent images, then shockvertising seems to find its true rightfulness when it serves a cause of general interest. Therefore these advertisement campaigns seem selfless as they serve neither a brand, nor a product, even if the bodies that produced them also have a financial objective as they try to raise money by making the people aware.

If, when using shockvertising, there is a risk of provoking a bad understanding of the message, in fact the real danger seems to rely in its trivialization. In fact, nowadays, the public is aware as he is often confronted with shocking or disturbing images just because they belong to our everyday life and can be seen in all the media and in our games. It is, today more than ever, to hurt our feelings, to make us react and, even more, to make us act out. This process tends to run more and more out of steam and lose its strength of impact. The quality of an advertisement shock relies first on the content of the message, which will give a meaning to the image and allow it to personify a cause. Shockvertising must constantly be renewed in order to go beyond the shock provided by the image and to transcend a message eye to eye with the social moves of our time.

The efficiency of this process will then closely depend on how relevant the image is with the contents of the message and on how compatible the presented shock is with the strength of the message. Shockvertising must then display a strong but tolerable infringement for the designated targets. Defining the limits of this infringement is particularly difficult but unavoidable when a recognized cause of general interest needs to be defended.

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