What is Shock Advertising and Does it Work?

Shock advertising, also known as shockvertising, is a unique tactic where advertisers use provocative, taboo subjects and images to grab the public’s attention. Advertisers use this method because it incites strong feelings about the given advertisement. The audience feels strongly about the advertisement, which makes them much more likely to share and discuss it as well as remember it. In turn, this generates more brand awareness.

Risks of Shock Advertising

Although more brand awareness sounds like a great thing for a company, doing it through shock advertising can be a risk. It does have the potential to backfire as there is a fine line between tastefully disturbing or shocking and downright unacceptable. The goal of shock advertising is to toe this line, without crossing it. This method of advertising is aimed at reaching a large audience, so the advertisement going poorly can be detrimental to a company’s reputation. These advertisements can be incredibly offensive to certain groups and there is the chance that the audience deems it unacceptable.

How Shock Advertising Affects our Brains

Shock advertising clearly gets its name because it literally shocks our brain. The subjects and images go against our preconceived social norms, which makes it incredibly memorable. This method of advertising is immensely surprising. Due to the shock the advertisement creates, it draws significant attention to the subject matter. Researchers have used fMRI machines to evaluate what areas of the brain shockvertising activates. In a study from 2016, researchers found that shockvertising triggers the use of the amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex. Whereas traditional advertising does no trigger use of these parts of the brain. Researchers have found these parts of the brain impact future health decisions. Advertisers utilize shockvertising because of its impact on the brain and potential to impact our decisions.

Shocking Commercials

There are many examples of shock advertisements, particularly using commercials. Below are a few examples of shocking commercial failures and successes.


Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi Commercial

You may remember the Pepsi Commercial from a few years ago that featured Kendall Jenner. It garnered a lot of headlines for being utterly offensive and ignorant of the times. At arguably the height of Black Lives Matter protests, Pepsi featured Kendall Jenner in a shocking commercial that seemed to reflect their perception of the protests. In this video campaign, the protest seems more like a celebratory march. There are breakdancers and smiling people in the crowd. Kendall Jenner then hands a police officer a Pepsi, and it appears that this gesture makes peace at the protest.

People were absolutely outraged by this depiction for several reasons. Firstly, people believed it downplayed the gravity of the Black Lives Matter protest. It was a complete misrepresentation of current events. It took away from everything the Black Lives Matter movement was trying to achieve. Additionally, people were outraged that a privileged, white celebrity was depicted as the peacemaker for handing a police officer a Pepsi. It was as if she had the power to end institutionalized racism with simply a can of soda. Lastly, this white woman was able to walk up to the line of police officers without any resistance and hand them something, when black people greatly fear interactions with the police because of police brutality. All in all, Pepsi completely missed the mark with this advertisement and it created an immense amount of backlash.

Snickers “Get Some Nuts” Commercial

Snickers came under fire for creating an advertisement that LGBTQ+ people found incredibly offensive. In this commercial, Snickers had a man wearing short shorts speed walking down the street. A buff man in a truck pulls up next to him with a huge gun and forces him to run “like a real man” and screams insulting things to the man exercising. After this interaction, the man exercising has a Snickers and states, “Get some nuts”.

This ad was so insulting because the audience perceived the man exercising to be a gay man who was being terrorized. Firstly, the concept of a buff male telling another male, who people perceive to be gay, to be “a real man” was inappropriate. It reinforced negative stereotypes about gay men and reinforced concepts of what it meant to be a man. Human rights activists were also outraged because the buff, masculine man was pulling up on the supposedly gay man with a huge gun. The ad reinforced negative ideas that members of the LGBTQ+ community can be terrorized with weapons. The ad was especially offensive given the fact that, historically, members of the LGBTQ+ community face higher rates of violence than people who are not a member of that community.

McDonald’s “Tall, Blonde and Gorgeous”

McDonald’s circulated a shocking commercial featuring an image of their French fries with the simple caption “Tall, blonde and gorgeous.” Although seemingly simple, people lashed out against McDonald’s for reinforcing the stereotypical definition of beauty. Women are already told in many other areas of their life that they need to live up to this unachievable beauty standard. The media bombards women with images of what it means to be beautiful and how to achieve this standard. The image reflected that McDonald’s believes their fries are as amazing as tall, blonde, and gorgeous women. It inadvertently stated that tall, blonde, and gorgeous women are superior than other women. They do not need to reinforce the beauty standard in the food industry as well. McDonald’s utterly missed the mark and offended a huge portion of their audience.


Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” Campaign

Patagonia made a campaign centered around the concept to NOT buy their jacket. Although it seems counterintuitive, it was an amazing success. One reason it was so successful is that Patagonia identified its target audience. Their brand’s target audience is outdoorsy nature lovers. Patagonia understands its target audience and knows that many people who buy their products care a lot about the environment and sustainability. They told their consumers to only buy Patagonia jackets when they need a new jacket as an attempt to reduce clothing waste and overconsumption. Their audience loved how environmentally aware Patagonia was. When it was time to buy a new coat, the consumers wanted to buy a Patagonia. Although very risky, the shocking advertisement drastically increased their sales.

Nike’s Colin Kaepernick Campaign

Nike created a campaign revolving around Colin Kaepernick and his action against social injustice, despite the negative impact his actions could have had on his career. Colin Kaepernick, a famous NFL player, has gained popularity as well as backlash for kneeling during the national anthem. This was a shocking commercial because it addressed the social issue of race. Nike has been well known for addressing many social issues regarding race, gender, and sexuality. Although Nike did receive backlash, they also received support from large audiences and very influential athletes who appreciated the action Nike was taking against racial injustice. They did an amazing job finding their target audience. Nike understood the associated risks with publishing this advertisement, but it was successful. With this shocking advertisement, Nike was able to make billions of dollars off of it.

Is Shock Advertising Successful or Unsuccessful?

The question of whether shock advertising is successful or not depends on the execution. Companies that take the time to understand the risk and benefits of these types of campaigns tend to be more successful than others.

Successful Shock Advertisements

When done right, shock ads can be wildly successful. These advertisements are incredibly memorable because of the impact it has on our brains. By triggering the amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex, the ads create a lasting impact on our decisions. Additionally, shock advertising and shock commercials create brand awareness, which is one of the most important aspects of digital marketing. Shock advertising gives people something to talk about. This method of advertising makes headlines. The brand awareness is unmatched because shock advertising reaches such a vast audience.

Unsuccessful Shock Advertisements

Taking Things out of Context

Shockvertising frequently comes in the form of an image. When there is an image, there is always room for interpretation. Our brains process images much faster than text and having a visual aspect makes the content more memorable. Certain people could look at an example of shockvertising and think it is appropriately humorous. Still, someone else could be outraged by the same ad. An advertiser may have an ad with one intended interpretation, but the general public may take it another way. There is always room for this unintended interpretation when using only images.

Two colleagues are sitting at table in the office. They are looking at TV-screan. They wear black clothes.

How to Avoid Unsuccessful Shock Advertising

There are three major steps to ensure your shock ads are not wildly unsuccessful.

First, question what message your brand wants to send. If you do not want to be involved with a taboo subject, then be careful leaving room for interpretation in your ad. In general, these ads are very risky, but understanding what the ad says about your brand or company can help minimize the risk. Secondly, show the ad to many people of different backgrounds. This will help you understand how different groups may interpret the ad. The bigger group of people you have to review your advertisement, the better you can understand how the general public will interpret it. Lastly, you must understand that some groups will find the advertisement offensive or inappropriate. Understand your target audience, but know that those outside of your target audience will still see the ad. You cannot please everyone, and that is totally okay.


  • What is shock advertising?
  • What are the risks of shock advertising?
  • How does shock advertising impact the brain?
  • Why is shock advertising successful?
  • What are some examples of successful shock advertisements?

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