9 Shocking Ads and How They Fared

May 23, 2012
Times Square

Brands and causes are often tempted to shake things up by making shocking marketing messages that cause visceral reactions. Some brands have gotten great business mileage out of this approach. Others have found themselves in deep doo-doo as consumer blowback undermined their messages and integrity.

In the following pages, you will find nine examples of shocking brand messages, divided into “Wins” and “Fails.” Five seem to work in that they garner strong reactions, but largely of a positive nature. Four had some really bad brand consequences. We’ll sum up with some conclusions on what works and what doesn’t.

WIN: MethLife ain’t pretty

Lots of agencies volunteer to do pro bono work for worthy charities. A big part of the appeal, beyond the opportunity to do good, is that PSAs offer the opportunity to do award-winning work free of the taste constraints of large companies. Nonprofits in particular gravitate toward the technique because their limited budgets and reliance on donated remnant inventory mean every exposure needs to get noticed.

These ads against methamphetamine use are a great example of how dramatization and raw empathy can get a message noticed.

The campaign has received strong media attention, industry awards and significant free views on YouTube and other venues. Perhaps more importantly, it brings to life the very real possible consequences of taking the drug.

WIN: Febreze shows us going “negative” can be very positive

For decades CPGs have tried to emphasize the positive “solution” rather than the negative “problem” in their messaging. A recent example of a brand winning by flouting the formula is Febreze’s powerful new campaign dramatizing the odor removal with some very shocking torture tests.

What works so well here is the relatability of these situations — in order to buy into a solution I need to remember that I have the problem in spades right here at home. The shoe above gives all of us the skeeves.

WIN: Benetton gets long-term mileage from shock

For decades the Benetton brand has stood out from the crowd by presenting “shock images” that are lightning rods for free media publicity. The brand has long maintained that its images are intended to get people to rethink prejudices, bad behaviors, and the like. It was, for example, among the first brands to depict interracial relationships.

In the last couple decades they have shown dying AIDS patients in hospital beds and Photoshopped images of global leaders kissing — Reagan and Gorbachev for example — to define a brand essence that translates into apparel appeal.

The brand uses these stunning messages to differentiate itself despite the very mainstream appeal of the product. In fact, part of the intent appears to be making the brand’s values part of the mainstream culture. The image above is not at all shocking now, but pictures like these were very much outside the norm when Benetton began this powerful ad approach.

One wonders whether images like the one below will feel not at all surprising in a decade.

WIN: L’Oreal Dermablend is at the center of a cover up

This stunning viral video garnered millions of views while offering an incredible demonstration of the efficacy of L’Oreal makeup. How often is a cosmetic advertisement absolutely engrossing?

The brilliance of this message is its use of a classic advertising approach (before/after), but in a uniquely compelling and remarkable way. We see dramatic proof of the product’s functionality rather than heavily retouched model photos.

WIN: Sisley really seems to know its target

I preface this by saying I loathe Sisley advertising. And yet you would be hard pressed to find a brand of its size that has more ad fans. Do a Google search on Sisley ads, and you will be impressed by the number of sites and comments that laud these very graphic brand messages.

When you read the brand fan commentary, you find fashionistas who connect with the purist nature of the message and love its photographic style. It’s clear that Sisley gets its audience and crafts messages that are at once shocking and appealing to its customers.

I may hate it, but I am about as far from Sisley’s bull’s-eye target as ad people come. It clearly has something that’s working for the brand.

FAIL: Accident Prevention shocks but confuses

We began the win section with a PSA. Let’s do the same with the fail section. This PSA for workplace accident prevention takes graphic depiction of consequences too far.

Where I think it goes wrong is in tonality and format, especially in the use of an aside to introduce the horrifying event that transpires. It puts an arm’s length distance between the message and the viewer. Further, the tagline muddles the communication, failing to make crystal clear what exactly the ad is advocating. Don’t make mistakes? Keep a clean kitchen? What are we supposed to do but grimace, shiver, and then try very hard to forget what we saw?

FAIL: Groupon proves that Tibet suffering is not hilarious

Online-only businesses tend to take more risks in messages and tonality, perhaps because buzz and publicity can play such a key role in their fortunes. But sometimes the buzz is anything but beneficial. This ad, part of a campaign from Groupon, uses the classic “redirect” to surprise people with a brand message when they were expecting something entirely different.

People were surprised alright, but not in a good way. The campaign received blistering criticism across social media that jumped to broadcast and cable news just hours after its first airing. A short time later, the campaign was scrapped.
The issue here seems to be in mocking the values and compassion of the viewer. Who cares if that monk gets bludgeoned as long as I get a cheap dinner? Do I really want to be that guy?

FAIL: Dolce & Gabbana seems to confuse violence with sexuality

D&G advertising is definitely so distinctive it could run without a logo. The images have a unique style and almost always challenge lockstep conventions; vehicles like interracial, gay, and polyamorous relationships feature prominently, for example. But this ad took all that challenging way over the line.

The company pulled it after a strong online outcry that accused the company of depicting (advocating) rape. It certainly stops viewers in their tracks. But not in a good way.

What usually works in D&G advertising is its empathy with the values of an urban and fashion forward set. The brand challenges conventions in the same way that the lives and aspirations of its customers do. But this message did just the opposite.

FAIL: Shock makes Pete Hoekstra’s campaign very weak

Few expect this year’s elections to be anything but savage and ugly. A profoundly polarized political environment coupled with Super PAC money has already yielded bitter fruit. And primary season isn’t even over.

The Senate campaign of Michigan Republican Pete Hoekstra bought regional time in this year’s Super Bowl to air this video, which went viral, but in ways that truly damaged the campaign.

Many objected to the racist speech patterns, and what was considered a deliberate attempt to drive racially motivated white anger. Hoekstra, who was doing well in the polls until the airing, saw an immediate and lingering drop off in his favorables as the ad drew a firestorm of criticism and dozens of critical analyses on cable news.

At first the campaign defended the message, but later agreed to pull it. Perhaps part of the reason was that the on-camera talent went public with regret for appearing in the message. The “Fail” here appears to be overtly sowing prejudice — a value much of society finds repugnant.


There’s risk in shock ads — the very name suggests the sort of visceral responses that these messages are trying to drive. They seem to have a greater likelihood of working when:

They viscerally connect with and celebrate the lifestyle and values of the user.
Sisley does that well, and stands out because its message is anathema to people (like me) who “don’t get it.” Similarly, Benetton speaks to an emerging set of values most common among young tastemakers.

They depict more relatable situations and drama.
These are things that people can envision. The meth ads, for example, do this really well. We all know that the dire straits they depict actually happen.

They direct our emotional reactions to a clear set of action steps that tell us what we should do now that we are all fired up.
Febreze, for the win.

They go easy on complex analogies.
Very few people study ads in any detail, so the meaning needs to be immediately accessible. The Dermablend message shows an incredible demonstration with a strong impact. There’s visual proof — stark and unadorned.

Both Wins and Fails know that there’s no set formula to effectively shock — the very essence of shock comes from surprise. But given the two-way nature of modern media, brands need to tread carefully so that the strong emotional reactions they foment have the desired business effects.

Thanks to iMediaConnection for publishing this first!

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